Approximately three months ago I found myself in a work party in Bangkok, feeling vaguely out of place as I do, when I was accosted by a guy with a disarming smile.

“Do you want to play games?” He asked.

Trying not to lift my eyebrow and probably succeeding, I smiled back and nodded. Why not.

We found a corner in the party, sat down, and arranged our beers. With no further small talk, he whipped out a colourful little contraption. It was a 3×3 Rubik’s Cube, which not only had the colours, but also bits of Thai characters in every segment. Party Guy flashed me another grin. And proceeded to teach me, in basic English, the principles of the Rubik’s Cube, and how I might eventually solve it.

This would turn out to be one of the most educational parties that I’ve been to. After I was satisfactorily equipped with the basic foundations of solving the Rubik’s Cube, we moved on to teaching me Go. Party Guy was a willing teacher to a willing student, and eventually we attracted a table of geekier ones and our table became the soul of the party. Ahem. (Ok fine it didn’t. The cool kids continued to be cool, and our Go table continued playing Go.)

I got myself a Cube a couple of weeks later. Tinkering with it, I quickly realised that while Party Guy had taught me some basics, those basics were not enough for me to actually solve the puzzle with mine own brains. A little disappointed, I decided to look for answers on the Internet.

The Internet informed me that it is possible to solve the Cube with a universal solution – with a set number of stages, one after another. According to the official Rubik’s Cube website,

Getting help with solving the Rubik’s Cube is not cheating. There are 42 Quintillion possibilities, but only one correct solution. Hence without knowing how to solve a Rubik’s Cube it is nearly impossible.

How much is a quintillion? You might think that it is a straightforward answer, but it isn’t. According to Dictionary.com, the Americans and Canadians take a quintillion to be 1 followed with 18 zeroes, while in Europe (including the UK) it is 1 followed by 30 zeroes. I’m not sure where Malaysia stands on this. Anyway, the exact number of possibilities is actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 – so I guess we’re on American count here – slightly disappointing, until you see a visualisation of a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 pennies:

And here’s a PPT of the math behind the Rubik’s Cube if anyone’s interested, and the solution itself.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, I found the universal solution, and started working on it. There are six stages, and at every stage you aim to accomplish a certain goal (for instance, making a white cross on one of the surfaces is the second stage.) It is simple enough to solve the problem with the manual, since anyone can just follow the set of instructions carefully, and complete it step by step. Right layer clockwise, left counterclockwise, upper clockwise, that sort of thing. The larger challenge (which also anyone can do, with a sufficient amount of stubbornness), is to internalise and memorise the patterns, to do it without referring to the manual.

Let it be known, that March 6, 2018 is the day that I was able to solve the Rubik’s Cube, reliably, without referring to the manual.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you, thank you 😀 It took me three months, but it was all worthwhile.

Actually I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile. The solution of the Rubik’s Cube, the one relying on the universal method anyway, is really not so much about creative brain work than rote memorisation; and as it turns out, it’s more about doing the same thing over and over again than anything else. (And I suppose, recognising certain recurring patterns, but I don’t think that’s the main thing.) The thing is, you practise the first few stages much more since you have to keep doing it every time you start over or mess up, and oftentimes, you don’t get far enough to finish everything. And since I rarely got up to the point where I could continue to the next stage, I just got stuck at Stage 4 for the longest time, and beyond that I would have to refer to the instructions.

Until yesterday, when I finally decided to sit down, use a pencil to break down the moves on paper in a way that I could memorise it properly, that I graduated. Meaning to say, if I had done that a month ago, I probably would have tried to write this post then and it would have been buried under a pile of broken drafts in my state of writer’s block. So I guess everything happens in due time, for a reason.

And if I can’t claim to be smarter after the whole process, at least I can claim to have had the perseverance to finish it. Maybe after a certain point I might try to dream up my own algorithm to make it more efficient (Google’s supercomputer has concluded that you only need a maximum of 20 moves to solve any combination, and that is known as God’s Number)… but as of now, I’m happy where I am, playing with the cube whenever I feel fidgety, with the knowledge that I can see it through from beginning till the end without relying on instructions.

I still don’t know why Party Guy chose me to impart his Rubik skills, as we didn’t talk much before or after the party. I don’t even remember his name, except that it starts with an S. It’s like he came into my life, dropped a combination bomb of the Cube and Go (which I’m also learning now), and left.

I’m glad.