Young Ric Donati is a wiz at solving Rubik's puzzles. He's competed at MIT and is headed to the national championships in Las Vegas.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In a lot of ways, Ric Donati is a typical sixth-grader.
He plays soccer. He plays baseball. He is looking forward to his summer vacation, especially an August trip to Las Vegas. He is not particularly fond of math class.
Oh, and he's good with a Rubik's Cube.
So good in fact that the "trip to Las Vegas" is not just a matter of fun in the sun. Ric is going west to compete in the World Cube Association's U.S. National Championships.
The Williamstown Elementary School student began mastering the retro three-dimensional puzzle in February 2011 ... a couple of months after he received one as a Christmas present.
It was not exactly love at first sight, he explained.
"I had seen it in a store and asked, 'Can I get this for Christmas?'" Ric said. "After Christmas, I put it down, and about two months later, I saw my dad trying to solve it by looking at his computer. He left for work, and I kept looking at what he was looking at. And from there, we solved it that night, after about five or six hours, using a tutorial on YouTube."
After that, Ric Donati was hooked.
What once may have taken him five hours these days takes about 15 seconds.
His personal best time in competition was 12.71 seconds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Spring tournament this past February in Cambridge.
Ric's mom, Anne, jokingly refers to his passion as "a little bit of his geek side," but talk to him and it's apparent that is competitive streak is a driving force.
"There was another part of the (YouTube) tutorial at the end about how to get faster doing it," Ric said. "So I looked at that after I memorized how to do it the regular way. After I saw that, I said, 'Whoa, people try to do this for speed?' There are some really, really fast people out there.
"That made me want to get faster."
And it drove him to his first competition, in Bridgeport, Conn., a year ago this weekend.
Since then, Ric has competed in five more events throughout New England — once at Harvard, twice at Yale and twice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The tournaments draw competitors from throughout the country to test their skills not only on the classic six-sided, 54-square puzzle the became a pop culture sensation in the 1970s but on similar puzzles ranging from the 2-by-2 cube (four squares per side) to the 12-sided Megaminx, a puzzle with 50 movable parts compared to the 20 parts in the original Rubik's Cube.
Ric owns at least one version of each of the puzzles he competes on, and he trains up to an hour and a half per day, though right now he manages to squeeze in just 20 minutes per day between school and sports.
One of the reasons he is looking forward to the Las Vegas trip is that it will allow him to renew acquaintances with some of the friends he has made in the cubing community.
For last month's competition in New Haven, Conn., the Donatis stayed at a house owned by the grandparents of a boy Ric befriended at his very first cubing tournament.
"Everyone's very nice at these events," Anne Donati said.
She should know. Like Ric's father, Martino, and younger sister, Julia, Anne Donati has taken the plunge into competition herself, posting an impressive average of 2.76 seconds to solve a Rubik's Magic puzzle.
Ric also has recruited competitors from outside the family, taking sixth-grade classmate Jacob Adams to this year's MIT Spring tournament. A third Williamstown youngster, homeschooler Tommy Kirby, competed with Ric at MIT last fall.
That's a pretty good core of local "cubists," but there may be more than that. An "Adventures in Learning" program at Williamstown Elementary taught by Williams College math professor Mihai Stoiciu drew a dozen enthusiastic fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Although puzzles like the Rubik's Cube can teach important math lessons, for Ric Donati that is not the main point.
"I don't really like math," he said. "There is a way to solve it with math. But to me, it has nothing to do with math at all. It's just memorizing stuff."
Stoiciu offered to help the Donatis organize a World Cube Association event at the college, but those plans will have to wait a while, Anne said. Stoiciu is going on sabbatical next year, but the 2013-14 school year is a definite possibility.
But that's way down the road. The near future is exciting enough for Ric.
"I'm looking forward to Las Vegas," he said. "People I know have gone, and they say it's really great."
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