How did Israelis get hooked on Rubik’s cube?

The Israeli Rubik’s Cube Championship, which took place in Rehovot, in cooperation with the Weizmann Institute of Science, attracted hundreds of participants. 

 COLORFUL COLLECTION of cubes. (photo credit: Gerwin Sturm/Flickr)
COLORFUL COLLECTION of cubes.
(photo credit: Gerwin Sturm/Flickr)

“Over the last six months, the Rubik’s cube has made an incredible comeback,” says Hagai Shafir, the Rubik’s cube representative in Israel. “We’ve seen a dramatic spike in sales recently, as more and more people become interested in the game.” 

Last month, the Israeli Rubik’s Cube Championship, which took place in Rehovot, in cooperation with the Weizmann Institute of Science, attracted hundreds of participants

“Every single item that we import gets snatched up the second we put it on the shelf.”

Hagai Shafir

“Every single item that we import gets snatched up the second we put it on the shelf,” Shafir continues. “We’re having a hard time keeping up with the skyrocketing demand, since there have been so many delays in shipping times all over the world. We keep increasing the number of products we’re purchasing, and we still can’t keep up with demand, including a whole slew of similar items.”

How do you explain this sudden renewed interest in the Rubik’s cube?

“I assume it’s due to posts and videos on social media – mostly on TikTok – by influencers who’ve started playing with it,” explains Shafir. “People see kids and teens doing incredible stuff on videos, and so they want to join the action, too. Their thought process is: If you succeed in solving the Rubik’s cube quickly, then your friends are going to think you’re cool. And to do that, you need to practice a lot.

 MURAL HONORING Erno Rubik, inventor of the eponymous cube, on Budapest’s Dob Street. (credit: Bex Walton/Flickr) MURAL HONORING Erno Rubik, inventor of the eponymous cube, on Budapest’s Dob Street. (credit: Bex Walton/Flickr)

“The first Rubik’s cube was created by Erno Rubik in 1974. Rubik is a Hungarian inventor, sculptor and professor of architecture. The cube first gained popularity in the 1980s, and over the years new versions have been manufactured, such as the pyramid, the sphere, and the octahedron. Nowadays, all sorts of shapes and configurations are available in stores, with prices ranging from NIS 40 to NIS 170. 

“A new item called Rubik’s Phantom cube will soon be appearing in stores worldwide. Its shape is similar to the classic 3x3x3 cube, except all the sides are black. The cube uses an innovative thermochromic technology to temporarily reveal the tile color. In other words, only when you touch one of the tiles with your finger does the heat from your body make the color appear. When you lift up your finger, the tile quickly cools down and turns back to black. We’re expecting record-breaking sales, so we’ve already ordered 15,000 of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if our stock gets gobbled up within two hours.”

THE COMPETITION that took place last month in Rehovot was the sixth-largest in the world. Over 250 Israeli youth and adults hailing from all over the country took part in the 17 matches, each with a distinct type of cube. In one of the contests, the participants had to solve the cube with only one hand and blindfolded. “We had many new contestants this year,” adds Shafir. 

One of the organizers of the competition was Ital Batzir Alsheh, who holds the innovation and entrepreneurship portfolio in the Rehovot Municipality. “The first competition took place at the Weizmann Institute in 2010,” she explains. “We are working hard for Israel to be selected as the host country of next year’s international world cup competition. This year, we had only 15 girls competing in the age six to 16 range. We see all around the world that fewer women are engaging in math-related activities. It is my hope that we will see more girls and women participating in our competition next year.”

Among the participants in the competition was Amit Sheffer, 37, a computer programmer from Tzur Yitzchak, who was also one of the organizers of the championship. Sheffer and Rotem Yifrah are the Israeli representatives of the World Cube Association (WCA). 

In addition to his activism with the WCA, Sheffer is also a collector. His cube collection includes 200 items, which he proudly displays on a shelf in his home office. “One day while I was carrying out my IDF military service, I found a cube lying around. I picked it up and started fiddling with it, and the rest is history,” Sheffer says with a smile.

“I would buy every cube I could get my hands on. For every single birthday, I asked for a cube. I have lots of unique cubes in my collection, lots of different shapes and sizes. I’m totally addicted to playing with the cubes, so I always make sure to have one or another in my bag, regardless of where I’m going. I bought one for my daughter, who’s three now, even before she was born. She hasn’t managed to solve it yet, but she plays with it all the time. Sometimes she’ll bring it to me and say, ‘Abba, fix it.’”

