(A response to When Chess, Fine Art, life and work collide, or falling into Franco Minei’s Chess Game, 1967 by Noah Fleisher)
Can you spot the Rubik’s Cube (mini 2×2) in this lot of 1990s memorabilia for Batman: the Animated Series? I grew up on Batman. I collect and solve Rubik’s Cubes. I work at the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer. And yet somehow I missed this gem as it passed through one of our comics auctions in June, 2012.
I was 13 years old when this television commercial introduced me to the mind maddening, finger fumbling, Smithsonian sanctioning three-dimensional puzzle we all know as the Rubik’s Cube. What followed was three years of immersive mesmerization with this object capable of forty-three quintillion, two hundred fifty-two quadrillion, three trillion, two hundred seventy-four billion, four hundred eighty-nine million, eight hundred fifty-six thousand (43,252,003,274,489,856,000) possible combinations, and only one of them matters (at least to me).
The first step on my journey was to actually obtain one of these precious objects. When you live in pre-internet, rural South Texas in 1980, the distance between seeing something on television and actually finding one in a store near you could be months. In my case, it was. My days were spent begging my parents to take me to the new mall, some 10 miles away, only to find that the Rubik’s Cube had not arrived yet or that it had and they were already sold out.
As my seventh grade year drew to a close, I caught wistful glimpses of the cube in the hands of peers who were taking it apart to restore it to its rightful condition. I shuddered at the thought. I am a purist I said to myself. I vowed to myself that once I held my own, there would be “no disassemble!”
Sometime in the fall of 1980, I convinced my reluctant parents to part with a few dollars at the mall when I discovered a lone cube sitting on a glass shelf. I tore the box to shreds and discarded all paperwork and held the object in my hands all the way home, careful to make only a few moves before returning it back to its pristine condition. I still remember the crunch sound it made every time I turned it. When I arrived home, I disappeared into my room with my precious.
Sometime in November, I was nearing my first solve and I knew it. It was then that a friend introduced me to Mason Locke Weems VII (yes, the Seventh – Mason Locke Weems I was the parson who invented the story of Washington and the Cherry Tree). Mason was a year older than me and had already solved the cube multiple times. He and I became friends and, after I did solve the cube for the first time, we began racing each other to see who could solve it the fastest.
By the spring of 1981, he and I were solving the cube in under two minutes. I vividly remember April 16, 1981. I was in my athletics class with the guys a few blocks from the school at the practice field. As I panted during a run around the field, I noticed a classmate approach the coach and hand him a slip of paper. He stared at it, then looked up and shouted, “Shipman!” Confused and nervous, I jogged over to the coach. “You need to go with Cynthia here back to the school. Principal wants to see you.” See me, I thought. Why? What did I do? I turned to Cynthia with pleading eyes. “Do you know what this is about?” She didn’t.
I was so nervous that I couldn’t even walk with Cynthia back to the school. I half ran, half walked, my feet shuffling and my mind racing. When I arrived at the school, I paused to collect my wits and my breath. I looked over my shoulder and saw Cynthia, still over a block away, feeling bad that I left her side. I did not know I would never see her again. Two days later she would die in a small plane crash with three other members of her family.
I stepped into the administrative office area where I was quickly ushered into the principal’s office. Once inside, my eyes grew large as I noticed the vice principal and school counselor there as well. The door behind me shut and I took a seat at the principal’s bidding.
He stared at me for a moment and then spoke. “Is it true…” he said, reaching under his desk and opening a drawer. My heart raced in near panic. Was he pulling out a paddle? What had I done to merit such attention and such impending doom? I closed my eyes, afraid to look. “Is it true that you can solve this thing?” I opened my eyes and the principal tossed a Rubik’s cube through the air. I caught it gratefully but with shaking hands. I looked at the cube and then up at him and the two other administrators in the little office. “Y-y-yes. Yes, I can.”
“Show me,” he said, leaning forward with a challenging grin.
I said, “Would you time me with your watch?” He smiled and looked at his watch for a few seconds and then said, “Go!”
I worked feverishly, wanting the man I thought was about to strike me down to be impressed. One minute and eight seconds later, I looked up and returned the cube to him in its rightful condition. Everyone laughed and clapped and then sent me on my merry way.
