I’m gonna sit right down and write myself 3,295 letters

(Contains spoilers for the final puzzle of the tournament.)

Hundreds of people compete each year at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the vast majority of these people have no expectation of winning anything. A couple dozen people will win trophies, and precisely nine people will get to compete onstage in the finals — three each from the A, B, and C divisions. Everyone else will watch from the audience.

But everyone’s gotta have a goal, heading into the tournament, even if it’s as general as “improve a little” or “not fall back too much” or “try not to make any errors.” My goal tends to take the form of certain solvers around me, people I have nominated as my personal pace cars: They can be found near me in the standings (by which I mean, ahead of me). These are the people I compete with, a mini-tournament within the larger tournament, except that my rivals don’t know that I am gunning for them.

It’s a random group of friends and strangers. My friend Kevin Wald is one of them; so is the former New York Times ombudsman Dan Okrent, with whom I have exchanged maybe ten words over the years. There’s a particular woman from Connecticut on my list — I always look for her name when I’m checking the scores, like some kind of crossword stalker. Punch line: I don’t even know what this woman looks like.

But if there’s one person I’m really trying to catch, it’s my friend Amy Goldstein. To me, she represents a skill level I might realistically attain someday, but only if I perform at my very best.

Each year, it seems possible: For the first few puzzles of the tournament, I am able to keep pace with her, or at least not drag too far behind.

But then comes puzzle 5.

Puzzle 5 is traditionally the killer of the ACPT. There have been years where the timer runs down to zero and most of the solvers are still sitting there, baffled and shaken. There have been years where I cannot so much as figure out the puzzle’s theme — I’ll poke around at the grid, filling in words here and there, knowing with certainty that my place in the standings will once again plummet.

Generally you can find my name somewhere around 100th place, give or take. Last year, Amy said it plain: “If you can just beat puzzle 5,” she told me, “you’ll be thirty or forty places higher!” In other words, where she is.

Well, this year I beat puzzle 5. I KO’ed it like I never have before.

Solvers were given half an hour to solve it. Many years, I need every second and still have blank squares when I hand in my paper. (To say nothing of the squares that are filled in with wild guesses.) This year, I completed the puzzle in about fifteen minutes — perfectly. I found myself leaving the tournament room side-by-side with some really great solvers. I couldn’t believe it. This was the puzzle 5 I’d been waiting for. And I beat Amy by a solid ten minutes. Ten minutes! That is an eternity in a crossword tournament. I couldn’t wait to see the scores! I couldn’t wait to see the rankings!

When the scores for the first day were posted, it turned out I was right: I had thoroughly torn apart puzzle 5…

…and I had mistakes on not one but TWO earlier puzzles, puzzles I had thought I’d solved clean.

End result: A ranking of 97, pretty much where I am every year.

There’s one last tournament puzzle on Sunday morning, and I solved it without errors, boosting myself up to a still-unofficial 92, a dozen spots lower than last year’s 80. It’s hard to believe that I solved puzzle 5 perfectly — and, for me, blazing fast — and still managed to do worse overall than last year. One of these years I have got to get my act 100% together. I think that’s going to be next year’s goal.

—————————————-

For a while, it seemed as if this year’s Division A finals would be a replay of last year, and the year before that. The same three people stood at the top of the rankings. Dan Feyer was first, to no one’s surprise. Before the start of the tournament, Dan had demurred a little about his chances — David Plotkin had been outsolving him of late, he said, and Joon Pahk, too, was reporting impressive speed-solving times. That might well have been true, but something about the tournament brings out the very best in Dan. When the scores were tallied up, no one was even close to him.

In second place was five-time champ Tyler Hinman. Shortly after puzzle 7 ended on Sunday morning, I found him slouched in a chair in the lobby, looking very much like someone resigned to his fate. This would be Tyler’s third time facing Dan in the finals. Dan had trounced him every time. It was certainly possible to imagine Tyler coming out on top — anything can happen up there, as we have learned over the years, and Tyler is an extraordinary solver — but if so, the finals would surely be a heart-stopping squeaker. Dan is not one to be left in the dust. More likely, he’s the one doing the leaving.