When do you most often play with a cube?

“Wherever I happen to be. I always have one sitting on my desk so that when I’m between projects, I can pick it up and fiddle with it for a few minutes,” says Sheffer. “It’s fun and relaxing for me. And by the way, all the cubes I have at home must always be solved. That’s something that you’ll find across the board among cube lovers.”

What aspect do you find most challenging in playing with cubes all the time?

“I’m always trying to improve my technique and beat my own records. I really enjoy engaging in this activity. I can solve a classic cube in about 13 or 14 seconds. Over the years, I’ve participated in 17 competitions in Israel. In 2017, I competed in the international championship in France. This year, I’m going to compete in the contests involving the 2x2 cube and the 7x7 cube,” says Sheffer.

ANOTHER COMPETITOR was Amit Shachori, 23, from Kibbutz Mizra, who assembles pictures and portraits from hundreds of cubes

“The first time I ever put my hands on a cube was in third grade,” Shachori recalls, “but I didn’t really spend much time playing with it at the time, since I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. Then, when I turned 13, I picked one up again, and that time I had a bit more success. I’d improved a lot and started participating in competitions. I even broke a few Israeli records.

“At first, I had fun just solving cubes. Later on, I realized there were so many different ways of understanding the cube and techniques for solving it. I spent a lot of time learning, researching and studying other methods. This opened up a whole new world for me. I was meeting interesting people at the competitions, and I made lots of new friends. I became part of the community. In the 2017 championships, I took second place in the regular competition. In 2016, I broke an Israeli record for solving a cube with one hand. In 2014, I broke the Israeli record for solving a cube with my feet. That division, however, is no longer part of the competition.”

How did you start creating portraits out of the cubes?

“In 2016, I participated in the world championship in Prague,” says Shachori. “As is common at most of these gatherings, everyone brings a bunch of their own cubes, and then people arrange them in order to create a huge picture. I took part in this activity, and I was amazed by the image that was created. It was really impressive, and I thought – hey, I could do something like this. I wanted to create an image that I would break down into pixels using the colors on the cubes. Once I’ve created a sketch, I solve each cube accordingly. So when I’m at competitions, I make a huge portrait on the floor with the help of all the participants. When I do this at home, I prepare a large drawing, and then I solve the cube according to the sketch and lay the cubes down on the drawing. For example, a picture using 500 cubes can take me about two-and-a-half hours to complete.”

Is it hard having to disassemble the picture after you’re done?

“Yes, of course, but I know that soon I’ll be working on a new one, so in that respect it’s not a big deal,” he says.

ONE OF the newest participants in this year’s competition was Ilan Miller, 47, a lawyer from Tel Aviv. He attended with his sons Daniel, 11, and Adam, 7. 

“This is the first time I’m going to be a participant, but my kids took part in a competition a few months ago. They are the ones who brought this madness into our family,” Miller explains. “A couple of years ago, on Purim, when Daniel was in third grade and Adam was in kindergarten, Daniel decided he was going to dress up as a Rubik’s cube.

“Daniel hadn’t succeeded in solving one yet at that point. So we took a big box and made his Purim costume out of it. He told us, ‘If I’m going to dress up as a Rubik’s cube, I guess I’ll need to learn how to solve it.’ He began watching YouTube videos to learn techniques. He in turn taught them to me, and I taught them to Adam. Then COVID-19 hit and we were all isolated at home, so we had a lot of time on our hands. We spent hours and hours playing with the cubes. We learned more techniques, practiced a lot, and slowly we all improved, to the point where we were ready to take part in a competition. We’re not at the level of winning, but we’re good enough to join in the fun and get a certificate for participating. For my kids, this has been an extraordinary experience, and they are eager to find new types of cubes.”

Do you hold competitions at home among family members?

“Of course – all the time. Both my kids beat me every time. Daniel is the quickest, but Adam is not far behind. I always bring up the rear, so I have a goal to aspire to. I need to spend more hours practicing if I want to reach it. There are cubes spread out all over our house – in the living room, in the kids’ bedrooms. Sometimes we’ll sit around for an hour or two learning new techniques on YouTube. 

“But sometimes one of us will figure out a new way to solve it on our own while we’re discussing possible solutions. It’s incredibly exciting when that happens,” says Miller.■

Translated by Hannah Hochner.