FARGO — Ask Charlie Koebele, 16, a tenth-grader at St. Mary's Central High School in Bismarck, whether he considers himself a geek and he says, "What's the definition of a geek?"
He certainly looks the part — pale, with thick black glasses, neat and short hair, and a serious look on his face. He wore a black polyester jacket, emblazoned with a Rubik's cube and "Team USA" over the heart.
He was participating in what would seem to be the ultimate geek activity, solving Rubik's cubes and other three-dimensional puzzles at the first World Cube Association competition in North Dakota, held Sunday at the Ramada Inn in Fargo.
But Koebele defies the image in other ways. He was a member of the Bismarck Century High School state champion swimming and cross country teams (his school doesn't field teams in those sports so he plays for the nearest public school). Geeks aren't supposed to be athletic.
There were other aspects of Sunday's event that also defied stereotypes. Although participants obsessively and constantly solved Rubik's cubes and other puzzles even when they weren't participating in an event — sitting, walking, or standing — they also said that one of the attractions of cubes is the social aspects of the cubing community.
They socialize online in Facebook groups and Sunday they sat around big tables in a Ramada conference room, simultaneously solving puzzles and socializing, meeting new friends, and sharing secrets. They weren't misfits; they are just different and love the challenge of three-dimensional puzzles.
Sunday's event attracted 46 participants ranging in age from 7 to mid-40s. Most were teens.
All but two were male. They came from a wide geographic area. There were a dozen from the Minneapolis area, nearly as many from Canada, a few from Wisconsin, and several from North and South Dakota.
They competed in 11 events, only three involving the best known Rubik's cube, called the 3-by-3 because it has 9 squares per side. There were also events for 2-by-2, 4-by-4 and 7-by-7 cubes, and competitions using other three-dimensional puzzles, such as a pyramidal-shaped one called the Pyraminx. All events are based on speed. There were cash prizes, $30 for first place, smaller amounts for second and third.
There were also many spectators, parents one presumes of those who couldn't drive themselves, looking proud when their kids performed well, taking photos and shooting video, just like parents of kids at sporting events.
Koebele, meanwhile appears to be a rising star. He solved every variety of puzzle with dizzying speed, his hands in perpetual motion. No sooner it seemed did he sit down at a table for his turn at an event then he stood up again, finished. On his own, he's solved the Rubik's cube in just 5.69 seconds, barely a second slower than the world record, but the pressure of competition usually causes competitors to take longer.
Although there were 11 events on Sunday, the competition in the conventional 3-by-3 Rubik's cube was considered the top event, and Koebele won it. His best time was 8.71 seconds. He finished second in the 2-by-2, 4-by-4, and 5-by-5, and third in the 7-by-7. The fastest sprinter has nothing on this guy.
Koebele got his first Rubik's cube when he was 10, couldn't figure it out, and forgot about it. He picked it up a year later, "solved it and kept on doing it."
"Once you solve it for the first time, you're hooked," he says. "Then you try to get faster, improving your time. It feels good."
Asked again if he's a geek, he says, "Yeah. I guess it's geeky. But it's just something I like to do."
Thirteen-year-old Brian Berg from Ramsey, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, got his first Rubik's cube in 2015, but he's already placed in competition. He says he practices 90 minutes a day. His best event is the Pyraminx. He finished second in the first round of that event on Sunday, but fell to fourth in the final.
He says he likes cubing because of the competition, and also because of the social aspects. "It's a real fun community," he says. "It's really easy to make friends."
Walker Welch of Minneapolis, one of the event organizers, says he decided to sponsor an event in North Dakota because he is a delegate to the World Cube Association and regularly receives emails from cubers in North Dakota asking the organization to hold an event in the state. He's also met cubers like Koebele at competitions in Minneapolis.
Based on Sunday's turnout, Welch said he will definitely organize another North Dakota event. Meanwhile, a contingent of competitors from Canada at Sunday's event is trying to convince him to organize one in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Four of the competitors at Sunday's event were college students from there.
"I'm having a blast," said Sean Stephensen, 24, an engineering student at the University of Manitoba.
-By Blake Gumprecht on Nov 12, 2017