And in third place — for the third fourth year in a row — was Anne Erdmann, a sweet, good-natured woman who, in past years, had seemed somewhat at a loss during the finals, which is played on large whiteboards at the front of a crowded, boisterous room. Solving up there is a radically different experience from solving in your seat, surrounded by people but essentially alone. Anne is astonishing at regular speed-solving, but she struggled during her previous appearances in the finals. Still, she now had plenty of experience at this, and nobody was dismissing her.

Dan, Tyler, Anne. Deja vu.

Except that it wasn’t deja vu, because when the final puzzle started, it was Tyler, and not Dan, who exploded out of the gate. Tyler had the upper right corner of the puzzle done with lightning speed, while Dan sputtered and jumped around, trying to find a place that would give him some traction. As for Anne, she had one word written in the grid, and it was wrong.

The puzzle itself was a grade-A killer. Constructor Kevin Der had laced his crossword with dangerous, easy-to-misread clues. “Challenge for one who’s lost” doesn’t refer to somebody lost in the woods, but rather somebody who has lost money — the answer is RECOUPING. “Activity involving three steps” might not lead you immediately to CHACHA.

The final crossword of the ACPT is always themeless, and themeless puzzles sometimes have a nasty little trait — you can walk your way through one corner of it practically with your eyes closed, and just as you think, “Man, I am acing this!”, that’s when you discover the rest of the puzzle isn’t nearly as easy.

With a quarter of the puzzle locked away, Tyler jumped into the rest of the grid and discovered it was made out of bricks. He had a few letters in place thanks to his earlier work, but they didn’t seem to be helping. Jittering in place, radiating comic-book lines of energy, he jumped around the grid, trying to find a new place to break in. There wasn’t any.

Meanwhile, Dan had performed a magic trick. Dan is very calm and still when he’s at the big board (certainly in comparison to Tyler), and it’s easy to let yourself be fooled: Because he is not moving fast, he must not be solving fast. But then you suddenly become aware of just how much progress he’s made. I glanced away for a moment — I swear it was just a moment — and when my eyes went back to the board, it was a whole lot closer to solved. Great swaths of white had been filled in with letters, all correct. “When did THAT happen?” asked the person next to me, also caught off guard.

That was it — Tyler’s advantage was lost, and he would not get it back. But Anne was not out of the picture: She had corrected her every mistake, and had picked up speed as she went along. And what’s this? Dan has an error in his grid?! Indeed, yes. Needing a president’s initials, Dan had gone with DDE instead of FDR. Was it possible that this might trip him up, allowing Anne to pass him? Dan stood back, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Anne kept writing away. She had a whole corner left to fill, and then some, but she was clearly rolling. The audience began to murmur, and everyone sat forward in their seats.

But Dan spotted his minor mistake, corrected it, and broke into the final section of his grid. That was the end: Within seconds, he had claimed the championship for a stellar fourth year running.

And Anne came in second, which was a delight to see. She seemed so nervous her first year in the finals — she wasn’t able to complete the puzzle at all. The next year she was back on stage, and while this time she completed the crossword (I think), it was well after her competitors were done. This third time, she inked in her last letters while a frustrated Tyler still faced a half-blank grid. Her look of surprised delight when she took off her headphones and saw Tyler still at work is the great moment of this year’s tournament. (And on her birthday, too — the audience would serenade her as she picked up her second-place trophy.)

Of course, I felt bad for my friend Tyler — I can’t imagine it’s much fun standing in front of 500 people without the slightest idea what you’re doing. “Well, this is awkward,” he shouted as he danced his adrenaline-pumped dance and tried to figure out the rest of his puzzle. He wrote random words in the blanks: BLAST, DAMN, UGH. Finally he had a breakthrough, but too late — the clock got away from him, and at the end he had several squares blank: His first tournament errors in years.

Hearty and amazed congratulations to Dan Feyer for his fourth tournament win, to Anne for her exciting second place finish, and, yes, to Tyler as well — third place in this group is nothing to shrug at, and he handled his finals predicament with good humor. Congrats as well to my friend Jeff Schwartz, 2nd place finisher in the B division. He used to be one of my pace-car solvers, but he’s gotten too damn good. Luckily, there are lots of other solvers I can shoot for — and will, next year.

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Puzzlers Behind Bars

The Maze of Games is a Kickstarter project from puzzlemaker Mike Selinker — he is promising a puzzle-filled update on a “Choose Your Adventure” story, and so appealing is this notion that he’s raised well over $100,000. (His target had been $16K.)

