Singaporean students are worldrenowned for their maths smarts - and a twist on this is that the hot puzzle of the moment, the Rubik's Cube, is proving too basic for some of them.
The original 3x3x3 cube that became popular in the 1970s - and which has undergone a revival in popularity - has nine cubes on each of six different coloured faces, but is regarded as too 'rube' by Singapore's brainboxes.
The clever cubers are turning to bigger ones with 4x4x4 configurations, with 16 cubes on each side, and even one known as 'the Professor's Cube', the ultra-challenging 5x5x5 with 25 on each face.
Mr Eric Chung, whose business CJ 917 Trading is the sole distributor of the original Rubik's Cube in Singapore, says sales of the bigger cubes have soared since last December, from 500 a year to 1,000 every three months.
The 37-year-old says: 'People usually start off with the 3x3x3 version and when they solve it, they get curious about how the bigger ones work and start asking for them. That leads to an increase in demand.'
Some of Singapore's super solvers are not content with those bigger brainteasers and are making their own more complicated versions of the puzzle invented by Hungarian architecture professor Enro Rubik in 1974. The aim is to rotate the cubes around a core until each side is correctly aligned by colour.
Such quiz kids are playing with more complicated formats such as 'Siamese' cubes. These are two 3x3x3 cubes joined together at one edge.
The conjoined cubes are for sale at retail chain Action City, whose outlets include one at Plaza Singapura. It imports them from Taiwan.
Some fans, such as students Venkat Kumaran of Clementi Town Secondary School and Frederick Choo of St Joseph's Institution, are even making these cubes themselves, modifying originals and joining them together with screws - and making money, too, by selling them.
The teens, both 15, say: 'The single cube is too simple for us and we wanted something more interesting to play with, so we thought of making them on our own.'
Spotting a demand for perplexing puzzles, the enterprising youngsters now sell a variety of cubes on their website, www.sgcube.co.nr. The price of the cubes ranges from $10 to $25.
Since their business started in October, they have sold about 250 puzzles a month.
The basic 3x3x3 cube still clicks with many Singaporeans though.
Sales have shot up from 1,000 last year to 10,000 every three months this year, says distributor Mr Chung, who sells them to retailers such as Comics Connection, Takashimaya and Isetan.
Each basic cube sells for $10.90, while the 4x4x4 ones cost $19.90 and the 5x5x5, $29.90.
Student Joanne Tan, 20, who started playing with a Rubik's Cube earlier this year, finally solved the puzzle after three months of trying.
Now, she is moving on to the more challenging 4x4x4. 'There was an overwhelming sense of achievement when I solved the puzzle and that is the main reason I am hooked on it.'
She adds: 'I look forward to solving the more challenging version in a shorter time.'
All it takes is seven minutes
Solving the toughest Rubik's Cube - the 5x5x5, with 25 cubes on each face - proved a no-brainer for student Frederick Choo.
The 15-year-old rose to the challenge issued by LifeStyle and took just seven minutes to rearrange the complicated puzzle back to its original form.
While the teenager is ranked among Singapore's top five 'cubers' in solving the 5x5x5 cube puzzle, the timing was not his personal best. After all, he has clocked in at slightly over four minutes.
Of his seven-minute result, he says: 'It may be slower than my previous timings but I haven't played with the bigger cubes in a very long time.'
He adds: 'I'll practise more at home to improve my timing and try again next time.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on 7 Dec, 2008.