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Sleepless Puzzle-Solvers Hunt For Coin

Dr. Awkward Team Wins Mephistophelean Competition, Finishes Early Sunday Morning

By JiHye Kim

“Nur einzelne Zahlen erlaubt!”

This statement, which translates into the full name of Sudoku in German, was the title of one of over 100 mind-boggling puzzles that were used in this past weekend’s annual MIT Mystery Hunt. Usually held during the Independent Activities Period, it attracts a wide range of people including current MIT students, alums, and national puzzle champions, even those who are not a part of MIT.

The ultimate goal of the hunt is to be the first team to recover the famous Mystery Hunt coin, which typically cannot be achieved until every puzzle has been solved. This year, the Dr. Awkward team recovered the coin on Sunday, Jan. 14 at 2:14 a.m. It is the team’s first win since 2000, according to Eric Berlin, one of approximately 45 members of the winning team.

The puzzle that secured the win for Dr. Awkward was a puzzle that involved manipulating the answers from other puzzles in the law and government category into United States state abbreviations and applying the order of the US Senate seating assembly.

Dr. Awkward was stuck on the puzzle for several hours. “The ‘Aha!’ moment was when someone on the team discovered that senators have assigned number seating in the assembly,” Berlin said.

Ready, set, go!

The kickoff, themed “How to Succeed at the MIT Mystery Hunt by Being Really Really Awesome,” took place on Friday, Jan. 12 at 12 p.m. in a packed Lobby 7.

Following tradition, last year’s winning team, The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight, organized this year’s hunt for the mass of eager puzzle-lovers. In this lively crowd, many were seen toying with their Rubik’s Cubes or “warming up” with crosswords as they waited for the first puzzles to be released.

One such student was Jongjin B. Kim ’09, who was part of a small team in the hunt for just the fun of solving a few puzzles. “They have a whole bunch of hints thrown in, and you’re supposed to find out what the hell you’re supposed to find in the first place and then what kind of answer you’re supposed to get from that,” Kim said.

Once the puzzle Web site was activated, the teams scattered to their bases to hungrily attack the five displayed puzzles. Many teams tore down this batch in a couple of hours, which led them to a traditional runaround in search for the coin. Without much trouble, most teams located the coin at the entrance of the MIT Alumni Pool. However, to everyone’s dismay, the coin was not The Coin, but a penny!

Berlin, the assistant publisher of Penny Publications, explained how his veteran team was not fooled by this fake hunt for the penny. “We knew the hunt was not going to be five puzzles — that was not happening. So, we suspected from the beginning that it was going to be a fake or introductory hunt. We worked through it pretty quickly,” Berlin said.

Indeed, the co-captain of the Evil Midnight Bombers team, Daniel J. Katz ’03, revealed himself as The Devil, working under the name of Michael Fauntleroy Stopheles. Katz declared that the five puzzles were part of a “fake hunt” to lure them to him; as a result, the teams ended up selling their collective souls to The Devil for pennies. In order to retrieve their souls from Hell as well as to find the famous coin, The Devil challenged them to solve many more, much harder puzzles.

One major difference in this year’s hunt compared to previous years’ is the lack of a final runaround at the end of the hunt in search of the coin. The Evil Midnight Bombers team altered this year’s hunt to include the runaround in the middle of the hunt instead of at the very end. In the past, only the winning team participated in this coin search around campus. Once the coin had been found, there would be no reason for a runaround. This structural change made it possible for everyone to participate.

Frustrations and favorites

Associate Director of Admissions Matt McGann ’00 also participated in the hunt with the Simmons Hall team Lego My Ego, consisting of about 50 members. “We solved the initial five puzzles in the first hour of the Hunt,” McGann said. “We then ‘found’ the coin, opening up dozens upon dozens of further puzzles.”

As promised by The Devil, the new theme emerged as “How to Succeed by Being Really Really Evil” as teams were spiraled into Hell. Based on the infamous Seven Deadly Sins, the puzzles were categorized into several groups, such as performing arts, sports, crime, and mass manipulation. Each category had a certain number of puzzles and a meta-puzzle, which required the team to somehow combine all of the answers in one category to form a final answer.

Granted, with over 100 brand new puzzles to solve in a span of around 48 hours, many participants voluntarily sacrificed sleep. “I hunted noon until midnight Friday, slept midnight to 4 a.m., took a nap from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, then slept again at 10 a.m. Sunday, after the coin had been found,” McGann said.

Hard-core puzzle solvers like Berlin also had trouble in the sleep department. “First night, I intended to sleep. But I just couldn’t … and ended up lying awake on my bed for three hours,” Berlin said. “The second night was worse — I went back to my hotel to rest because we were stuck on this one last puzzle for hours … Forty-five minutes after I fell asleep, I got a phone call saying that they had solved it, so I hurried back.”

Spurts of brilliance were key to solving many infuriating puzzles. Elizabeth G. Lovegrove ’09 discussed her troubles with the puzzle “The Usual Suspects.” “A friend wandered into the lounge and I flagged him down. ‘Come help me … I am completely stuck,’ I said. ‘I have no idea,’ he responded, and went to leave, then turned back and said, ‘Oh, you did notice that they’re all Clue cards, right?’ We finally solved it 15 minutes later,” Lovegrove said.

Even though such difficult puzzles frazzled many teams, everyone also had their favorites from the weekend. “Of the ones that I solved, the pirate-themed one … and the one where they had us reassemble haikus — that was a cute one,” Berlin said. “For a puzzle to be fun, it doesn’t have to be one of those ‘brainbuster’ ones.”

Danbee Kim ’09 and Sarah P. Slotznick ’09, two members of the Piranhas in the Bathtub, MIT’s official Musical Theatre Guild Mystery Hunt team, had a great time with one of the performing arts puzzles titled “Encore! Encore!” It featured subclues of actors who participated in MIT drama productions in all theater groups. “It was awesome that we could use names off our programs!” Kim and Slotznick said.

The sleep deprivation ends

The wrap-up event held on Sunday, Jan. 14 at 5:30 p.m. consisted of the Evil Midnight Bombers team explaining some of the more painful puzzles and opening up the floor for audience input. Many teams shared funny stories about their wild weekend adventures as well as their frustrations.

One of the puzzles that participants enjoyed was “D4: Ducks Playing Poker,” which instructed teams to put a “live duck in the center” and use it to start the game of poker. Jennifer M. Braun ’02, co-captain of the Evil Midnight Bombers team, talked about how several confused people called in about this “live duck” deal. “One team sounded genuinely concerned that they didn’t have a live duck,” Braun said.

The least solved puzzle was titled the “Squad Car” under the crime category. It involved a series of lengthy cryptograms, which eventually spelled out the ironically short answer “Domino.”

The Mystery Hunt dates back to 1980 with MIT student Brad E. Schaefer ’78. After he left the Institute in 1983, the tradition of passing down the right to organize the following year’s hunt to the winning team began.

For the full list of this year’s puzzles and solutions, go to