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Uncommonwealth: Fayette teen world-class at solving Rubik's cubes

ctruman@herald-leader.comAugust 4, 2014 

Many of us have tried to work a Rubik's cube. The once-trendy multi-colored cube was, in the 1980s, a go-to gift, key chain and party favor.

Now it's the source of worldwide competitions, YouTube channels and enthusiast websites such as CubingUSA.com.

And a Lexington teenager is one of the best competitive cubers there is.

Watching Lucas Etter, 13, solve his cubes in the dining room of his family's home off Todds Road is like watching a master at work. In seconds, Lucas can solve a variety of cubes — the Rubik's patent having expired, they are now often referred simply as cubes — by calling upon the alchemy of muscle memory and algorithms he has memorized.

The Edythe J. Hayes Middle School eighth-grader can solve cubes without looking at them after his initial cursory glance to see where the tiles have been set. He can solve cubes with one hand. (Players also are allowed to solve cubes with their feet.)

Lucas is the current Guinness World Record co-record-holder for "fastest average time to solve a 2x2x2 Rubik's Cube." His fastest average time of 1.69 seconds occurred during a July 12 competition at the University of Michigan.

He just won the national 2x2 cubing title, beating 370 competitors at the weekend tournament in Jersey City. He was seventh out of roughly 500 in 3x3, sixth in 4x4 out of roughly 290 competitors and 10th in Skewb (eight corner pieces and six square face pieces).

He has competed since he was 9, when he was a student at Athens-Chilesburg Elementary School. He discovered speed cubing on YouTube.

"You have to have special skills," Lucas said. "I try not to get too cocky."

Lucas admits that sometimes he gets nervous and that he finds being filmed during competition intimidating, but he works through the jitters to perform the best he can. "I don't think about it," he said of his flying fingers. "I just do."

Lucas is gunning for a second event record in the 3x3, where he was a fraction of a second slow on a recent try.

As a middle school student, Lucas has been recognized for his math skills and by the Duke Talent Identification Program for scoring a 27 out of a possible 36 on the ACT exam as a seventh-grader. He often works on cubing for two to three hours a day, depending on his schoolwork load.

His mother, Fayette County public schools computer network administrator Dana Mendenhall-Etter, remembers then 3-year-old Lucas looking at houses while on vacation and observing, "Mommy, those houses are very symmetrical."

That's when she knew she had a child with gifts both spatial and special.

Watching a cubing competition is like watching an the Olympic sport of curling if you shoved it into a Mixmaster with the game of chess. You have to understand both the strategic brain power and physical dexterity that contribute to a successful player. During a cubing competition, the cube is set in a scrambled formation and covered. When it is uncovered, the player gets a few seconds to examine the formations of each side. While their brains are whirring to find the proper set of turns to solve the cube, they must momentarily put their hands on the table, rather like stopping at a four-way intersection just long enough to look around.

Then, the player picks up the cube and in a whirl of manipulation, solves it by making each side a single color.

Cubing draws a disproportionate number of young men. Lucas estimates that only about five percent of competitors are girls. Lucas specializes in the 2x2, 3x3 and 4x4 cubes. He uses a computer website that generates scrambles for the cubes he practices with.

Other cubes that also draw competitors are: the Megaminx (dodecahedron-shaped), Pyraminx (pyramid), Square-1 (it can change shape), Rubik's Clock (nine clocks that need to be set to 12 o'clock), Skewb, 6x6 cube and 7x7 cube.

Competitive cubing also draws well geographically: Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam hosted a 2013 tournament. The French have a national speed-cubing association, the Association Francaise de Speedcubing (Speedcubingfrance.org). Brazil, Thailand and Romania have national speed-cubing sites.

Lucas won the Keep Austin Weird 2014 competition in July. Other 2014 American tournaments will be held in Los Angeles; Morrisville, Pa.; Fishers, Ind.; Clarksville, Md.; and Mishawaka, Ind.

The bounty to be collected by being a master speed cuber is minimal: usually certificates and a bit of pocket money. Etter's parents — father Paul Etter is a Lexmark engineer — pay for his travel.

Lucas would like to have a corporate sponsor, particularly as he is now a nationally recognized speed-cuber.

In addition to academic success and setting cubing records, Lucas plays baseball in the Eastern Little League, where he pitches and plays outfield.

He is delighted to have made friends across the nation at cubing competitions.

"Most kids don't want to sit around and talk about algorithms all day," Dana Mendenhall-Etter said.

His goals for the future are modestly stated but ambitious: "I just want to stay successful, go to a good college and get a good job."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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