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Three-Day Weekend: The Code Hunters

Charlie Schroeder

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(Lorinne Lampert)
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Another three-day weekend is upon us. Time to revisit our three day weekend series of stories about what we all do with one more day in our weekends.

For the past decade, Francis Heaney and Dan Katz have spent one of their three-day weekends at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts every year. They don't go to the school to build robots or discover life on other planets. They go to compete in the MIT Mystery Hunt, which recently celebrated its 29th anniversary, and they're not the only ones. Roughly 1000 people competed on 45 teams this year, but it's safe to say that Katz and Heaney are two of the most devoted players. Weekend America's Charlie Schroeder recently talked with them about why they return to play the hunt year after year.

To win the mystery hunt, all you have to do is find a coin that's hidden somewhere on the MIT campus. But before doing that, one must first solve 100 very difficult puzzles. At their first mystery hunt ten years ago, Francis Heaney and Dan Katz made it to the final puzzle, which led them to the coin.

"And we're rushing around and the final clue directs us to a specific freight elevator," Heaney says. "And we get the secret message 'Floor E.'"

You know, "E," the mathematical constant, which is somewhere around 2.7.

Heaney and Katz's team needed to go into the elevator and somehow place it on the "2.7 floor" or rather, 70 percent of the way between the second and third floors, because that's where the coin was hidden. So Katz and Heaney rushed over to the elevator with their team, only to discover that there was another team already inside.

"People were getting kind of anxious and claustrophobic and upset about being in the elevator for so long," Heaney says.

But when they heard Katz and Heaney's team gathering outside they didn't want to come out. Then Dan heard someone in the elevator scream.

"Not an 'I'm going to die of not being able to breathe,' scream, but an 'Oh, I found the coin scream.'"

Katz and Heaney's team didn't win. They came in second. Which, oddly enough, is better than winning, according to Heaney.

"Winning the mystery hunt is very exciting, and as soon as the adrenaline wears off you realize, 'Oh, I've made a terrible error,' because winning the mystery hunt means you have to write next year's mystery hunt with the rest of your team."

This takes about a year to write and is just as intense as the hunt.

"Because what a puzzle is in the mystery hunt is probably unlike what a puzzle is anywhere else on the face of the earth," Katz says. "You'll have your crosswords, your sudokus, your standard mainstream puzzle types, but you'll also have these bizarre hybrids of logic puzzles and trivia puzzles and word puzzles, usually with no instructions, so you don't know what to do when you first see them."

Consider one of this year's puzzles, which asked teams to identify specific words on a shopping mall window--at Disneyland.

"The only way to solve that puzzle was to have somebody go there," Heaney says. "Or you could do what I did, which is call stores in that mall until one person who worked there was willing to be persuaded to leave their post and go look for me and call me back, which is what they did."

Or consider the puzzle based on the movie "The Matrix." It asked teams to uncover a secret message that said, "Take the red pill." (Just like Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, said in the movie.) When a call was placed to mystery hunt headquarters saying "Take the red pill," the group making the call received a follow-up phone call from an actor playing Morpheus. From there, the chase took teams to certain places where they had to answer phones, then log into a computer to receive a message directing them to a room where they were asked to swallow a red pill (really a Tic Tac) which uncovered an entirely new section of the hunt.

Both Katz and Heaney have been solving puzzles for as long as they can remember. And both got "hardcore" about it when they were ten years old. That's when they were introduced to the most influential puzzle periodical of the day, Games Magazine, edited by puzzle master and public radio celebrity Will Shortz.

But Katz and Heaney would get the adult version of Games, not the kiddo "Games Jr." Katz tells me.

"Because Games Jr. was kind of the cutesy puzzles, the rebuses, the find your way through the maze and get to the pony."

Katz and Heaney's team, "The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight," won last year, so now they have to write next year's hunt.

"This year I think we're actually doing pretty well," Heaney says. "We picked our theme within less than two months."

"It's Pokemon. If anybody wants to know, it's Pokemon," Katz adds.

The mystery hunt is not how most people want to spend a three-day weekend. It's more Cerebral Ironman Competition than Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle by the fire relaxation.

"And that entails not getting a lot of sleep," Heaney tells me. "And maybe camping out on a classroom floor in a sleeping bag and eating crap for three days and, you know, perhaps letting your personal hygiene slip a little more than you would normally like. And most people just don't want to do that."

But Heaney does. And Katz? Well, let's put it this way. Katz went to his first mystery hunt when he was a junior in high school. Then he enrolled at MIT, home of the mystery hunt. Now he's getting a PhD at Brown, which isn't that far away.

"When I looked at graduate schools," he says, "certainly I didn't base my decision entirely on going to the mystery hunt, but it was involved.

But when you when haven't slept in 48 hours, it can be a pretty long drive.


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