The amazing race can't hold a candle to this. Midnight Madness 2013 was an urban game in Manhattan on the night of October 5–6, 2013. From 6:32pm until 2:30pm, three hundred players on thirty teams raced to solve puzzles they found around New York City. The event raised massive amounts of money for charity and challenged some of the brightest minds in the financial world. But our takeaway from the event is the power of play extends to adults. We love being challenged to our core in a fun and entertaining way.
REPUBLISHED FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES
Along 11th Avenue, women in tight dresses and stiletto heels wobbled home in the misty hours after midnight. They paused on a corner at 23rd Street, puzzled by the sight of young men and women wearing lights strapped to their heads, crouched over spiral notebooks, scribbling charts and checking codes.
Just another Saturday night in New York? Not for the 300 bankers, hedge fund managers, lawyers and software engineers solving puzzles on sidewalks and traipsing all over Manhattan for more than 16 hours as part of an infuriating, exhilarating, mind-numbing, night-bleeding-into-morning competition called Midnight Madness. An elaborate scavenger hunt put on by Goldman Sachs, the event raised $2.9 million for charity and cost about $360,000 to produce.
This was the second time that Goldman had staged the hunt, and for this year’s Midnight Madness last weekend, half the teams came from outside firms, like Citigroup, and various hedge funds. Each team had a fund-raising minimum of $50,000, raised mostly from members of their own firms.
The money went directly to Good Shepherd Services, a youth development agency, to finance after-school programs in Brooklyn — Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and Red Hook — and the Central Bronx. “We’re puzzling the whole issue of poverty,” Sister Paulette LoMonaco, the organization’s executive director, told the players in the parking lot of a shuttered Pathmark in Lower Manhattan before the game began.
That was, for most players, the last time the game would make sense.
“It’s kind of crazy to watch so many people really smart going, ‘I don’t get this, I need a hint!’ ” Joshua Dezube, 29, a credit analyst at Goldman and a member of the Recovery Lox team, said later.
The game takes its name from a 1980 Disney movie that took in less at the box office than Goldman’s hunt did in a single night. Nevertheless, it helped start a subculture of elaborate puzzle hunts like the Game in San Francisco, where competitors analyze clues over a 36-hour span. Some Midnight Madness competitors had taken part in the Mystery Hunt at M.I.T. or the University of Chicago’s Scavenger Hunt.
The competition requires knowledge of trucker codes, military alphabets, ’80s songs and video games, and New York historical spots. Because there were 24 puzzles in three different areas of Manhattan — blue, green and red zones — the game forced teams to break into smaller groups. The hunt was both intricately scripted and unexpectedly spontaneous.
At one point, a team of seasoned puzzle hunters from the San Francisco Bay Area — seven of whom were former or current Google engineers — twerked at a wedding. They thought it was part of the game.
Elsewhere, a team of Connecticut hedge fund managers planted GPS trackers and a decoy clue to throw off their competitors.
The game demanded teamwork, a command of anagrams and, above all, battery chargers. Virtually every one of the 30 teams contemplated giving up at some point. One team did.
“It’s not meant for winning,” Sanjay Harji, 37, a player with Quantum Dawn from Goldman, announced at 2:24 a.m. to his teammates, who were sprawled in his living room. “It’s meant for the journey.”
In the Pathmark parking lot, Elisha Wiesel, a Goldman Sachs partner and the game’s producer, announced that the journey would loosely follow a theme: “Total Eclipse.” A Los Angeles glam-punk band brought in for the occasion, Timur and the Dime Museum, played the song by that name to kick off the hunt at 8 p.m.
Then the teams were each given a closed steel white box, a packet that contained cards of movie scenes, a folded chart on which they were presumably to place the cards, a key on a ring, and five foam eggs that players could exchange for hints. (They didn’t know they would get more eggs later.)
There were two rules: No tampering with clues and no using private vehicles. Then Mr. Wiesel jumped into a taxi and raced to Game Control. The game was on.
