Sure, Jay Satterfield was impressed when he saw his son, Joshua, solve his first Rubik’s Cube at the age of 11. But a few weeks later, when Joshua began solving the cube in less than a minute, Jay began to start researching world records. That’s when he discovered the strange realm of speed cubing, in which Rubik’s Cube aficionados from all around the world compete to solve the iconic puzzle toy in seconds flat.
You might say that was the moment in which the Mt. Pleasant family crossed the Rubik-on (OK, bad pun). Within two years, Joshua, now 15, was not just competing regionally as a speedcuber, he was a serious contender on the world stage.
He has an official best time of 16.34 seconds on the classic 3x3x3 cube, has competed in the 2007 World Championship in Budapest, Hungary, and has even met Erno˝ Rubik, the famously reclusive inventor of Rubik’s Cube. At the 2007 U.S. Open, he scored a continental record for Pyraminx, a puzzle similar to Rubik’s Cube.
His prominence in the cubing world has not gone unnoticed locally. He’s demonstrated his ability to solve the cube at dizzying speed during ’80s Night at Wild Wing Café, as well as at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, RiverDogs games, and Wonder Works of Mt. Pleasant.
The “Magic Cube,” as it was once called, was invented by Rubik, a Hungarian college professor, in the mid-1970s, two decades before Joshua was born. When the cube was licensed years later under Ideal Toys, it became a worldwide phenomenon — one of the first, and most enduring, cultural touchstones of the 1980s.
It inspired its own Saturday morning cartoon show, pop art, and books on how to solve it or deal with a friend or family member who had become obsessed by it.
Nearly every American who grew up in the 1980s held a Rubik’s Cube at some point in his or her childhood. Some solved it, most gave up on it, and more than a few took hammers to it.
Actually, for the last several years, there has been a quiet Rubik’s renaissance going on.
Last year, Cubers, a documentary about those who take Rubik’s Cube extremely seriously, debuted at the 28th Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The documentary explored the world’s 25-year relationship with the puzzle: not only in terms of competitive speed cubing, but also as a pop culture and educational phenomenon.
If you could not solve it legitimately, there was always the option of popping out an edge piece in order to disassemble and subsequently reassemble the cube in its solved state.
And, contrary to a once popular belief, you do not have to be a math genius to learn how to solve Rubik’s Cube.
If you just want to be able to solve the cube, without regard to speed, simple memorization of a few basic algorithms will get you there (if a word like “algorithm” makes your eyes glaze over, substitute “step-by-step process for achieving a desired state” and carry on).
But what distinguishes a competitive speedcuber is the ability to perform these sequences of movements with stunning accuracy while his or her fingers move almost too quickly for the eye to follow.
That requires practice and lots of it. Speedcubers do many of the same kinds of exercises and drills for their hands that professional musicians, such as guitarists and pianists, do.
As with all things above a certain competitive level, practice must mesh with an intrinsic gift.
At the level at which Joshua competes, the cube is perceived more like a series of geometric patterns that can be recognized and rearranged with a fluency difficult for most of us to comprehend.
Consider this: the current world record, set by Erik Akkersdijk of The Netherlands at the 2008 Czech Open, is a dizzying 7.08 seconds.
For Joshua, brushing shoulders with the who’s who of elite cubers has given him the opportunity not only to refine his puzzle-solving techniques but also to freely converse about the stuff that fascinates him: quantum physics, the Riemann Hypothesis, and debating Linux versus Windows.
Meeting Erno˝ Rubik while in Budapest for the World Championship was one of the most memorable experiences for Joshua. “After the competition, he walked around and people were getting pictures with him,” Joshua says. “He went away for awhile because so many people were trying to talk to him at once. But he came back later and signed some of my Rubik’s Cubes for me.”
Joshua was bemused by the ubiquity of the cube in Budapest, the city where it was invented. Even outside of Rubik’s factory, he saw the cube featured on everything from street signs to restaurant menus.
“There were even Rubik’s Cubes on the McDonald’s menus, with pictures of all of the food on the cube pieces,” he says. “It was pretty neat to see.” Joshua placed respectfully in the World Championship, finishing 98th with a best time of 22.05 seconds. Early on, he had been making steady gains in his best times, going from solving the cube in 53.14 seconds at his first competition in 2006 to his first official sub-20 at the 2007 U.S. Open. But shaving seconds or even fractions of seconds off below 20 seconds was proving to be a much tougher nut to crack.
During that time, in the wake of the heady experience of international competition at such an early age, Jay Satterfield gave his son some savvy advice. “I told him that he’d have good days and bad,” he says. “Even Tiger Woods doesn’t win every time he walks on a golf course. Keep it about the fun and the fellowship, not about winning every time.”
It isn’t all cube, all the time, for Joshua. He balances his devotion to the puzzle with lessons in karate and classical piano, as well as his regular school work. He is primarily home schooled but also takes college level classes in statistics and Linux programming at Trident Tech. In most ways, he’s your basic, well-rounded kid. He is generous with his time and talent and has taught most of his brothers and sisters, as well as his father, how to solve Rubik’s Cube, although none of them can approach his speed in doing so.
“The great thing about home schooling is that you can tailor the lessons to the individual child,” says his mom, Kari. “That helps them to excel.”
The home schooling schedule allows Joshua the freedom to take some advanced classes online and others on campus at Trident Tech. His current dream is to work in computer programming, but as with any healthy teenager, that could change.
One of the most interesting things about Joshua is how polite and soft spoken he is. Solve a cube side by side with him and he does not brag about being able to solve it faster than you. He simply and sincerely says, “Good job.”
Not bad for a teenager who has tasted what it feels like to be a bit of a local celebrity. He has set up a table at RiverDogs stadium, solving the cube between innings while being projected on the big screen for the whole audience to see.
“That was a lot of fun,” he says. “Afterwards, I sold a lot of cubes.”
That’s the other thing to keep in mind about Joshua. He is not just book smart, he has the practical sense to realize that buying cubes wholesale and reselling them at an event is a good way to fund his efforts. It takes money to buy DIY cube kits, money to travel, money to one day go to college; he is taking care of that a little bit at a time along the way.
Last summer, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry featured not only Joshua but the entire Satterfield family demonstrating their collective cube-solving abilities (only mom and the toddler do not solve cubes yet). “It was an educational guest feature,” Joshua says. “We had a lot of fun doing that as a family.”
Joshua is not perturbed about the fact that the heyday of the cube was back in the 1980s, long before his time. And he’s not stuck in the past either. He loves the computer technologies of today and uses them to advance his cube-solving skills; he has an iTouch application for keeping track of his solving times when he is preparing for a competition.
Though Joshua is far too humble and polite to boast about it, the simple truth is that he would have to travel several hours out of the Lowcountry to Charlotte or Atlanta for a fair match with another speedcuber.
He is patient and kind in explaining the turns that need to be made in solving a cube and can even offer tips on how to loosen and lubricate a cube to make the turns faster. But understanding how his mind can recognize the shifting patterns when his fingers and the colors of the squares are moving in a literal blur, how he plans and implements the next twist or turn in fractions of a second — that’s probably not something that can be taught.
Solve the cube faster than freelance writer Jason A. Zwiker and win a FREE copy of Charleston City Paper. Challenge him at: email@example.com