Isabella Wight had been practicing for weeks, meticulously repeating Rubik’s Cube sequences. The Anchorage student admits she has “an unhealthy number of cubes at home.”
But like most of the local cubers at the Up in the North 2023 cube tournament last weekend in Anchorage, it was Wight’s first competition. And that meant hours of practice. It was only the second World Cube Association tournament ever hosted in Anchorage.
“The pros online are always at competitions and showing their solves,” Wight said. “I was just curious if there would ever be one that I could attend.”
She registered for all eight categories, spending nearly 10 hours at the Egan Center on Saturday competing in a range of cube shapes, styles and complexities.
The previous Up in the North event in 2019 drew about 40 competitors, according to organizer Matthew Dickman from Los Angeles. This year’s contest attracted 86, including out-of-town talent and a deep bench of elementary schoolers.
Owen Yepeng Sun arrived the morning of the tournament. He’s a college student at UCLA and was in Fairbanks with friends for spring break. The tournament just fit into his schedule, so he cut his trip plans short by a day in order to compete in Anchorage. He’s Asia’s top-ranked cuber in the Pyraminx — a triangle-shaped discipline — but spent part of the day sharing tips with a cluster of friends from Turnagain Elementary.
One of those Turnagain students was first-time competitor Walter Frank.
“I learned 30 new algorithms since I heard about (the event),” Frank said as he practiced on a 3x3x3 cube, which is the classic Rubik’s Cube design.
“It’s a nice break from the video games,” joked his father, Chad.
The morning started with the main event, the 3x3x3 competition. Siblings fidgeted in front-row seats. Parents snapped photos from behind a line of tape on the conference room carpet. Each cuber solved five cubes per round. Their fastest and slowest times were tossed out, and the remaining speeds were averaged to determine the rankings. The top 75% of cubers advanced to round 2, where the top 16 would move on to round 3.
Participants use their own cubes to compete but must hand them over to the scrambling station first. There, cloaked behind a cardboard barrier, a team of volunteers assures every contestant receives the same scrambles to solve. Cubers get 15 seconds to analyze their assignment, then tap a timer to start.
Of the 86 contestants, 53 were first-timers. Kids far outnumbered adults, which is common across the country, said organizer Chris Martin of Sacramento.
“More than half of the competitors here have never been to a competition. They’ve only ever seen it on YouTube or Netflix,” Martin said. He credits the recent growth in popularity, especially among neurodivergent youths, to the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Speed Cubers.”
Alaska participants came to the tournament from Fairbanks, Soldotna, Tok and across Anchorage. They said they practiced wherever they could — at home, on the school bus or in the car.
William Hensley, another Turnagain Elementary student, ticked off the cubes he had at home. A ghost cube. A mirror cube. A practice 2x2x2 cube that his brother gave him.
The extra pressure of the event motivated him to move fast, he said: “I did a lot better than I did at home because it’s a competition.” He hoped to advance to the second round of the 3x3x3 contest “but even if I do make it, I’m going home. I’m hungry.”
In between rounds, cubers and their families gathered at massive tables scattered with colorful cubes. Cubing may seem like a solitary hobby, but “it’s a very social thing,” said Rafe Price of Portland, one of several college students who traveled to Anchorage during their spring break. “It’s just hours and hours of practice and learning algorithms, but there’s this really wonderful community around it.”
Cubers are often shy and introverted, Dickman noted, but “I’ve seen so many kids over the last 10 years grow so much as a person and become these social butterflies.”
His message to cubers: You’re never too slow to compete. “Every single person, including (top competitive cube solver) Max Park, who I’m sure these kids have heard of, has been at their speed at some point.”
After 10 hours of tense cubing, the event crowned winners in eight disciplines. At one table, a restless parent asked their kid if they could go home yet.
The best time of the day in the 3x3x3 competition was 6.75 seconds by Eric Zhao of New York. Shane Grogan of California had the best average times, though, and took the top prize. Winners earned gift cards to TheCubicle, an online cubing store.
At the end of the day, while the tournament’s top contenders finished their final solves, Sebastien Bobanga sat at a table in the back of the Egan Center. An elementary school student from Wasilla, this was his first tournament. He wasn’t happy with his final times, but “I’m just excited that I got to come here,” he said. “I just love how most people in this room like the same thing as you and can do the same thing as you … I hope the next competition I can do better.”
He may not have to wait long. World Cube Association delegates are planning to “give Alaska what it wants,” said Martin. “And we think it wants more cubing competitions.”