Friday, April 12, 2024

<p>Colors blur as experience architecture senior Owen Widdis, 22, scrambles his Rubik’s cube in his home in East Lansing on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. Widdis reckons he can scramble the cube at 13 or 14 turns per second, or TPS, creating a blurred rainbow.</p>

MSU student masters Rubik's Cube, looks to new possibilities after national title win

A rainbow of colors blur and fingers fly as competitors race to solve the mystical puzzle of the Rubik's Cube. 

Forty-three quintillion combinations make up the intricacies of a Rubik's Cube. That's 43 followed by 18 zeros, or, in other words, a lot.

One MSU student has mastered it.

Experience architecture senior Owen Widdis has been competing in cubing events since he was in seventh grade, after being mesmerized by YouTubers' abilities to solve quickly.

"I would binge videos of other cubers that were better than I was and would be marveled with how fast they were," he said.

Since then, he’s memorized "around 300" algorithms to solve the cube. That's not quite 43 quintillion, but it was enough to secure him a national title last summer.

At the Cubing USA Nationals, where 1,028 people of all ages competed, Widdis described the event as a mixture of "excitement and a high-pressure environment."

In preparation, Widdis spent hours twisting and turning, but most of his time was focused on studying the cube.

Widdis specializes in Fewest Moves Challenge (FMC), an event that involves solving the cube in as few moves as possible. In competitions, they take an average of three one-hour attempts. And in 2023, Widdis took the national title with an average score of 22 — the world record being a mere two moves away.

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There are 17 events sanctioned by the World Cubing Association. Events range from a 2x2 cube all the way up to the 7x7 cube. They also included blindfolded events, a 12-sided cube called the Megaminx and a clocklike gadget with four gears and 18 dials called the clock.

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Not only does FMC require the most time out of any event, but it involves a deeper understanding of the cube itself.

"FMC is very different compared to most of the other events," mechanical engineering preference freshman Andrew Moy said. "Especially being world class at it, I think that’s really impressive."

Moy competed at nationals and met Widdis online through a mutual friend. They both believe they are the only two competitive cubers on campus.

Moy specializes in speed solving, ranging from the 3x3 to the 5x5 event. Unlike with speed solves, where you are using a memorized algorithms and pattern recognition to solve, FMC requires intuition, he said.

"Compared to Owen, I probably have no idea what I’m doing," Moy said.

The intellectual approach to FMC becomes an exercise in trying to develop new algorithms. The solver almost has to personify the cube and explore the many facets and complexities of solving that could lead them in never ending, or 43 quintillion, directions.

Along with the 17 events, the cubing world offers an immense amount of cubing specific lingo. 

"There's so much jargon, and it can be overwhelming at times," Widdis said. "Something I've noticed in cubing is they love their acronyms so much."

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Each algorithm has its own nickname. From T perm to half turn reduction, or HTR, to sledgehammer, the endless terms have a special place in cubers' minds, ready to dish out in competition or among peers in conversation.

A favorite sequence among the community is sexy move, a combination that "glides nicely," and is a turning friendly algorithm.

"Every cuber just knows what sexy move is," Widdis said.

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Widdis didn't utilize sexy move in his sequence to win the national title, but he did use domino reduction, or DR, which reduces the puzzle to a 3x3x2 cuboid. 

On the cool summer evening of July 23, 2023, Widdis, along with the other 99 top qualifiers in the country, filed into a large room to his designated table. The atmosphere was intense, looking much like a "standardized testing room," but Widdis found comfort in knowing he had a full hour to perform how he practiced.

When the final scrambled cube was revealed on his last day of competition, Widdis had to let go of the endless possibilities racing though his head and press on one move at a time.

"Admittedly, it was a shock to win," Widdis said. After not being favored, "to be able to do that really proved to me that I shouldn't really have doubts about what I can accomplish."

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This outlook is one of the best parts of the sport, his father Brian Widdis said.

"It's been really good to see him become aware of his skills that he discovered through cubing and how he can apply that to his career and his schooling," he said. "I think that it really showed him what an effective problem solver he is."

Widdis agrees that cubing has helped him "develop a better work ethic" and the never-ending opportunity for growth pushes him to think outside of the box … or cube.

While competitions offer an opportunity to showcase years-long dedication to the sport, they are also the one time of the year that he gets to see his lifelong friends.

Widdis said he has a group of around 10 people who he met through the cubing world, who he considers to be his best friends and talks to almost every day.

"What's kept me in it for all this time is my friends," Widdis said. "If I hadn't met them, I wouldn't have come as far as I have."

Widdis seems to be at a transition period with cubing, as graduation date creeps up and he finds himself among the older crowd at competitions now.

A new avenue he's exploring as an expert in the sport is offering his help to the younger generation of cubers.

During the North American Championships in 2022, Widdis and his friend hosted a seminar on what they've learned on their cubing journey. In the same year, Widdis organized an official cubing competition at the MSU Union giving community members an opportunity to compete.

As the years have passed, his love for cubing hasn't dwindled, but as he begins a new journey in life, he's looking for new direction in the sport, too.

"I'm debating where I want to go from here," he said. "I don't know if I want to pursue another event or just keep grinding fewest moves, but I still have a lot to learn and a lot to practice."

Cubing offers ceaseless curiosity with the variety of events. And while Widdis is trying to find a new path in the sport, he encourages anyone fascinated to explore it as well.

"I know that it's completely changed my life, and I think if someone young is interested is learning about it, it's a super beneficial thing," he said.

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