Pavan Ravindra Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Pavan Ravindra’s mother had a rule for him during high school: Don’t stay up too late, but wake up early if you want to.

So, on weekdays, Ravindra would get out of bed at 4 a.m., eager to start the day. It didn’t take long for him to find a reason to take full advantage of his mother’s guidelines. At River Hill High School in Clarksville, Maryland, Ravindra met a few older classmates who could solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds. Watching them fly through the puzzle at dizzying speeds made him want to become a speedcuber himself, years after he put down the toy due to lack of interest.

He would practice before school and bring two or three cubes with him to classes. Anytime a teacher wasn’t instructing, he’d work on his solves. He’d practice at lunch and on the bus, then do it for hours at home after finishing his homework. Ravindra estimates that he practiced solving a Rubik’s Cube for six hours a day on weekdays, and another eight to 10 hours each on Saturdays and Sundays during his freshman, sophomore, and junior years of high school.

Ravindra was soon fully entrenched in the mind-bending world of speedcubing, in which competitors attempt to solve a Rubik’s Cube as fast as they can, often within 10 seconds. By 2015, he was one of the fastest speedcubers in the world. At the finals of the 2015 US Nationals in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Ravindra completed one solve in 5.58 seconds, then the fourth-fastest solve ever for a 3x3x3 cube.

“I knew that I wanted to get really, really good before I graduated high school,” he says. “So yeah, I just, like, practiced a lot.”

Ravindra, 20, was and still is a world-class talent. But he’s not even the highest ranked speedcuber living in the D.C. area. Or in the state of Maryland. Or even from his high school. The D.C. area is home to a tremendous amount of speedcubing talent. And Ravindra gets to witness it regularly as the president of the Rubik’s Cube Club at the University of Maryland, where he’s senior double majoring in biochemistry and computer science.

Maryland sophomore Will Callan, 20, is ranked second in the world for average time of solving a 2x2x2 cube (1.23 seconds). Keaton Ellis, 22, a former president of the school’s Rubik’s Cube Club and another River Hill alum, graduated from Maryland in 2018 with a dual degree in math and economics and is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics at the university. The Howard County resident organizes competitions in the D.C. area, and has competed twice at the biennial World Rubik’s Cube Championships.

“The D.C. area, Maryland specifically, is really big with speedcubing,” Ravindra says. “I would say, in terms of U.S. states, we’re probably top three. I think definitely top five.”

Washington Football Team rookie wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden loves seeing people’s reactions when he solves a Rubik’s Cube. He can often finish it in under a minute and recently set a personal record of 39 seconds.

Gandy-Golden says he’s always enjoyed puzzles and picked up his first cube in high school. It took him a day to figure out how to solve it—with help from an instructional booklet—and to this day, he brings at least one Rubik’s Cube around with him wherever he goes. A few months ago, Rubik’s tapped him to be a brand ambassador.

“I just thought it was so unique and that no one that I knew had ever been able to solve it,” Gandy-Golden says. “That alone kind of allowed me to be more interested in it, because I’m like, ‘I’ll be able to do something that nobody that I know can do.’ And it’s just that competitive nature. I’ve always liked to beat my own times in anything I did, and that was right up my alley. And it was portable.”

Hungarian architecture professor Ernő Rubik invented the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, and it became a global phenomenon in the following years. Popular culture has been enamored with people who can solve it ever since, and a common belief equating those who can solve a Rubik’s Cube with intelligence still exists—a notion that many speedcubers will argue is a misconception. YouTube videos of Will Smith solving a Rubik’s Cube have millions of views, and celebrities who can do it are often asked to show off the skill on camera. After the NFL Draft in April this year, ESPN interviewed Gandy-Golden as he solved a cube.

“Everyone sort of knows what a Rubik’s Cube is, what it looks like,” Callan says. “But pretty much everyone has not been able to solve it, just because they either didn’t give it enough time or like, back then [in the 1970s], there weren’t as many resources … I think a lot of people have always seen it as like an IQ test or [think] if you’re just like a really smart person, you’ll be able to solve it, when it’s obviously not that way … It’s really hard to just figure it out intuitively. So I think, because of that, it’s always sort of had this legend around it.”

