The Staggering Significance of a Manhattan Puzzle Hunt

On Saturday, August 20th, while most of New York is strolling through Central Park, perusing the Farmer's Market in Union Square, or fleeing to the Hamptons, Coney Island, or the Jersey Shore, a small but substantial group will gather at an undisclosed Manhattan location, legs limber and minds nimble, to compete in the fourth annual Haystack.

Never heard of it? Not many people have—yet—but word is spreading. The Haystack, along with other brain-busting puzzle hunts across the country—such as Boston's "MIT Mystery Hunt" or San Francisco's "The Game"—takes puzzle solving outdoors. Lasting upwards of eight hours, and consisting of countless "think outside the box" conundrums, these aren't your grandpa's jigsaws. Think of them as extreme sports for the crossword set.

Still not quite sure what the Haystack is, exactly? The mystery is part of the fun. At its most basic, The Haystack is a game that uses Manhattan as its board. In the words of its website, thehaystack.org, "The Haystack is a puzzle. The Haystack is a race. The Haystack is an urban skirmish, a mental marathon, and an intricate dance."

At the designated starting point—which is revealed only on the morning of the hunt—teams of two to five players are given a puzzle that, once solved, directs them to another location in Manhattan. Once there, a new puzzle is presented, which leads to yet another spot. Solve a puzzle inolving stanzas of Shakespeare, for instance, and find directions to the reading room at the big Public Library branch on Fifth and 42nd. Terrain for the game can be as iconic and obvious as the library or the Empire State Building, but just as often includes the obscure—a park bench, an unassuming intersection, a small overlooked statue.

The Haystack was conceived in 2001 by Jeff Bolas and Brian Wecht, and more recently, Derek Hays, who started as a contestant and now helps in the design process. Each year, the three spend months developing the 20-plus intricate puzzles that will make up that summer's Haystack. The puzzles vary greatly in difficulty and style, from cryptograms and crosswords to more abstract, original forms. Often, the challenges are interactive, requiring contestants to seek out specific people or certain objects in the city.

The grand prize? The Golden Needle—an object the creators describe as "staggeringly insignificant." That's right, there is no fame or fortune—only the glory that comes from being crowned the master of useless knowledge; the champion of what is essentially mental gymnastics.

The Haystack will kick off at noon on the 20th, and will likely run until 8 or 9 p.m. Participants can expect to trek from Harlem to Battery Park and everywhere in between. Competition is said to be good-natured but fierce, and much ribbing takes place amongst the player in the weeks preceding the hunt. In a post on the Haystack website, last year's second place team promises to win, saying the only reason they lost in 2004 was due to a non-competitive stop for gelato—but, "That won't happen again," they write.

 
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