Soon I was solving the cube in under a minute regularly. In the summer of 1982, they held a contest at Astroworld in Houston hosted by the Ideal Toy Corporation to see who the fastest Rubik’s Cube speed solver in the country might be. The winner of the contest at the theme park would get to make an appearance on That’s Incredible, the variety TV show hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton, and Cathy Lee Crosby. An older friend of mine drove Mason and I the hour up from the Gulf Coast to Houston so that we could compete.
I placed fourth, the angst inside killing me as I watched the victor leave with the spoils of a guaranteed spot on television and a right to compete for the national championship. It was a dark night of the soul for this 14-year-old.
One year later, after many long hours of practice, I returned to the Second Annual Rubik’s Cube championship regional contest. I convinced my father to drive me all the way to Duncanville, Texas, so I could compete there a week before the Houston area contest. That way, if I lost, I had one more shot.
I took first place in Duncanville with a time of 30.68 seconds, but I had one more hurdle to overcome. My time had to be the fastest out of several other cities to earn a spot on That’s Incredible. So far, I was the fastest. Only Houston remained. A week later, my friend David drove me to a mall in Houston to watch the competition. There I watched in horror as a young man beat me by one second, but I discovered he used his own personal Rubik’s Cube to do so – a violation of the official rules. I challenged the time and won the right to a sudden death face-off with my foe. Some days later, he and I met in the early hours before the mall opened, just his Dad and mine, the two of us, and a representative of the contest. They opened up several boxes of brand new, stiff Rubik’s cubes, mixed them identically, and handed them to each of us and we were off. Though both of us did poorly on the new cubes, I managed to just edge him out. We shook hands and parted ways. I was on my way to Hollywood.
On November 13, 1982, I paused from my cube-racing practice to watch a boxing match with my Dad. It was Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim. Mancini looked to lose in early rounds, but came back strong and won in the 14th round with a TKO. Moments later, though, as we watched, Kim was taken out of Caesar’s Palace in a coma. He died four days later.
The weekend that followed found my father and I sitting side by side on an airplane bound for L.A., where I practiced feverishly. I remember wondering if my father could be proud of a son for achieving such a level of, well, geekdom. He told me he was and I know he meant it.
My two days in Hollywood and my few hours on the set of That’s Incredible were a whirlwind. I was to compete against five other regional finalists for the national title: David Allen, Robert Jen, David Maez, Eugene Pan, and Dan Kroc. After a few practice rounds together in an old ballroom, testing Ideal’s timers that stopped when you placed the cube on them, I realized I was in trouble. Three of the guys there were several seconds faster than me.
When the day came, John Davidson had trouble pronouncing my hometown. “Do you like being from Brazoria?” he asked me, struggling with the pronunciation. Eventually he got it right.
They broke us into two groups. I could see why. It made for better drama, but I could tell the other group was favored to contain the winner. Nevertheless, I did my best. I won the first round in my group with a time of 32 seconds and change. Robert Jen took his round, beating my time. But we each had one more round to go.
My second attempt was not as good, and Eugene Pan took our group’s best time. And in the final round, David Allen took the crown with a sub-23-second time and a chance to compete against the reigning world champion, Minh Thai.
Who am I to complain, though? I got a free trip to Hollywood and a chance to see Disneyland. I chatted with John Davidson, watched Fran Tarkenton throw the football back and forth on the set in between takes, and stammered as I shook hands with beautiful Cathy Lee Crosby. I met Minh Thai – I’ll never forget his humble smile. I placed fourth in the nation for speed-solving the Rubik’s cube and did it on national television. In the few minutes between my round and the next, I was the champion. It was my 32 seconds of fame.
Today, those young folks are solving the cube regularly in under 10 seconds. I will likely never do that, but I do enjoy knowing that I was a pioneer of the (dare I say) sport of speed-solving Rubik’s Cubes. And, yes, I own and can solve the 4x4x4 and 5x5x5. The 7x7x7 is on my Christmas list if you want to send me one. My desk at work contains them all in the solved position, and when a coworker scrambles one I can’t leave it there for long. I just can’t.
My “grown-up” Rubik’s cube is the world of information, particularly as it pertains to collectibles, and “putting it right” so that anyone in the world can experience the significant objects of their choosing, be it Batman memorabilia, fine art, rare coins, or whatever.
It’s an obsession, and I love it.