The first World Rubik’s Cube Championship occurred in 1982 in Budapest, Hungary, and is considered the first officially recognized competition for speedcubing. Minh Thai of the United States beat 18 competitors with a winning single solve time of 22.95 seconds. The craze began to fizzle shortly after as video games surged in popularity, but the internet helped revive interest in the Rubik’s Cube two decades later. In 2004, the World Cube Association formed and has been governing official competitions around the world ever since.

In order for any results to be considered official, a WCA delegate must be in attendance. Competitors can bring their own speedcubes, which are designed slightly differently than the traditional 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, and each contestant has to solve five cubes with computer-generated scrambles. Cubers eliminate their fastest and slowest times and are ranked by the average time of their remaining three solves.

Ellis is a local delegate and has helped organize competitions in Maryland, including last year’s CubingUSA Nationals at the Baltimore Convention Center, which drew more than 750 competitors. He says one of the reasons why the region is so talented in speedcubing is due to the amount of competitions available locally throughout the year. (In-person competitions in the United States are currently halted during the pandemic, but there are a number of virtual options for speedcubers, such as Cubing at Home, where competitors can enter times online and follow a livestream, and a competition series hosted by Red Bull. Cubers can also compete in head-to-head series via Twitch.)

The Rubik’s Cube Club at the University of Maryland has hosted biannual competitions since 2013, Ellis says. Speedcubing communities often sprout up around schools, and these local competitions attract newer cubers. Callan, who hails from Carroll County, Maryland, credits the built-in cubing community at Maryland as one of the reasons he chose to attend the school.

“Even though there was no one really near me and my town or anything that was cubing, knowing that there were like a bunch of people in Maryland, in that area, was always really encouraging because there was a good amount of competitions,” he says. “And I was able to, like, see all of them pretty often. And we became good friends … I think that’s something that’s really helpful because a lot of times, if there’s not a lot of competitions in your area, or other people in your area, it’s harder to keep improving.”

Before the world rankings and national competitions, Ravindra was an elementary school student who had quickly lost interest in the Rubik’s Cube. He received one as a gift around third or fourth grade from a distant relative, and taught himself how to solve it in a few weeks with help from online tutorials.

It wasn’t until high school piano class his first year at River Hill that he picked it up again. In that class were two juniors, Tanzer Balimtas and Andy Huang. At that time, Ravindra could solve a Rubik’s Cube in 30 to 40 seconds. His older classmates solved it in 15 seconds or less.

Ravindra was determined to reach their level.

“When you see something online … it doesn’t really mean as much. But then … when you see it, like in person, it’s a lot cooler, because it’s like, ‘Oh, this is like a real person,’” he explains. “This is not some random kid out on the other side of the planet … It kind of shows you that even you can do it if this other kid in your high school can do it.”

Balimtas is currently ranked 10th in the world for a 3x3x3 cube single solve, with a personal best solve time of 4.64 seconds. Speedcubers like Ravindra, Callan, and Ellis often use sports analogies when describing how to solve a Rubik’s Cube in record time.

Ravindra grew up playing basketball and soccer, and like with sports, solving a Rubik’s Cube involves practicing fine motor skills.

“You look at NBA players, and it’s not like any of them can’t easily dribble with both hands, or any sort of combination … When you’re first learning how to dribble a basketball, even doing that is kind of hard, right? You just have to kind of get a feel for it,” he says. “It’s similar with Rubik’s Cubing, where you have to first understand the basic fundamentals, like the basic components of a solution. And then from there, you kind of can figure out how to piece them together a little bit better … I’m combining and chunking these moves together into single fluid motions, rather than just single moves.”

In the video of Ravindra solving the Rubik’s Cube in 5.58 seconds from 2015, he slams his hands on the table and shouts after completing the solve, as the room erupts in cheers. People in the audience start to scream as the announcer repeats the score: “Five, five, eight!”

Ravindra throws his fist up triumphantly before sitting back down. He can’t stop smiling. A few hours later, he watched the video while hanging out in a hotel room and thought to himself, “That was awesome.”

It felt, he says, like hitting a game-winning shot.