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He once had motor skill challenges. Now he's the world's fastest Rubik's cube solver

Max Park, pictured after winning a December 2021 competition, recently set a world record for solving a 3x3x3 Rubik's cube in 3.13 seconds.
Schwan Park
Max Park, pictured after winning a December 2021 competition, recently set a world record for solving a 3x3x3 Rubik's cube in 3.13 seconds.

As a preteen, Max Park couldn't unscrew the cap of a water bottle, let alone try to tackle a Rubik's cube.

He lacked the fine motor skills, a symptom of his autism.

Now, at 21, Max can solve a Rubik's cube in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

The Cerritos, Calif., native set a new world record for the fastest 3x3x3 Rubik's cube time, with 3.13 seconds, on June 11 at a competition in Southern California. He stunned the speedcubing community, those who compete to quickly solve the twisty puzzles.

"It's the holy grail of records," said Matthew Dickman, the senior delegate for the United States and Canada at the World Cube Association, the governing body that oversees official speedcubing competitions. He attended the cubing event in Long Beach last Sunday. "I've heard the room when he breaks records before and it gets very loud. But this was a completely different type of loud."

It tops the previous 3x3x3 record set nearly five years ago by China's Yusheng Du at 3.47 seconds. Max, who holds the record for nearly all of the major cubing events, including the 7x7x7 cube, is widely regarded as the world's top "speedcuber" right now.

"He constantly surprises us," said his father, Schwan Park.

Speedcubing is Max's therapy

Miki Park is pictured with Max Park in the Netflix documentary <em>The Speed Cubers.</em>
/ Netflix
/
Netflix
Miki Park is pictured with Max Park in the Netflix documentary The Speed Cubers.

When Max was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism as a toddler, Schwan and his wife Miki realized their son would require long-term care. In addition to his motor challenges, Max has difficulties with social communication.

At age 9, Max took an interest in the Rubik's cube they had lying around their house.

Seeing an opportunity there, Miki seized it.

"His mother thought it might work as a tool to help socialization between mom and Max and to try to help them develop his finger strengths," Schwan said.

She learned how to solve the cube on YouTube so she could teach Max. Within a couple days, Max solved the puzzle. At age 10, he went to his first speedcube competition in downtown Los Angeles.

"Right away, Max lit up," Schwan said. "He looked like a kid who found this tribe."

Ever since, the world of speedcubing has allowed him the space to grow his social skills, his dad said.

Competitions helped teach Max how to wait in line, and how to look to the judge to communicate when he's ready. Even as Max ascends to speedcubing royalty, those are the kind of feats that bring his family the most pride.

When Max won his first 3x3x3 record at the World Championships in 2017, his parents were thrilled by a subtler victory: While standing on the podium, Max looked to other winners to see how to hold his certificate up for the crowd. The moment was captured in The Speed Cubers, a 2020 documentary that follows Max's story.

"For us, an autistic kid looking at his peer and mimicking is like the ultimate goal," Schwan said in the film.

The competitive world of speedcubing is big

A contestant is seen before the start of the World Rubik's Cube Championship 2011 in Bangkok.
Vinai Dithajohn / AP Images for Seven Towns
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AP Images for Seven Towns
A contestant is seen before the start of the World Rubik's Cube Championship 2011 in Bangkok.

On any given weekend, over a dozen different competitions are held around the world, with around 100 competitors each, according to Dickman of the WCA. More than 140,000 cubers from over 140 countries are registered with the organization.

"Speed cubing is a lot bigger than you would expect," Dickman said.

The mental sport has been growing steadily in the decades since inventor Ernő Rubik's creation first hit stores in the late 1970s and early '80s. More recently, online tutorials and the spread of competitions have spurred a revival worldwide.

The cubing competitions range in complexity. Some involve a pyramid-shaped cube, others are blind-folded; there's also a one-handed challenge. But the original 3x3x3 cube is widely regarded as the main event. The fastest competitors have memorized hundreds of sequences, or algorithms, used to solve the puzzles. From there, it's all muscle memory.

The competition skews younger than it did 10 years ago. Today, most registrants are around 12 to 15 years old, Dickman said. They're getting faster, too. Contestants often edge out others within a miniscule .05 seconds.

"It's insanely competitive," Dickman said. "You could put any of the top 16 people who are attending Worlds, write their name down on a piece of paper, throw it in a hat and then just pick one. There's a good chance that that person wins."

For all its nail-biting competition, the cubing scene is home to a surprisingly supportive community.

"People are more focused on either the social aspect of it or the thrill of breaking your own personal best," said Dickman.

Max has gained fame for his speedcubing

From left, Schwan, Jason, Max and Miki Park in 2020. Max recently set a record time in solving the original Rubik's cube.
/ Schwan Park
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Schwan Park
From left, Schwan, Jason, Max and Miki Park in 2020. Max recently set a record time in solving the original Rubik's cube.

Max's achievements have drawn a fandom and inspired others to get into cubing. Parents of autistic children have reached out to say how inspiring Max has been.

Max's success "gives a sense of hope for the parents too — that your child can find something that they're passionate about and it will help give them a sense of purpose," Schwan said, "sort of like a guiding light."

But Max isn't driven by celebrity. It's difficult for him to grasp the abstract concept of fame, his father said. Max is comfortable with the quantifiable.

"He doesn't see much value in that, being popular and famous," Schwan said. "He understands fame, but he can't really feel it."

The cube, though, is tangible. There are 43 quintillion possible configurations of the original cube.

"To Max, that's not infinite," Schwan said.

Outside of the Rubik's cube, Max has a passion for traveling. South Korea, which is on Max's wishlist, happens to be hosting the WCA World Championship in August.

"He has friends from South Korea, cubers that he's really looking forward to seeing," his dad said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.