Scavenge of the Nerds

One girl's brush with a Manhattan puzzle cult

Saturday does not begin well. My alarm goes off too early for a weekend morning, and it's already so humid outside that walking to the subway is a stroll through a sauna. Only after I swipe my Metrocard do I discover the E isn't running, and I take a three-block trek through the bowels of the Times Square station. By the time I reach my destination (and The Game's starting point)—Marcus Garvey Park, on 122 Street and Fifth Avenue—at 11:45 a.m., I'm dripping with sweat, fifteen minutes late, and ready to throw in the towel. My cell phone beeps with a text message from my friend Peter: "Have fun with the nerds today."


I am here for the Fourth annual Haystack puzzle hunt, perhaps best described as a scavenger hunt for the gifted. The game works like this: Everyone arrives at the starting location, or "checkpoint"—in this case, the watertower in the Marcus Garvey Park—where they are greeted by Haystack creators Jeff Bolas, Brian Wecht, and Derek Hays, also know as "Game Control". Game Control gives each team of two to five players a set of general rules and instructions, plus the first set of five puzzles. The puzzles vary in style, but all are solved in large part by mathematical logic. Teams have two hours and fifteen minutes to solve the first five. When that time is up, they must be ready at the next checkpoint for the next set of five puzzles. (You follow? It keeps going.) Within each set of five, every puzzle itself leads to a specific place—such as a statue, a church, or a street corner—where the answer is located. Players must solve the puzzle to determine the location, get to the location, find the answer, and then phone it in to Game Control. (Complicated? There's more.) The point value for each puzzle depreciates with time, so the faster you solve, the better. In total, there are four checkpoints and 20 puzzles, and the Haystack lasts nine hours.


At the watertower, Brian introduces the team I shadow for the rest of the day: Tui Sutherland, Adam Bloom, Margaret Miller, Andy Kyle, and Rachel Axler. I immediately question my wardrobe decisions: a halter top and flip flops. These people are dressed like they mean business. They have on sneakers and are carrying backpacks. I can see bottled water, trail mix, and apples peeking out from under the flaps.

We make small talk while Game Control waits for stragglers. I am surprised to learn that of the five, only Andy and Adam have science-y, technology jobs: Andy for the website travelocity.com; Adam as a web designer (and sketch comedy writer). Tui and Margaret are both children's book editors, and Rachel is a writer for The Daily Show. I figured Haystack contestants would all work in IT departments.

When the teams are assembled, Game Control distributes the first set of puzzles. The air fills with the sound of scratching pencils. It's like a giant, collaborative math test—that people actually enjoy taking. After a few minutes of struggling to crack a cryptogram, Margaret wails, "I don't think my brain is on guys!" She trades clipboards with a teammate to try her hand at a different puzzle. Then Adam looks up and asks "Does anyone remember, off the top of their heads, the name of the android from Aliens?" Rachel casts me a sidelong glance. "Are you writing 'Dorks, dorks, dorks, they're all dorks'?"

After an hour the team splits up to solve two puzzles simultaneously. Tui and Andy rush off to the steps of a local library; Margaret, Rachel, and Andy head in out of the park. Margaret halts in the middle of the sidewalk. "Wait" she calls," I think I'm getting it." The others gather around as Margaret solves the puzzle, substituting letters for numbers using the keypad of her cell phone as a guide. She figured out the pattern when she realized there were no 1s in the puzzle—the only keypad number without corresponding letters. The team is so excited they don't notice they have gathered around a used condom.


Over the course of the day, the Haystackers traipse all over the city, from Marcus Garvey to Morningside Park, from Grant's Tomb to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. At 4:30 p.m., we arrive at the third checkpoint, in Times Square, where Game Control decides to have a little fun of their own. Before they will hand over the next set of puzzles, each team must find five pedestrians who are willing to serenade Brian or Derek with a showtune. "This is the 'No Shame Game' " Brain announces merrily. After much pleading, members of my team convince a group of tourists in line for last-minute Broadway tickets to sing "Do Rae Me". New puzzles in hand, they retire to a nearby McDonald's to scarf French fries and get to work.

I slurp Diet Pepsi and watch them scribbling, brows furrowed, and I begin to understand why they love the competition. I have always hated math and science problems—things that consist of "equations" and require "linear thinking"—I do remember the thrill of the moment when things begin to come together. There is a click, the gears start turning, and you know that you're doing something right. You are going to find the answer. Jeff calls it the "Aha Moment". In the Aha Moment you feel giddy, high, and flooded with adrenaline. It's addictive. It is the moment that puzzlers seek out, what keeps them coming back for more.

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