Mr. Wiesel, 41, the son of the Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, had been an obsessed puzzle-solver since playing Midnight Madness in 2001. The game began in 1996, when Mat Laibowitz and Dan Michaelson, two Columbia University seniors who had watched the movie incessantly, devised their own hunt. The games were low-budget, and feverishly popular among their friends. After 10 years, though, it had become too time-consuming for them to run, so they stopped.
Mr. Wiesel missed it. In 2012, he saw an opportunity to both quench his puzzle thirst and, as a board member of Good Shepherd, sponsor a unique charity event.
Mr. Wiesel enlisted Mr. Laibowitz and Mr. Michaelson, now both 38 and entrepreneurs, and brought in Lindsi Shine, 35, the founder of INsider, an event company, to help. Last year, players got to change the lights on the Bank of America building and play laser golf in an abandoned building.
Planning this year began in February. Mr. Wiesel appealed to partners at the firm to sponsor players. The company’s charity, Goldman Sachs Gives, made a grant to Good Shepherd, which used it to pay for operating costs.
At 4 p.m. on Game Day, Mr. Wiesel, wearing a black T-shirt with “MM” faintly printed on the front, marched into Big Daddy’s diner, on Park Avenue South at 20th Street, and seized control of a balcony — his command center for the night. He directed volunteers to set up workstations with digital cameras, iPhones, iPads and computers on a secure network with sophisticated tracking programs.
The supervisor in Game Control, Yia Hang, 34, a former Midnight Madness player, said the hunt was known for its high-production value and elegant puzzles. “It’s well paced,” she added, “like a well-written story.”
Only the story read a lot like a Thomas Pynchon novel, dense with red herrings and outlandish characters. Take the mannequins on the carousel at Pier 62. Each, as some puzzlers would later figure out, correlated to a letter in the NATO phonetic alphabet (as in Charlie for C, etc.). One mannequin, with a curly black wig and checkered blue skirt, resembled “Delta Burke,” for “D.” Another, dressed in fishnets and boxing gloves, was “Oscar De La Hoya,” for “O.” The letters, correctly arranged, spelled out “Trihedrons,” just one step in a series of six puzzles in the blue zone that players needed to solve to get a key.
The first puzzle turned out to be one of the hardest, causing the game to get off to a slow start. A grid had three rows across and seven down, each with a category. Each box in the grid had an accompanying number. The movie stills were supposed to be placed on the grid in a specific order. The number referred to a letter in the movie’s title. All the letters together spelled out Fifty-Sixth and Twelfth, where the next clue was. The San Francisco team, the Burninators, solved it in 45 minutes in the Pathmark parking lot. (“Part of my nightmare is that they win in eight hours,” Mr. Wiesel confessed before the game started.)
Chaos broke out early. Around 9 p.m., when Game Control opened for hints, desperate-looking players bustled into the diner, foam eggs in hand.
Mr. Wiesel had flown in Alan Solomon, 63, the actor who had played Leon, the frizzy-haired mastermind of the movie “Midnight Madness,” to reprise his role in Game Control.
“It feels surreal,” Mr. Solomon said, “that this many years later that it has gotten bigger and bigger to the point that I’m sitting in New York taking part in the biggest real incarnation of this game ever.”
A harried hint-seeker spread the first puzzle’s grid sheet before Mr. Solomon and handed him the stack of movie cards. “I will help you with the placement of three figures,” Mr. Solomon said. “Can I have an egg, please?”
Soon, dozens of players swarmed the restaurant and the sidewalk. Some of the stumped gamers outside knelt next to a pile of trash bags, poring over clues. Later, players would take naps there “like homeless people,” one remarked.
At 10:30 p.m., a synthesized voice began barking from each team’s white box, telling players to go to Pier 25. They followed like lemmings to the water’s edge where a boat was floating in the Hudson River.
