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MIT Takes First Place, High Ranks in Puzzle Challenge

By Joyce Kwan

More than 235 teams of college students from all across North America explored an island recently discovered by scientists in the hopes of tracking the mysterious device that caused an initial team of explorers to evacuate in a state of catatonia. The original research team’s final radio report, which sparked the emergency evacuation, was incomprehensible except for references to “killer gummy bears.”

The actual event was the College Puzzle Challenge, an annual competition held by Microsoft on Veteran’s Day this year at each specific US university and one in Canada. This is the second year the competition has been open to MIT students and the third year since its inception. The puzzles have a common theme each year, and this year’s theme consisted of teaming up with an international organization, S.O.L.V.E., to explore the secrets of a mysterious island, according to the College Puzzle Challenge Web site.

“I thought it was a good twelve-hour span of fun,” said Pete S. Kruskall ’08, a participant in the expedition. “It’s kind of like a fun social event to hang with friends and solve crazy puzzles,” he added.

Teams from MIT dominated the competition, with five MIT teams in the top 10. Each of the members of the grand prize winning team, MIT’s Quarks and Gluons, will receive a Microsoft Xbox 360. Quarks and Gluons was one of two teams that was able to solve every puzzle correctly and, in fact, completed the challenge nearly two hours ahead of the other team.

“We came in third place last year, and we were really determined to beat our friends [also from MIT] who came in second,” said Adam P. Rosenfield ’08, a member of the winning team, “Plus, we just love puzzles.”

Other participants seemed to feel a sense of lighthearted peer rivalry, in addition to a love for puzzling. Kruskall, whose team, You Know, placed fifth overall in the competition, mentioned a “girls versus boys” rivalry with another MIT team in which his team, the boys, “came out on top.”

The competition lasted for 12 hours, from noon to midnight. Initially, all MIT teams were gathered in one room to solve three preliminary puzzles that were “fun for everyone,” said Iolanthe K. Chronis ’08, another member of Quarks and Gluons. After completion of the first puzzles, each team received a booklet of additional puzzles to be solved in a preferred campus location. Kruskall described the atmosphere as relaxed, but “rush, rush, rush, see how fast you can solve” at times during competition time. Rosenfield said Quarks and Gluons was bummed during the first round, but solved nine puzzles in a little more than an hour during the second round.

“It’s safe to say they’re all very different,” Kruskall said of the puzzles.

For Quarks and Gluons, Chronis said that one puzzle required half the contest to solve, which was six hours, while others could be solved in a matter of minutes. The variety ranged from cryptograms to crossword puzzles, according to Rosenfield.

The Challenge is in the spirit of MIT’s annual Mystery Hunt held during the Independent Activities Period, which may have given teams from MIT an edge.

“Most of [the puzzles] were like standard MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles but easier,” Chronis said.

Both Kruskall and Rosenfield mentioned the Mystery Hunt as a leading factor in their involvement in competitive puzzling. Even Andrew S. Crane ’02, author of eight of the 30 puzzles, cited the Mystery Hunt as a driving force in his involvement in competitive puzzling.

When asked how they prepared for the competition, both Chronis and Rosenfield mentioned that no formal preparation took place. Instead, preparation evolved through years of interest in solving puzzles. For Kruskall, the Microsoft Challenge served as practice for the MIT Mystery Hunt.