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So you want to learn to solve a Rubik’s cube? The 4.3 quintillion possible facelet combinations may lead you to believe that completing a scrambled cube is impossible – or at least a feat attainable by only those with Herculean mental capacity. I can attest autobiographically that the cube may be intimidating, but certainly not impossible. Unable to solve a cube three months ago, I can now routinely solve one in under a minute, giving it nary a thought. My wife jokes that it’s become my stressball, since I spin the faces almost subconsciously at this point as we watch TV.
Building off the very good work of several others (especially RobH0629, from whose excellent Beginner Tutorial videos I originally learned), I wanted to create a highly approachable tutorial that would demystify the cube – turning its solution from an other-worldly feat to a nearly brainless habit. You will feel overwhelmed as you go through it, and you will ask yourself how anyone could possibly memorize all of the steps. I asked myself the same, and was certain I’d never commit it to memory. At this point, it’s beyond memory — it’s auto-mechanical muscle memory.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that I’m not the world’s best cuber — never will be, and, frankly, do not aspire to be. Spend a couple minutes on youtube and you’ll find hundreds of folks who can regularly solve a cube in less than 20 seconds (never mind Feliks and his 5.6 second solve). I do enjoy cubing, however, and I’ve found great satisfaction in teaching it to others. Two of my friend-pupils are now competent cubers. In two weeks, both went from not being able to solve a cube to regularly solving it in about a minute.
So, don’t sweat it. Follow along closely, practice a lot, and you’ll be there in no time.
Some Basic Facts
There are some basic facts about a standard 3x3x3 cube that, however obvious, are helpful to keep in mind. There are six faces, with nine stickers each (54 stickers), comprised from 26 separate cubies/cublets/pieces. Each face has:
- 1 center piece, with a single sticker (smack in the middle)
- 4 edge pieces, each with two stickers (form a cross or a plus-sign with the center piece )
- 4 corner pieces, each with three stickers
Except for the six center pieces, all of the other pieces move. Because the center pieces are stationary, we use them to define the color of each face. On a standard cube, opposite to one another are the yellow and white faces, red and orange, and green and blue. Most cubers solve with the white face pointing down and yellow up. Positioned that way, and viewed from the top, the other four faces run clockwise: red, blue, orange, green.
This tutorial relies on standard notation to describe each move. With the cube held in front of you, here is the notation for the six faces:
- U = UP (top) face
- D = DOWN (bottom) face
- R = RIGHT face
- L = LEFT face
- F = FRONT face
- B = BACK face
A letter used by itself (e.g., F) means that you turn that face clockwise 90 degrees. A letter with an apostrophe after it (e.g., F’) means that you turn that face counter-clockwise 90 degrees. A letter with a two after it (e.g., F2) means that you turn that face 180 degrees; the direction doesn’t matter.
When determining the direction (clockwise vs. counter-clockwise), envision that face turning on the axis that runs from the core of the cube through the face. That means that the front face turns as though you’re looking at a clock. The back face (when it’s facing away from you) turns the opposite way with B’ turning the same direction as F. The same is true of the left/right and top/bottom faces: L’ turns the same direction as R, and D’ turns the same direction as U.
If you have Java enabled, visit Bob Burton’s and Jon Morris’ notation pages to see animated versions of each move. For purposes of this tutorial, you can ignore the more complicated middle slice and two-slice turns shown there.
If you’ve poked around the web for Rubik’s tutorials, no doubt you’ve seen the word “algorithm” a lot. People often think of algorithms as mathematical formulas, and that’s right. But this second definition from Merriam-Webster is the one that applies in this context:
al·go·rithm | noun \ˈal-gə-ˌri-thəm\ – (2) broadly : a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer
As “step-by-step procedure[s],” cube algorithms list the sequence of face turns that are required to complete a step. A common algorithm is R U R’. That means “RIGHT face clockwise; UP face clockwise; RIGHT face counter-clockwise.” It is quite common to sandwich moves between inverses (like the U between the R and the R’). That is because each algorithm tries to accomplish a specific result without disturbing parts of the cube that are already solved. By reversing the opening moves, the algorithm will leave intact as much as possible.
Chances are high that you’ve got a fairly new name-brand Rubik’s cube in front of you. It may be decades old in terms of vintage, but my guess is that it hasn’t been twisted and turned that much — probably tossed in a drawer at some point out of frustration. That means it’s going to be stiff. Very stiff. I plan on writing a more thorough post on how to modify and break-in a cube (fine sand, silicone grease, and gobs of patience). And I certainly will be writing more about alternatives to the Rubik’s brand cubes — speed cubes that function amazingly out of the box. For now, I’ll keep it simple: Turn your cube a lot. Haphazardly if you want. Just use it. Scramble it. Turn the faces over and over and over again. It will loosen up quickly.
And now, with nothing further ado, let’s get cubing….