Julius Mahalek

Julius Mehalek, of Hillsborough, clocked an average time of 26.8 seconds at the World Cubing Association tournament last weekend in Gatlinburg, Tenn. His personal best for solving the Rubik’s Cube is 15 seconds.

In 1980, at the age of 11, I got my first Rubik’s Cube. The 3-D puzzle was invented in 1974 by a Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture named Ernő Rubik, and was originally called the “Magic Cube.” By 1981, sales of the colorful, carpal tunnel-inducing toy were in the hundreds of millions.

Forty-two years later, I still haven’t solved the puzzle, at least not honestly. I sometimes took it apart and put it back together with the colors solid on each side, and bragged to friends that I had solved it, only to have one of them mix it up again when I wasn’t looking.

“Where are you going?” they would ask as I grabbed a screwdriver and headed into another room.

“To solve my Rubik’s Cube again,” I’d mumbled.

Julius Mehalek, an 11-year-old who lives in Hillsborough, doesn’t need a screwdriver to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and he can do it in far less than 42 years. In fact, his personal best time for solving the puzzle is 15 seconds.

Yep, that’s right. In less time than it takes to order a GAN 11-M Duo (his favorite cube) from Amazon, Julius is able to take a mixed-up cube, twist and turn the sides in a blur, and set it down with all sides matching.  

“It’s almost automatic, since I rely on pattern recognition to muscle memory,” Julius said. “So, I recognize the pattern and then use my muscle memory that I have memorized.”

During the earlier days of the pandemic, Julius, who is homeschooled, re-discovered his fascination with the Rubik’s Cube. It took about a year for him to get his time for solving the puzzle to under 30 seconds. Julius decided he was ready to test his talent in a competition.

Last weekend, Julius and his mother traveled to Gatlinburg, Tenn., so he could participate in the World Cubing Association’s competition. It was Julisus’ first experience with competitive cubing. He said he was able to speak to other participants of all ages, who came from all over the nation, and pick their brains about how he could improve his time.

“Practice muscle memory, learning better algorithms, everything,” Julius said.

Julius’ mother, Rachel, said her son competed in the 3X3, which is the more commonly recognized cube. There are 2X2 and 4X4 cubes. There are also competitions for megaminx and pyraminx that involve puzzles of different shapes.

Tables are set up for participants. “You do it five times,” Rachel said. “They drop your high (time) and your low and then they average the other three, so you get your best average.” Julius’ average was 26.8 seconds. “He was excited that he did really well. His best time was 22.13 seconds.”

Each table has a judge that’s controlling the clock and writing down the time. The judges are volunteers, and often those volunteers are also competitors. Julius got to spend a good bit of time at the tournament as a judge, including for Zayn Khanani, the world record holder in the 2X2 cube. His average at the tournament was 1.6 seconds, with a best time of 0.75 seconds.

Khanani literally could say, “Do you want to see me solve the 2X2 Rubik’s Cube? (Doesn’t move) Do you want to see me do it again?”

The best average at last weekend’s tournament — for the 3X3 — blinked in at 6.17 seconds, still almost one second slower than the world record average of 5.32 seconds, which was set by Max Park. 

You can watch videos of Max Park’s incredible speed-cubing abilities, where it looks like his hands have been sped up, while everything else is moving at a normal rate.

Julius said his other favorite thing to do is listen to audio books, which is something he is able to do while cubing, although he added he can’t solve the puzzle blindfolded.

“I see the algorithm then do the algorithm without looking, but I cannot do the whole cube blindfolded,” he said.

But there are competitions for cubing blindfolded. And even for solving the Rubik’s Cube with one hand. “Some people use slightly smaller cubes since it’s easier for their hands.”

In terms of preparation for tournaments, Julius said there’s not much involved. “Right before you compete, you use a hand warmer to get your tendons warm so you can move faster.”

About 100 participants were at the tournament in Tennessee. Rachel said the competitors were less interested in competing with each other than they were with beating records or improving their personal times. She said it was like a community and friendships were formed.

One other thing Rachel noticed about the group of participants is that none others were from Orange County, which is why she is hoping to develop a local cubing community.

“There’s a lot of kids that have gotten into Rubik’s Cubes,” Rachel said. “It’s always it’s been around, you know, since we were kids, but there are a lot of kids that have gotten into it even more since the pandemic, They’re at home. There was a huge group of people at the event that were new — in the last year and a half — to Rubik’s Cubes, and this was their first competition encounter. They took it up during the pandemic and we did, too, coincidentally. I think it’d be really great if kids in the community that did have similar interests or were into this, could get together, or at least connect.”

Until that happens, and even if it does, Julius said he intends to continue practicing to get faster at solving the cube and going to tournaments. “I will definitely keep going,” he said.

To learn more about cubing, you can visit the World Cube Association website at worldcubeassociation.org. If you’re interested in being part of a cubing group locally, email Rachel Mehalek at  rmehalek75@gmail.com.