As Ben Christie spouts information about algorithms and Newton’s Laws, spatial reasoning and theoretical physics, he says people don’t have to be good in math to solve a Rubik’s Cube.
Then, he admits it’s no coincidence that competitions to line up the correct colors on a square tend to attract mathematical wizards.
“It’s the next step in the nerd hierarchy,” he said.
If that’s the case, then the 17-year-old Colonial Beach resident is not your average geek. He’s ranked first in Virginia and in the top 20 nationwide for his speed in unscrambling the square puzzle.
At a competition in September, he rose to the top of commonwealth “cubers” by correctly arranging a 3-by-3-by-3 block in 5.87 seconds. Ben sheepishly admitted that, yes, some people asked for his autograph, which was pretty cool.
As he described how he does it, Ben said he tends to think of each square by its position next to other ones, not so much by its color.
“I can just see it in my mind, where it needs to go,” he said.
Ben was 12 the first time he saw a Rubik’s Cube, first manufactured in 1974 and “the best-selling toy ever,” according to the puzzle’s website.
His uncle owned one, and Ben was intrigued. He checked out a YouTube video about how to be a speed cuber.
“I’ve been hooked ever since,” he said.
The son of Paul Christie and Sonya Stagnoli, Ben and his sister Bella are home-schooled students who also take college courses. He’ll graduate with an associate’s degree from Germanna Community College next spring, at about the same time that he receives his high school diploma. She takes classes at Rappahannock Community College.
Soon after Ben became interested in the Rubik’s Cube, his mother checked out regional and statewide competitions. The whole family has attended about 30 events in the past three years, across Virginia and as far away as Indiana.
Bella, 15, competes in some, but would rather volunteer as a judge.
“I’m not that good at Rubik’s Cuke, but I can watch them do it,” she said.
Both teens play the piano, and Ben’s long, thin fingers clearly are assets in turning pieces of the Rubik’s puzzle. So are his math skills—and his penchant for practicing.
His dad, a sign-language interpreter at Gallaudet University in Washington, said he’ll hear the fast-paced “ch-ch-ch-ch” of cube pieces clicking when Ben is supposed to be doing homework or practicing the piano for church.
“He does it 100 or 200 times a day,” the father said.
Ben is quick to point that he never does the same thing. There are more than 43 quintillion ways the color squares can be scrambled—”more than there are atoms in the galaxy,” Ben said.
For those of you who don’t know nerd lingo, a quintillion is a thousand raised to the power of six.
Ben has memorized several hundred ways to solve whatever pattern may appear on the Rubik’s Cube at competitions or when he idly turns the puzzle pieces. At events, participants get five chances per heat to see how quickly they can solve the puzzle. Each time, the cubes of all the contestants in that heat are scrambled the same way.
Competitors, who are mostly teenage males, get 15 seconds to look at the scrambled arrangement before the clock starts. Ben may solve the puzzle one way while another cuber finds a different solution.
His dad likens it to two people taking different routes to the same destination. Both arrive at the same place, but one may have gotten there faster based on the chosen course.
Ben currently is ranked 17th in the United States, and there’s nothing he’d like more than to place in the top three in a national event. But he’s got to juggle his time spent with Rubik’s Cubes—he has about 15 different sizes—with school, classes and working as a math tutor at Germanna.
He says he’s not like some cubers who are obsessed with the puzzle. They practice solving it one-handed or even blindfolded.
“There are some people who are addicted to this stuff like crazy,” Ben said, suggesting that those people are a couple rungs higher on the nerd ladder. “That’s like a whole other level.”