The gymnasium was a blur of spinning colours at a recent speedcubing event in Montreal April 6, at which two teens from Eeyou Istchee performed impressively. Walter Duff, from Chisasibi, and Waswanipi’s Malachi Saganash were among the 120 competitors participating in the increasingly popular sport, which involves solving a variety of twisty puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube as quickly as possible.
Duff was the more experienced “cuber” of the two at the Montreal Limited Winter 2019 competition, despite being only 14 years old. He has participated in events across Canada and as far away as Paris over the last three years thanks to the generous support of his parents and many in the Cree Nation through various fundraising efforts.
“In every competition I improve by at least one event,” Duff told the Nation. “My performance in Montreal was great. I had four podiums. Three of them were in third place and one was in second place.”
His efforts are earning national attention, especially since setting a Canadian record for solving a combination puzzle called a Skewb in just 1.83 seconds last year. Already a world-class competitor, he is within a second or two of achieving a world record in multiple cubing categories.
“With each competition I’m getting closer to a world record, a goal I set three years ago,” said Duff. “It’s within reach.”
Saganash would also love to achieve a world record, although his immediate goal is solving the cube in less than 10 seconds – his current average is about 16 seconds. This was his first-ever speedcubing competition.
“My first time solving a cube was probably nine months ago,” said Saganash. “I just really enjoy it… I tried learning blindfolded over the weekend but it’s pretty hard.”
In World Cubing Association (WCA) events like this, competitors attempt five solves from which the best and worst times are eliminated to form an average. Besides solving the standard Rubik’s Cube, there are one-handed and blindfolded categories as well as competitions for differently shaped puzzles called the Megaminx and Pyraminx.
Saganash placed in the mid-30s in multiple events, cheered on by his extended family. He plans to compete again in Ottawa in May and said his skills are already getting him recognized on the street, making him “feel kind of famous.”
“For a 15-year-old, he’s so intelligent, so quick,” said his cousin, Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash. “I got emotional watching him because I’m really proud of the young man he is becoming.”
Duff now has his sights on the WCA’s World Championship this summer in Melbourne, Australia, having shown much improvement since the last one in Paris two years ago. His completion times noticeably improved after his father initiated a physical training regimen last spring.
“He really improved a lot when I started training him physically,” explained Warren Duff. “I want to build his muscle memory. That’s the way to do it if you want to control those muscles.”
For Warren, seeing his son’s social skills improve as he makes friends with peers from around the world has been the most rewarding aspect of speedcubing. The cubing community is rooted in mutual respect, with even supposed rivals happy to share their secrets for success.
“Times aside, what keeps people coming back is community,” reflected Dave Campbell, who has been promoting the sport in Canada since co-founding canadianCUBING in 2007, which hosted the recent Montreal event.
“We created the organization as one central place where people could find out about competitions in Canada and find their community,” said Campbell. “For a lot of kids it becomes this bond with their parents – at some point they’ll look back on it and think that was something our family did, we traveled to these places and met so many people.”
The internet has been instrumental in reviving interest in the Rubik’s Cube, which had been rather dormant since first becoming a global craze in the early 1980s. Websites that spread effective solving methods attracted a new generation of cubers and led to the second world championship in Toronto in 2003, 20 years after the first one.
Online communities have allowed such niche pastimes to flourish, enabling even those in remote locations to find each other and exchange preferred techniques. Shortly after first picking up his cousin’s cube at age 10, Duff advanced his skills using YouTube videos and has recently been using online messaging to pass along his knowledge.
“I’ve been teaching kids from the Philippines online,” said Duff. “Teaching them online really improved the way I explain things because before I had a hard time.”
While the timeless toy’s growing popularity has created emerging business opportunities, only a few people currently make decent part-time incomes from speedcubing. That’s beside the point for most cubers, who value the tangible sense of challenge and progress achieved from solving the puzzles in increasingly faster times.
“I don’t know if anyone will ever make so much money that they don’t need to go out and find a career but you never know – I never thought someone would solve it in four seconds,” said Campbell. He added that the availability of free time might explain why the majority of cubers are teenagers, as could easily be witnessed at the Montreal event.
“Malachi has just started and he’s already really good – imagine in three years,” Labrecque-Saganash enthused, referencing Duff’s relative experience on the speedcubing circuit. “Whatever a Cree is doing, we’re always behind them.”
Walter Duff and his father visited the Saganash family at the event, pleased to see another Cree competing. While organizing events, Campbell remembers meeting Duff a few years ago when he was in the middle of the pack and knows that improvement can come quickly.
“I love that Walter has found it and it’s made such a difference in his life,” Campbell said. “When I look at him, I see someone who is driven and if he wants to be one of the best then he absolutely will be. It’s exciting and I can’t wait to see where he goes with it.”