People who buy the book will also get a complementary “Conundrucopia,” a whole bunch of puzzles from a wide variety of constructors. The more money raised by the project, the more puzzles in the Conundrucopia. I’m the next puzzle constructor on the list: I’ll be added to the project when it hits $140K. I am not yet “unlocked,” and so for now I remain in the Puzzle Cage (which I am sharing with game designer Richard Garfield, which is pretty impressive). So if you want a really cool-looking puzzle adventure book, AND you want a puzzle from me in the Conundrucopia, AND you somehow haven’t already heard about this, go take a look and maybe back the project.

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State of the Homeschool

When you’re having doubts and apprehensions about the path that you’re on, there’s nothing like an inspirational TEDx talk from an eloquent, homeschooled, 13-year-old kid to turn those doubts into outright panic.

It doesn’t feel to me like homeschool is going particularly well these days. It’s just… school, moved into our living room. Lea reads historical fiction with her mom; she does vocabulary and science lessons via software; I go home at lunchtime and we work on math. We used to work on the computer programming language Scratch as well, but that has faded away — I don’t really know what projects to suggest to her and she is not terribly interested in continuing it on her own. I give her writing assignments — book reports, short stories, etc.

There’s little about this that Lea actually enjoys. She does what she needs to do largely because if she does it without complaint, she’ll get to play videogames for a while as a reward. Then it’s back to work.

Too often, our math lessons end in tears. That’s not really how it’s supposed to be.

Logan LaPlante, the kid in the above video, seems to have an idealized homeschool life. He and his parents clearly have a ton of resources to draw upon, both financial and social. My guess is that he didn’t just build a giant Newton’s Cradle in his garage — that this project took place within a homeschool co-op or a similar group environment. We belong to a homeschool co-op, too. It’s a disorganized mess. It’s small, tends toward younger kids, and has a low level of participation by the adults, in terms of organizing classes or even hanging around for a few extra minutes to clean up at the end of the day. We stick with it mainly for social reasons… but with so few kids in the group close to Lea’s age, it’s not even performing this function very well. There are other, better homeschool co-ops in Connecticut, but they are much further away.

My big takeaway from Logan’s talk is that he is not only learning, he is inspired to learn, which is the far greater success. He enjoys it, and thus he is willing to put in the work. (He doesn’t seem to think of it as work at all.) Lea has learned a lot, but she tolerates homeschool the way I remember tolerating school. It’s something she does because she has to.

There are elements she finds inspirational — not many, but they are there. She has taken to 3D design like a duck to water, creating dozens of objects and inventions in TinkerCAD. Similarly, I was content to let her spend hours designing her own game levels using the Portal 2 editor. She has stuff she does away from the home — rock climbing, and pottery, and tennis.

When we discuss the path of homeschooling with her, she says she wants to spend more time on science. Combined with her occasional assertion that she would like to stop homeschooling altogether, we went to look at a nearby magnet school that focuses on science and engineering. It seemed like a slam dunk, if we could get in (there’s a lottery and a long waiting list). She came away from the school’s open house in tears. She thought it would be too hard and doesn’t want to go.

Therefore, it must be up to us to push forward on science. I confess that I don’t know how to do this. It’s easy to teach Lea math: Just open up the book to the next chapter and start reading the examples. I fear that this is the real reason why I teach her math — not because kids should know math (though of course they should) but because it’s a subject where I know what I’m doing.

We’ve edged into science now and again over the past couple of years, but our approach has been hesitant and toe-in-the-water. Science is hands-on, science is all over the place. Science requires a base of knowledge from the teacher, a base that neither my wife nor I have. Furthermore, I am not sure about my daughter’s sincerity when she mentions “science.” I’m afraid that “science” to her begins and ends with reading fun facts about animals. When I ask her to write a few paragraphs about what she’s learned, she sags as if I just dropped a fifty-pound weight on her shoulders.

Logan’s video prompts a lot of questions. We see him at a Starbucks, typing merrily away a laptop with a book open next to him, working on a report or something. Is he doing that entirely on his own? Did no one steer him in that direction? Who will read his output, and will that person correct any run-on sentences and misunderstandings of grammar? Do they make him do a rewrite? Have they finagled things so that Logan wants to do a rewrite, and if so, how the hell did they manage that?

Just how “hacked” is his education?

