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They got algorithm

To Eli Wimmer and Eli Westrick, a Rubik's Cube is more than a convenient diversion to pass the time on long car rides, more than an intellectually stimulating alternative to video games. It’s a sport.

And like all sports, speed-cubing requires discipline.

“I’ve been practicing almost every day,” said Westrick, 12, a seventh-grader at Ashland Middle School. “Since that first day there’s not been a day when I didn’t have a cube in my hand. So I’ve been practicing for a while now and it pays off.”

Westrick and Wimmer, also 12, will put their talents to the test at the Rose City Cubing Competition, Jan. 31, in Portland. The two Elis — dubbed “Eli squared” — are trying to raise enough money through local cubing exhibitions to fund the trip, which will end with the first cubing competition for both. So far they’ve raised $165 toward their $200 goal by parking themselves at tables and solving scrambled cubes for cash. They raised $100 at the Ashland Food Co-op and another $65 at Sammich on Tuesday.

They have at least one more fundraiser planned. They’ll be at Sammich (424 Bridge St.) again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m Saturday. Any customer who beats Wimmer or Westrick head on gets a free sandwich. Those who challenge Wimmer or Westrick to a duel should come with their fingers loosened and puzzle-solving instincts sharpened. Both can solve a fully scrambled three-by-three cube in about 20 seconds, sometimes less.

A video on the Mail Tribune website stands as proof. Wimmer, wearing a sweatshirt with the sleeves pulled up to his elbows, boasts: “Hi, I’m Eli Wimmer, and I’m going to solve the Rubik's Cube in 20 seconds,” then snatches up the scrambled cube in front of him and begins spinning rows of square colors so fast his fingers and the cube itself become a tangled blur of rotating rainbows. It’s far too fast to recognize any discernable pattern, but one exists.

The Rubik's Cube, explains Wimmer, can be solved using complex algorithms — step-by-step instruction manuals that speed-cubers keep locked away, upstairs. His unofficial time Tuesday: 17.5 seconds. His average is 20 to 21 seconds.

“To solve it, all you have to do is memorize algorithms and, to get fast, you have to practice and look up better algorithms and better techniques,” he said.

So, every possible scramble combination, no matter how complex, is always a set number of spins away from being solved, and for those who have memorized the algorithm — the steps — required the only variable that remains is how fast they can push the cube’s pivot mechanism. And it can be pushed pretty far. The world record for solving a three-by-three cube is held by the Netherlands’ Matt Valk, who in 2013 was clocked at 5.5 seconds, a time that would be difficult to believe if not for the YouTube video, which has been viewed 947,284 times.

Wimmer and Westrick both are relative newbies to the world of speed-cubing.

For Wimmer, it happened by accident. A few weeks after Christmas 2013, his brother’s friend dropped by their house with a Rubik's Cube in hand. The friend said he could solve it and did, which sparked Wimmer’s curiosity. Soon, the friend taught Wimmer how to solve it, and he’s been hooked ever since.

“I just started watching YouTube videos on it and there are a ton of people making videos,” said Wimmer, who said he has about 15 to 20 cubes in a wide range of shapes and sizes. “They were doing it insanely fast and I was wondering if I could do it as fast as them. So I was figuring out what they were doing and learning from there.”

As he became more skilled he started showing off for friends. One of those friends was Westrick, who had a Rubik's Cube for years but was never really interested in it — until he saw Wimmer spinning away.

“It seemed like a fun thing to do at the time,” Westrick said.

That was about six months ago. Now, Westrick picks up a cube — they come in many different forms, from the classic three-by-three to seven-by-seven, from Pyraminx to Megaminx — daily, puzzling out its algorithms and recording his conquests. Once you figure out how it works, he says, it becomes even more fun to solve it and keep track of your progress.

“This takes up all my free time, in a good way I think,” he said. “I’ve been doing it a lot more than anything else now. I’ve been totally obsessed with it for six months straight. Usually, I give up on stuff pretty quickly but not this, and just looking up videos of people solving cubes makes me see how good I could be and that’s what presses me to keep going.”

All the way to Portland, in two weeks, when Westrick and Wimmer will face off against some of the best speed-cubers in the region. Wimmer says he’ll sign up for six events, including two-by-two, four-by-four and five-by-five. Other events include one-handed and blindfolded.

The format is simple. Competitors are matched up against each other, one versus one. Times from several, possibly five, solves are recorded and the speed-cuber with the best average wins.

“I’m definitely going to be nervous because I really want to do good,” Wimmer said.

Same for Westrick, who, like Wimmer, has played Little League baseball for years and knows what it’s like to compete. To help take the edge off, Westrick will try to focus on the fact that it is just a game.

“My goal there is to have a good time,” he said. “I’m just trying to have some fun.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Eli Wimmer, 12, of Ashland, solves a Rubik's Cube at Sammich in Ashland on Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Eli Wimmer, 12, and Eli Westrick, 12, of Ashland, solve Rubik's Cubes at Sammich in Ashland on Tuesday.Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch