ALBANY – Benjamin Graber was in seventh grade when his skills with a Rubik’s Cube first drew a crowd.
He and his friend Faiz Wareh were racing to solve the 3-D combination puzzles in their hands at a table in the Van Antwerp Middle School lunchroom in Niskayuna when some other students started to come see what they were doing. Before long, Graber realized the whole room had stopped to see which cuber would finish first.
“The teacher actually had to take our cubes away, and then after that I was like ‘OK, that was cool. Let me see other stuff I can go [do] and race with other people,’” Graber said.
The now-rising-senior found competitions for cubing and this weekend will be his seventh World Cube Association event, this time at the inaugural New York Rubik’s Cube Championship at the Albany Capital Center.
Competition begins Saturday and runs through Monday. Graber – one of 250 competitors, including Wareh – gets going Saturday morning in the first round of the Pyraminx, a pyramid-shaped puzzle. It will be the first of eight events the 16-year-old will take part in. There will be 17 events in total over the three days.
The teen enjoys working with the triangular puzzle, but still prefers the standard 3x3x3 cube during his up to four hours of practice each day. A couple of standard cubes were the first he received from family friends in fourth grade. Now, he has close to 100 puzzles of 30 to 40 varying types.
However, it wasn’t for about a year that Graber solved a cube for the first time. He said he would play with it but never figured out the series of twists and turns to align the puzzle’s sides by color. Then, something just clicked one day. Roughly seven years later, he competes in events where he races one-handed, and he began learning how to cube blindfolded last month.
“For me, it started off as a toy or a puzzle, just a cool thing that you could do, and then it became an obsession really fast,” Graber said. “I feel like, if you’re not a cuber and you watch somebody solve a cube, it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty fast.’ Then, once you get into cubing you kind of appreciate it more because you see how much time people put into it.”
Shannon Licygiewicz, though not a cuber herself, has certainly developed that appreciation over the last four years. The general manager of the Albany Capital Center has seen quite a bit of cubing since the venue hosted its first Rubik’s Cube competition in the spring of 2019. This weekend will be the sixth at the downtown Albany location.
The contest continued through the pandemic with a lot of help from the Albany Capital Center Authority, according to Licygiewicz. That momentum has helped the competitions grow.
Licygiewicz is particularly excited for the cubers to take over much of the facility during the holiday weekend. Previous competitions have been held across 5,000 to 7,000 square feet of the center’s 55,000-square-foot space. Saturday through Monday will involve 30,000 square feet. It will also include at least double the number of competitors.
“We love seeing events start small, and then grow into the footprint of our facility,” Licygiewicz said. “So, it’s exactly what we hope to strive for and it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to welcome people through our doors that perhaps would not be coming to anything else we host.”
Event organizer Evan Liu, 29, remembers a time when there was one competition a month within a four-hour drive. The D.C. Metro-area native attended his competition in south central Pennsylvania near Harrisburg. Now, he said there is probably one per week in that same radius. He’s played a large role in that, organizing all five competitions at the Capital Center, but also scheduling numerous others particularly while in college in Pittsburgh.
“A lot of the time your performance just comes down to luck and how lucky you got with the patterns that result from the way it was scrambled, and to have your ranking in particular competition come down to just an average of five times. It’s somewhat fluky,” Liu said. “So to give everyone more opportunities at performing to their expected standard is just heartwarming.”
Liu will also be competing this weekend – taking part in all 17 events. He said a vast majority of competitions are organized and operated by competitors – at times friends and family assist. The 250 cubers will not only be showcasing their skills but also scrambling up cubes for other competitors and judging each round.
“Of course, it’s cubing that has brought us all together,” Liu, who now lives in Westchester County, said, “but it doesn’t mean that’s all that we talked about. And we can become genuine friends outside of cubing and just talk about life.”
The community is Graber’s favorite part of coming to compete. He solved a cube in 11.89 seconds at the Empire State Spring 2022 tournament at the Capital Center two months ago, and had an average speed of 13.85 ticks at the CubingUSA Northeast Championship at Boston University Memorial Day weekend. But, he continues to first and foremost love connecting with friends and making new ones.
“It’s actually really fun because things at school are just internal. There’s not many people who can solve it,” Graber said. “But, when you go to a competition, everybody has the same interest as you, so you always have something to talk about.”
“The first competition I ever went to I met a kid and we still talk everyday, and that’s because we like cubing,” he added. “Then, there’s also some people at my school that I didn’t even realize knew how to solve it and were cubers until they found out I did it. Then, it was like, ‘Hey, you do this thing? I do this thing, too.’”
Graber said he’s one of close to 10 cubers at Niskayuna High School, and he’s even considering starting a club this upcoming year. He and Wareh will be joined by Alan Achilles at the state competition this weekend.
According to Liu, the World Cubing Association is working to get cubing recognized as a sport. He is happy with the continued growth of the sport but hopes competitions will remain open to beginners first being exposed to what cubing is all about, just like he was.
“The WCA mission statement,” he said, “is to have more competitions in more countries with more people and more fun under fair and equal conditions.”