We are tempted to give Lea the keys to the bus for a couple of months, just to see what happens. She’s years ahead in math, she has an advanced vocabulary, and she writes reasonably well — it would be no tragedy to stop what we’re doing and see what Lea does with her time. If she wants to read about animals, she can read about animals. If she wants to do science experiments, we can help her get the stuff she needs to do them. If she wants to play video games and read Calvin & Hobbes… well, I have to take it on faith that she is a smart, engaged kid, and won’t want to do that forever. But will that approach swing things around so that she is happier to explore and learn, and happier in general? I have absolutely no idea.

Sometimes it seems like we have less idea what we are doing now than we did when we first started homeschooling. That is not usually the way things work.

And that is the state of our homeschooling. Are we not an inspiration to you all? No? Then go watch that kid’s TEDx talk again. I plan to.

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Practice Meta #3: The Answer

Each answer refers to a form of divination, consisting of a prefix and the letters “-omancy.” (See the first three words of the flavortext for a little clue regarding this.) Each prefix can be found hidden in one of the Magic 8-Ball fortunes. Matching the fortunes to the answers and then indexing by puzzle number reveals the letters YOU CAN DO IT.

I’ve filled in the remaining answers; the original given answers are shown in bold.

1. INSECTS – ENTOMANCY – YEN TO MAXIMUM
2. TEETH – ODONTOMANCY – FOOD ON THE FLOOR
3. CLOUDS – NEPHOMANCY – PRUNE PHYSICS

4. OLD SHOES – SCARPOMANCY – HIS CAR PRANCES
5. BLOOD – HEMATOMANCY – THE MATH IS HARD
6. TREES – DENDROMANCY – GOLDEN DRAGON
7. KEYS – CLEIDOMANCY – UNCLE I DID NOT KNOW
8. FASHION – STOLISOMANCY – THE PISTOL I SAW

9. WHEEL RUTS – TROCHOMANCY – METRO CHAINS
10. FLOWERS – ANTHOMANCY – SO NOW I WANT HOPE

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Practice Meta #3: Incomplete Information Edition

Every single practice meta I’ve created, for three years now, has been a “pure” meta — a list of words and nothing more. I really wanted to come up with a decent “shell” meta, which requires the solver to use other information as well as the list of words.

This time, I’ve decided not to give you all of the answer words. Let’s pretend you’re a little more than halfway through the puzzles, and you’ve decided to see if you can nonetheless crack the metapuzzle. Can you do it? Send your answer to ericberlin@gmail.com.

Magic 8-Ball

Oh, man! See, I got the idea of asking the Magic 8-Ball if we’re going to find the coin this year. The answers I got back were very strange. You can see them on this page. Maybe these puzzles will help me figure out what the 8-Ball is trying to say…

1.
2. TEETH
3. CLOUDS
4.
5. BLOOD
6.
7. KEYS
8. FASHION
9.
10. FLOWERS

Solved by: Jeffrey Harris, Todd McClary, Mark Halpin, Michael Sylvia.

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Practice Meta #2: The Answer

The answers can be divided into two groups such that a word in Group 1 clues a word in Group 2… but only after two letters are removed from the second word. These bigrams can be reorganized to spell the phrase TWO ASPIRIN.

ATTEMPTS = TRIES (STRIPES – SP)
BARBECUE = GRILL (GORILLA – OA)
CONFRONT = FACE (FIANCE – IN)
FAVORING = PRO (PRIOR – IR)
LUNA = MOON (MOTOWN – TW)

A couple of people asked if there was a logical, puzzly way to order the words so that the answer spelled itself out. No. I figured once you had the initial aha, you wouldn’t be thwarted by the need to rearrange five pairs of letters.

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Another Practice Meta

Here’s another of the practice metas I presented to my MIT Hunt team in the weeks leading up to the hunt. As before, please do not reveal the answer in the comments — you can e-mail me (ericberlin@gmail.com) and I’ll post the names of the people who get it right.

Outbreak!

You and your team are rushing to cure a virus that is sweeping the world. And now a new disaster has struck: The data from your two control groups has gotten all mixed up! One group was given a miracle drug, the other a placebo. Can you figure out who belongs to each group, and then determine the cure for this terrible virus?

