Long Island's Rowe Hessler and Scotland's Breandan Vallance, two of the world's fastest "speedcubers," are more friends than rivals this weekend in Ohio, where they're competing in the Rubik's Cube national championships.
Hessler, 20, is the defending puzzle-solving champion, but he and top challenger Vallance, 19, flew to Columbus together.
Hessler and his parents even hosted Vallance at their Shirley home for a friendly, pretournament visit.
"If I come in early, can I hang out with you in New York?" Vallance asked Hessler, who was more than happy to oblige.
The camaraderie belies the intense competition between the cubers -- and the split seconds that separate them.
After Saturday's second round at Ohio State University, Vallance and Hessler were in fourth and fifth place, respectively -- 0.33 of a second apart. There were among the 32 who advanced to Sunday's final rounds.
Each participant gets five chances to solve the cube. The fastest and slowest times are thrown out; the average is calculated from the middle three.
"I'm usually better at the end of the day," said Hessler, whose fastest times were recorded in his last two attempts. He also posted the second-fastest single time of the day: 8.63 seconds.
Although considered a national championship, the competition is open to anyone in the world. It's a rematch of sorts between Vallance and Hessler, who finished fourth in the 2009 World Rubik's Cube Championship in Düsseldorf, Germany. Vallance won the title. The two have been friends since the 2009 event.
By average time, Hessler is the No. 4-ranked speedcuber in the world. Vallance is 24th.
Hessler, the youngest of three children, always had a keen sense of spatial relationships, his mother, Celeste Hessler, said. "I think he got it from my dad," she said, referring to her engineer father.
Rowe Hessler received his first Rubik's Cube from his aunt as a Christmas present in 2006. He immediately became obsessed with the puzzle, going online to find instructions on how to solve it.
By the following spring, he had entered his first tournament, at Cornell University. He has since competed in about 40.