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IAP Activity of the Week

20th Mystery Hunt Offers Puzzlers a Chance to Show Their Stuff

By Katie Jeffreys

Features Editor

This is the third in a series of articles profiling interesting or unique IAP opportunities.

It is no mystery why 200 students each spent anywhere from one to sixty hours last weekend looking for a solitary coin. They were participating in the twentieth annual IAP Mystery Hunt which began Friday afternoon with about 20 teams competing to solve a complicated puzzle designed by fellow students.

The challenge was won after 62 hours by “Paintttniap” a team consisting of primarily non-MIT participants, many of whom are members of the National Puzzlers Association. The team was run by Eric Albert, who has participated in many mystery hunts “I’ve done this for 18 years. This was a lovely hunt with great ideas and perfect execution” said Albert.

Daniel J. Katz ’03, one of the coordinators this year, explained the makeup of Paintttniap. “He formed a team when he was at MIT and the team has evolved and mutated.”

The scenario presented required the participants to help Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz, to get home. The “Munchkin Information Processing Board” had the technology to transport Dorothy home, but they had forgotten where they had placed the coin necessary to operate the system. Thus, it was up to the Mystery Hunt participants to solve puzzles revealing usernames and passwords which could be used in a computer able to scan the campus for the coin.

This information was revealed over five rounds, each which consisted of about 10 different puzzles. The types and topics of puzzles varied widely, and included anagrams, a Scrabble game, literature, music, and MIT geography. “It’s good to make it difficult but have enough variety so people can try different things,” said Katz.

This goal was met, according to participant Michael J. Walsh ’00. “The puzzles were so interesting that ... people who were trying to stay away from the Mystery Hunt started joining us, saying ‘Wow! This is cool!’”

One puzzle asked for groups to acquire a living duck to assist in a puzzle. More significantly, it required the group to place chairs in a circle and move the chairs or change seats, then paint letters on the bottom of chairs according to the instructions. When the chairs were turned over, if the instructions were followed correctly, a tricolored message, and thus the answer to that puzzle appeared.

According to Katz, who wrote the puzzle and received a standing ovation for it at the wrap-up party, two groups actually painted chairs to solve the puzzle. Additionally, although no group used a live duck, one group had a human member play the role which required them to sit under chairs and on other members’ laps.

The solution required a letter from each of the puzzles to be arranged to reveal the phrase “APPROACH ROOM BAUM. COIN BENEATH GREENERY.” Baum, the name of the author of Wizard of Oz, was then converted to a number with a code used in the hunt. The victorious team then found the coin 9-136 .

Competition fierce but fair

Teams were in close competition throughout the hunt. About eight teams were still in competition on Friday evening. Katz said that “toward the end there were still three of four teams that could have won.” This sort of competition is rare: in many hunts one or two teams pull into the lead early on and stay there for the rest of the competition.

“We got a lot of compliments this year. People said this was the smoothest Mystery Hunt ever run probably because we were really strict,” said Katz. About a dozen members of last year’s victorious team participated in writing this year’s puzzles. “We came up with the structure over the summer and began writing puzzles in September.” Katz cites the teams organization as one factor which prevented puzzles from getting lost or otherwise hindering the planning process.

IAP Mystery Hunt Celebrates 20 years

The Mystery Hunt was started by graduate student Brad E. Schaefer ’78 in 1980. He continued to run the competition until receiving his doctorate in 1983, at which point the charge of creating the puzzles was bestowed upon the previous years’ winners. This tradition continues today, and is the only prize of the hunt. “It was fun. I joined last year, but writing is a lot more fun and a lot less confusing!” said Harvard junior Roger Barkan, who helped coodinate the event this year.

Since then, themes have included Elvis (1997), Clue (1995), the Holy Grail (1993) and most recently “Where in Hell is Carmen Sandiego” (1999). The longest hunt to date was that based on Clue, a hunt which stretched 60 hours, ending at 4 a.m. Monday. In other years the organizers have begun to give clues to ensure that the hunt ended at a reasonable time, allowing for participants to recover before Monday morning.

Completion of the puzzles requires students to be resourceful and persistent. In past hunts, groups have made phone calls around the globe, ransacked offices on campus, and taken the T around the city.