Subject 1: ATTEMPTS
Subject 2: BARBECUE
Subject 3: CONFRONT
Subject 4: FAVORING
Subject 5: FIANCE
Subject 6: GORILLA
Subject 7: LUNA
Subject 8: MOTOWN
Subject 9: PRIOR
Subject 10: STRIPES

Solved by: Jeffrey Harris, Todd McClary, Robert Hutchinson, Guy Jacobson, Todd Etter, Dan Katz, Trip Payne, Mark Halpin, Mike Sylvia.

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Practice Meta #1: The Answer

Many solvers picked up on the phrase “just your type” in the flavortext and took a look at their keyboards. Sure enough, the letters of each answer are contiguous on a standard keyboard… with the exception of a single outlier in each answer. These letters spell the word ISOLATION.

DES(I)RE
GU(S)TY
REDF(O)RD
(L)EASED
(A)POLLO
WAS(T)ED
SEAS(I)DE
(O)DESSA
STREW(N)

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Practice Meta #1: Because it’s never too early to start training for next year

In advance of this year’s Mystery Hunt, several of us on Palindrome created “practice metas” for our teammates to solve. I created three of them, and I’ll be posting these here over the next few days.

PuzzleMatcher.com

PuzzleMatcher.com is the only dating service exclusively for people who like puzzles! Examine the words below to see what this particular applicant appreciates more than anything. Maybe this person is just your type!

1. DESIRE
2. GUSTY
3. REDFORD
4. LEASED
5. APOLLO
6. WASTED
7. SEASIDE
8. ODESSA
9. STREWN

…hmm, maybe not.

No spoilers in the comments, please. If you know the answer, e-mail me (my full name, all one word @ gmail.com). I’ll add names to the solver list as they come in, and I’ll post the answer tomorrow.

Solved by: Jeffrey Harris, Mark Halpin, Todd McClary, Andy Arizpe, Scott Purdy, Trip Payne, Dorian Hart, Guy Jacobson, Doug Orleans, Chris Shabsin, Jaci Conrad and Albert Lin, Noah Snyder and Malia Jackson, Josh Mandel, Mike Greenberg.

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I Prefer Puzzles

Palindrome's team name this was "I Prefer Pi." Nametags designed by Joe Cabrera.

Palindrome’s team name this year was “I Prefer Pi.” Nametags designed by Joe Cabrera.

If you follow the MIT Mystery Hunt at all, then you already know that this year’s event, which ended Monday afternoon, was the longest of the modern era, taking an exorbitant 73 hours from the release of the first round of puzzles to the moment when a team finally claimed victory by finding a coin hidden on campus. Somewhere around the 48th hour of the Hunt, one of my teammates, a smart and good-natured fellow named Arun, called the Hunt organizers to ask for a hint about a puzzle.

Arun had basically dedicated his life to a particular puzzle called “In The Details,” and the description of this puzzle should give you an idea about the kind of thing we see at the Mystery Hunt. “In the Details” was a “fractal word seek.” After solving what you could on the first level of the word seek, you were expected (through some cryptographic and/or mathematical operation that I never did fully comprehend) to expand the word seek out to the next level of the fractal, and continue searching for words there. And then again, and then again. The people working on this puzzle ultimately expanded the word seek to the 85th or 86th level before locating all of the words they were expected to find. But even after all that, Arun and the others still didn’t have an answer to the puzzle itself. Solvers generally come away from a hunt puzzle with a word or phrase, which they will then need to use later on. Despite all the work that had been put into it, “In The Details” steadfastly refused to give up that answer.

So Arun called and asked for a hint. It was clear at that point that the Hunt was running long. Previous Hunts had sometimes ended by now, but this time, no end was in sight. The puzzles were extremely hard, and the meta puzzles even more so. A hint at this point seemed like a perfectly reasonable request. But Arun was dismissed with a firmness that I found rather surprising.

When my team, Palindrome, ran the 2008 Hunt, we too discovered we had overshot on the difficulty. Our response was to begin hinting as rapidly as possible, answering questions about the puzzles in great detail if need be. Why on earth couldn’t we get even a small nudge on this impossible word search? The only teams Palindrome refused to give hints to, years ago, were those teams in contention for the victory.

…Oh. And that is how I figured out that we were the lead team in the Hunt, or close to it.

Perhaps you suppose I might have guessed this, but really, I had no idea. The Hunt this year consisted of six distinct rounds — and at that point, we had only completed two of them. I thought we might be doing reasonably well compared to other teams, but winning? Or close to winning? That was hard to imagine.

