Cube conqueror: Freshman Toby Mao's special talent

    Toby Mao’s weapons are his hands. Gripping his adversary in his palms, he waits for the signal to begin, and then the scene becomes a mass of knotted knuckles. This fight is a race against the clock, keeping Mao twisting and turning until he finally slams his enemy down against the table: a cube of colored squares.


    Mao solves a cube in his dorm room. Photo by Asha Toulmin / North by Northwestern.

    Toby, a Weinberg freshman from San Francisco, holds the twenty-fourth-ranked average fastest time in the world for solving a Rubik’s cube, and the sixth fastest single time in the world with 10.48 seconds, according to the World Cube Association’s official results.

    He answers questions with a direct stare, giving information in an offhand manner that makes his answers seem ordinary, even though he’s talking about world records. Toby doesn’t mention that he taught Will Smith how to solve a cube for The Pursuit of Happyness, or that he introduced his brother Tyson to speed solving — the Tyson Mao now known as the “Rubik’s Cube Master” to people who watched the second season of Beauty and the Geek.

    Even Toby’s dorm room in Shepard Residential College is understated, with no posters on the walls and no medals or awards on display. Only a collection of four or five cubes on the desk hints at the colorful activity that keeps his thumbs from twitching.

    Toby first learned how to solve the cube in the summer of 2003 when a resident adviser at a summer program called CTY (Center for Talented Youth) introduced him to it. From there he began participating in tournaments, which he says are “are open to anyone” who registers on the World Cube Association’s website.

    “[Speed solving] is fun, and you can improve at it even if it seems pointless,” Toby says. “And it’s a good way to pick up the chicks.”

    Since getting involved with speed cubing, Toby has traveled to places ranging from Hungary to Los Angeles to compete. He has also been mentioned in newspapers and solved a cube on one of Taiwan’s most popular TV programs. He even speaks the slang, throwing out words like “cuber” (someone who speed-solves Rubik’s cubes), “F2L” (first two layers), “POL” (permute outer layer) and “OLL” (orient last layer).

    “It’s easy… There’s no math involved,” Toby says. “Just go to google and type in ‘Rubik’s cube solution.’”

    Although Toby says that people introduce him as “the Rubik’s cube kid,” when he first met his roommate Alex Morgan, a McCormick freshman, Mao didn’t even mention “cubing” at all.

    “He’s not constantly talking about it,” Morgan says. “He solves a cube maybe once or twice a week. People are always coming in and asking him to do it.”

    Toby says self-improvement is at the heart of why he cubes — and also why he practices cello, plays Starcraft and learns Dvorak typing. Even before the World Rubik’s Cube Championship 2007 in early October, Toby insisted that he was more focused on cello and school than on preparing for the competition.

    “It seems like whatever he does he makes sure that he’s really, really good at it,” Morgan said.

    Video by Asha Toulmin / North by Northwestern


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