WAIMEA — Matty Inaba is only 11, but he’s already talking retirement.
A couple years ago while visiting Japan with his family, Matty saw a Rubik’s Cube on a store shelf and had two immediate questions for his mother Rika: “What is it?” and “Can I have one?” Rika was hesitant to throw away the money. She’d had one as a child and never solved it, her disinterest quickly relegating the three-dimensional puzzle to a cube-shaped dust collector.
But Rika’s investment proved worthwhile. Her son mastered the mysteries of the cube, largely in self-taught fashion through algorithm study and YouTube tutorials. Then in mid-December, less than two years after laying eyes on one of the brain-teasing contraptions for the first time, Matty returned to the country where it all began as a participant in Japan’s National Rubik’s Cube competition.
After what he accomplished there, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the quick-thinking, baseball-loving Matty the Babe Ruth of the Rubik’s Cube — not only because he’s a prodigy, but because he called his shot.
“Adults are usually more realistic, so when he said, ‘I’m going to take the title for Japan Open,’ I’m saying ‘Oh sure, good luck, honey,’” Rika said, and laughed. “But in my mind, I’m like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Quite frankly, I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I felt kind of guilty about that for not believing in the possibilities.”
The fifth-grade student from Hawaii Preparatory Academy claimed victory in the 3x3x3 cube contest — defeating a field of 200 of Asia’s top puzzle solvers, most of whom were college students.
On his way to the title, Matty set a Japan Open solve time record of 5.58 seconds in the process. That’s also the 12th fastest time ever registered by an American and the 29th quickest solve in the history of Rubik’s Cube competitions worldwide.
“I just felt good,” Matty said with a smile.
Secrets to the solve
Most novices never have a chance.
“Most people try to solve side-to-side,” Matty explained, “but the real way you’re supposed to do it is layer by layer.”
There is some poetry to the process, as the solve itself is layered with elements of memorization, pattern recognition, logical deduction and strategic implementation.
Matty called it a sequence of steps, the first of which is identifying the case, or the situation on the cube. Matty looks the cube over, narrows down the number of possible cases from several dozen to a handful, then examines the corners to decipher the precise case.
He applies the relevant algorithm upon reaching the final layer and with finger dexterity and hand-eye coordination to inspire envy in surgeons and professional gamers alike, Matty races through a puzzle — that most could never solve — in a matter of mere seconds.
He said there’s not much to which he can compare the activity.
“This combination of the finger moves and the head and the eyes, it’s not really seen anywhere else,” Matty explained. “Maybe video games. I don’t play them, but I guess it’s kind of close.”
“The first word is like the case you have, then the equals, and the second word is what you’re going to do,” Matty said.
Matty, his mother Rika and his father Daryl are headed to Utah in July for the U.S. Nationals. If the timing works out, he’ll attend another competition in Japan in 2018, as well.
Rika said Red Bull is in talks to co-sponsor a worldwide championship. If that gets off the ground, a qualifying tournament and potentially the worldwide finals in Boston are also in Matty’s future.
But he’s not looking to cube for the rest of his life. Matty is a young man of varied interests — baseball, basketball and occasionally skateboarding, just to name a few.
His family is of Japanese heritage, and he hopes one day to attend college there and get an education on the cutting edge of technology and robotics.
Matty is also fascinated by engines, saying he hopes one day to become a computer engineer working in the auto industry in some capacity.
As for the competition circuit, Hawaii Island’s own Babe Ruth of the Rubik’s Cube said he thinks he’ll hang up his proverbial cleats come freshman year, which leaves Matty with another three and a half years to see just how far his puzzle-solving skills can take him.
“I want to retire by like high school, because there was this one guy … he’s like a giant and he was in a kids’ competition and he kind of looked weird,” Matty said. “I want to be not so tall by the time I retire so I don’t look like a weirdo.”