On the other hand, we had a very large team this year. Palindrome is an open team: Anybody can join it. This year it felt like everybody did. Not too long ago we struggled to reach 50 teammates. This year we came mighty close to 100. Established team members brought in colleagues and friends. The Hunt organizers post a list of “unattached hunters” — people who want to play but who don’t have a team — and each year I pick up a few new people from this list. This year’s bunch of unattached hunters was a bonanza. I lured in a fellow named Eric. (We are required, it seems, to recruit a new Eric each year — we now have a great many of them.) This particular Eric, it turned out, was connected to a whole gang of Microsoft and Google engineers, all of them looking for a team. This turned out to be quite a bumper crop of excellent puzzling brains.

Also grabbed from the unattached hunters list was a total puzzle hunt newbie, a lawyer (I think) from Denver named Jonathan. Except he didn’t join Palindrome for himself. He came to the Mystery Hunt with his son, Brandon, who is 11 years old. His father told me that Brandon was a puzzle nut who couldn’t wait to one day participate in the Mystery Hunt. The trip to Cambridge was Brandon’s Christmas present.

I was a little nervous for both Brandon and his father — the Mystery Hunt can be overwhelming and difficult even for people who believe they enjoy puzzles, and if the Hunt did not match Brandon’s expectations, it could have been a disappointing trip home for them. I needn’t have worried. Jonathan told me that his son had been through the Hunt archive and knew what to expect. It would have been fairer to say that Brandon had memorized the Hunt archive. He could speak of themes and specific puzzles with an astonishing fluency, and he fit in with the team like a veteran. He was always busy with a puzzle, attended a bunch of events, and was still bopping along with the rest of us in the wee hours of the morning.

So Palindrome became a large team just in time to take on a Hunt seemingly designed for large teams. Still, it was hard to believe we were doing more than, say, keeping pace with the top third of Hunt teams. The vibe in headquarters was not “We are clearly killing this!” but rather “Help! We are drowning in puzzles! Very hard puzzles!”

Because the puzzles were indeed very hard. I think I understand how this happens. Unconsciously or overtly, puzzlemakers get it into their heads that they are creating puzzles that will be presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!!!, one of the three or four greatest collections of smarts on the planet. It’s intimidating to consider the audience for these puzzles, and it takes great discipline to keep oneself from reaching for the difficulty knob, giving it a little twist, and then another little twist, until before you know it, you’ve cranked the difficulty all the way up to 11. All the while saying, “I hope these people don’t knock this off too easily…”

The metapuzzles at this year’s Hunt were particularly deadly. One of the great joys for advanced puzzlers is the joy of solving a metapuzzle even though you have not yet acquired all the answers that feed into it. When a metapuzzle has nine separate parts, and you discover the solution with only five of those parts, you feel like a puzzling giant. (Or so I imagine, as I have personally never accomplished this. But it’s fun even to be standing next to somebody who has just done it.) For the most part, the metapuzzles at this year’s Hunt did not allow for this sort of solving. Some of them were excellent, but others were assembled not from five or nine or fifteen separate answers but from dozens of individual puzzles — and those metapuzzles were structured in such a way as to force you solve nearly everything before you could really make headway on the solution. (Anyway, we certainly didn’t get anywhere with them. If you broke through on, say, the Feynman meta with only half the answers for it, I would sure like to know how you did it.)

Palindrome’s motto, as it says right on out nametags, is “We Play For Fun.” We’re not particularly filled with competitve spirit, and we’re not a good team for bloodthirsty Vince Lombardi types. I wouldn’t mind winning one day, but it’s more important that everybody enjoy themselves. Nonetheless, when I announced that we were one of the top teams in the Hunt, a subtle shift in tone could be detected. We didn’t go crazy with it — we didn’t tear up our nametags in order to get rid of our core motto — but you could tell that people were itching to grab the victory that we now understood to be within reach.

But there was a long way to go. We still only had two of the six rounds completed. There were so many puzzles floating around that it was impossible to keep track of them all, much less solve them. The hour grew late. We had already been through two graveyard shifts, and many of us had slept hardly at all through the weekend. Were we now going to stay up all night Sunday night — a good twelve hours after the Hunt would have ended in a more conventional year — to try to win this thing?

Yes.

