If you didn’t have your eye on the slight 14-year-old in the busy high school cafeteria, you might have missed the world record-setting feat altogether. One, two, three, four — and before he even hit the five-second mark, he was done. He had just worked a Rubik’s cube in the fastest time known to man.
“I don’t even remember jumping up,” Lucas Etter said of the excitement afterward. The time on the clock said 4.904, a brand new record, as Etter was surrounded by cheering Rubik’s cube fans.
Etter, who lives in Lexington, Ky., has been traveling all over the country to enter Rubik’s cube competitions since he was just nine years old. In his first competitive attempt in 2011, his best attempt was 24.11 seconds — an astonishing pace for a mere mortal to align every colored box on the complicated toy, but far from the elite competitive best. He placed 23rd that day, and 111th at the U.S. national competition that year.
But by the end of that year, he had cut his time almost in half, to 12.09 seconds, according to records kept by the World Cube Association. The next year he got his time under 10 seconds, then under 9.
He placed 7th nationally in 2014 and 3rd in 2015. He won first prize in contests in Nashville, Ann Arbor, Austin, Dayton and other locales.
Before the competition at River Hill High School in Howard County, Md., on Saturday, his best time at a competition was 5.85 seconds.
The Rubik’s cube record is made to be broken. In fact, since Mitsuki Gunji set the record at 7.03 seconds in Japan in 2012, it has been broken 99 times. By last week, competitors from Asia to Europe to Australia, many of them not far from Etter’s age, had chipped it all the way down to 5.25 seconds.
Another record fell on Saturday at River Hill High School — competitor Keaton Ellis tackled his cube in 5.09 seconds, smashing the existing mark.
But Ellis’s record wouldn’t stand for long. Etter soon turned to his cube. As the rules allow, he studied it, knowing the timer would only start when he began twisting.
Etter had his eye on something special: He thought he could break the five-second barrier, something never before done by a human competitor. (Robots are a different story.)
“I knew I was capable,” Etter said. But he didn’t know if Saturday would be the day.
He said he made a lucky choice in those brief 4.9 seconds. He always works first the bottom layer of the cube, then the middle, then the top. He had a choice of algorithms for solving the middle layer, and happened to pick one that turned out to save him a step on top — a step that might have taken him an entire second.
“I’d say I get one of those one in every 25 solves. The pieces fall into where they need to be,” Etter said. This time, they fell. And fell very, very fast.
Etter said he has other interests — math, technology, video games, baseball — but he’s not planning to drop the Rubik’s cube now that he’s achieved the best time in the world. There are other cubes to master, he said, not just the three-by-three box recognizable to most children of the ’70s and beyond.
At Saturday’s contest, Etter also won first prize for solving the smaller two-by-two cube in just 1.6 seconds (slower than his average for that cube, 1.51 seconds; he’s done it in less than a second before) and for the larger four-by-four cube, which took him nearly 30 seconds. He’s entered contests in the past to work a standard cube blindfolded (his best time: 3 minutes and 22 seconds) or with one hand (which he can do in 15 seconds on average, 12 at best). He’s even worked a seven-by-seven cube in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.
“I’ll keep cubing, definitely. I’m not gonna drop it. I can improve my own time,” he said.
Plus, Etter pointed out, the scrambled cube can start out in more than 43 quintillion — yes, quintillion — configurations. “You get to solve it a different way every time.”
This post has been updated.
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