Teammates who had gone home came back in. Anya — a newcomer I had grabbed from the unattached hunter list but who had leapt into the weekend like she’d been on the team for a decade — brought homemade chocolate-chip cookies. (This was the Year of Cookies. I had rewarded graveyard shift solvers on Friday and Saturday with warm cookies from Insomnia Cookies. And another teammate, Ben, started us off with three giant containers of cookies, including something called Oreo Cheesecake Cookies. I don’t know if the Nobel Prize has a category for cookies, but if they did, Oreo Cheesecake Cookies would win.) Another teammate, Amy, brought the makings for waffles. A previously quiet young lady, Ange, transformed before our eyes: She whipped us into shape but good. She made extensive notes on what people were working on and what needed our attention, and she directed people like the world’s most efficient traffic cop. The Hunt organizers began allowing teams to buy puzzle answers at the rate of one per hour, and Ange kept time with the sternness of an SAT proctor. Rather brilliantly, she convinced the Hunt organizers that if we performed an act of amusing ritual humiliation, we would get an additional answer. To that end, we wrote and performed a pastiche of “Call Me, Maybe” (called “Solve Me, Maybe”).

And we solved puzzles. Lord, did we solve puzzles. I have been on Palindrome for close to two decades and I have never seen a burst of overnight productivity like what we accomplished this year, on Monday from midnight to five a.m. One by one, the puzzles fell, and then the metapuzzles. As the sun came up, we had only three puzzles left — the final puzzle for each of three remaining rounds.

We got stuck on all three of them.

The hours passed, and still there was no winner. The Hunt organizers announced that you no longer had to solve all six rounds — five would do. So now we only had to solve two of the three final puzzles. And we couldn’t do it.

– We had to transform a list of dates into an answer via a puzzle based in part on hieroglyphics. Some of the people working on this are professional puzzle creators; one of them had been the key figure in solving practically every metapuzzle all weekend long. We couldn’t do it. A thousand different approaches got us nowhere.

– We had to solve a puzzle involving a Rubik’s Cube — a puzzle so complicated I’m not even sure how to explain it to you. The people working on this included a physics professor from Harvard and a guy who, earlier that evening, had solved the Rubik’s Cube in about a minute, while simultaneously singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.” We couldn’t do it. This team never really got stuck, per se, but their advancement through the puzzle was inch by painful inch.

– We had to assemble an Enigma machine from a cardboard tube and some pre-printed strips of paper. Some of the people we had working on this are employed by the National Security Agency. We couldn’t do it. Maybe we were overlooking something fundamental, after a hundred hours of brain-fry. I don’t know. But we couldn’t do it.

Soon the sun was in the sky again. People had planned for the Hunt to be over long before now — they needed to check out of their hotels, and get to the airport or to the train station. We had to clean our headquarters and convert the rooms back into classrooms. A large fraction of the team was sitting around waiting, hoping for a breakthrough that might get us back on track… a breakthrough that was looking less and less likely. Continuing the Hunt started to seem nuts — Captain Ahab territory. Finally, and painfully, I waved the white flag. If people wanted to continue solving, that was fine, but officially, we were done.

We spent an hour cleaning up. Somewhere along the way, the Rubik’s Cube solvers reached a solution. As I left to make my train, a small group of teammates decided to take on the one last puzzle we needed to solve before reaching the Hunt’s endgame. Amtrak was just pulling out of the station when I recieved the message: “We’re on the runaround!” Palindrome had reached the final stage of the Hunt after all. A few hours later, by the time I got home, I learned that we had completed the Hunt — a little over sixty minutes after the first-place team.

On the one hand, it’s hard not to ache at how close we came to victory. Our fingertips had brushed the brass ring, but we ran out of time before we could grasp it. On the other hand, at an event like this, a second-place showing is pretty darn impressive, especially in a difficult year like this one. I’m very proud of my teammates, who even when the Hunt was at its most frustrating, displayed nothing but encouragement and good humor (and waffles and chocolate-chip cookies). Plus, their puzzle-solving ability is nothing short of awesome, and I say that as someone who believes the word “awesome” is suffering from serious overuse.

Congrats to my friend Dan Katz, who was on the winning team. Dan has headed up many great Mystery Hunts, and I know that any hunt that involves his participation is a hunt worth looking forward to. As I write this, I am still very tired, despite having slept last night for thirteen hours. My feet and legs still hurt, though not as bad as they did yesterday. Full recovery is going to take a while. And yet somehow, I am already itching for next year.

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