Fog rolled in. The boat sounded a note (an A-note) at one-minute intervals. The owners discovered that when they plugged their white boxes into one another, each played a unique note.
“Does anyone have perfect pitch?” Trevor Cohen of the Citi Kats team shouted. Mr. Cohen, 22, an analyst in public health care for Citigroup, then realized, “I have an app for that!”
Using a tuner on his phone, the team representatives labeled the boxes to form a 16-key piano that glowed violet. “I feel like I’m in ‘Big,’ ” Mr. Cohen said, referring to the 1988 movie starring Tom Hanks.
“Play ‘Chopsticks’!” another player suggested.
When they played a note, the boat played it back. “I figured the piano keys were this year’s big spectacle,” Mr. Cohen said.
Ultimately, though, the final musical passage — meant to replicate the chilling exchange from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — fizzled. The batteries in the boxes and on the boat had worn down. Players clapped anyway, and Timur and the Dime Museum sang about the break of dawn before handing players another puzzle. This one came with a map indicating that a third zone, red, was now in play.
The puzzle was a drinks menu for Leon’s Tavern, “Disestablished in 1861.” Players needed to pair fictional beers with cocktails to determine the name of a celebrity and how that person died. “I Got You Beer” (Sonny Bono) was matched with “Gladed Whiskey,” since he died hitting a tree in a skiing accident. “Ale Apologies” (Kurt Cobain) paired with “Shotgun Bourbon.”
Designated letters in the celebrity names spelled out “Mayor Clarke,” who was buried in 1861 in the New York Marble Cemetery in the East Village.
At 3:51 a.m., the Alphanauts, a team from Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, were the first inside the stone-walled cemetery, finding three new tombstones with door knockers above inscriptions that were clues to Queen songs. Knock out the right song’s beat and a video screen would flash a phrase — See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil — along with random-seeming words.
Members of the Alphanauts returned to a teammate’s apartment to solve this new puzzle. The apartment resembled the Bat Cave. The players showed a visitor a thermal-imaging scope, a camera that a team member, Gioel Molinari, wore strapped to his chest to record the experience and a GPS track — — . “Shh!” another teammate, Matt de Jonge, interrupted.
The Alphanauts had planted a fake clue, directing gamers to a phone number on a sign. When teams called the number, a rhyming robotic voice suggested they quit. Some teams complained that they were hoodwinked; Game Control was amused.
The hours from 3:30 to 7:30 a.m., when sleep deprivation sank in, seemed most frustrating for players and Game Control. Two installations were not functioning — one because it had started to rain, the other because Saks Fifth Avenue had turned off the lights in a display window that held a computer clue. Some players passed the time counting and sorting M&Ms purchased from a special vending machine on Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue. The candies were also clues: The colors corresponded to the periodic table. “This game is not meant to be solved,” groused Alex Timcenko, 50, a Goldman vice president in global investment research. “There’s way too many words. Anagrams, anagrams, anagrams!” He wanted numbers. He ate the clues.
Before 6 a.m., some teams found themselves in the basement of a wine store in TriBeCa, working together to assemble cogs in a lighted safe to crack a code. They were rewarded with a key.
Meanwhile, those teams that had deciphered the cemetery puzzle were led to Doyers Street in Chinatown, nicknamed Bloody Angle for the early-20th-century gang fights that took place there. By dawn, players arrived and were handed transparencies that when layered correctly, lined up the geometric symbols of the manhole covers, streetlamps and hair salons on Doyers Street to point to an intersection nearby that held the next clue.
At precisely 6:57 a.m. — sunrise without the sun — the Chinese-themed streetlights flickered off. The scent of buns baking wafted into the street. The city was waking up, and this would be a problem. Park employees removed clues, Big Daddy’s geared up for the brunch crowd and by noon, a prearranged time, Game Control was out on the sidewalk.
“The city was coming back to life and shrugging off the dream that was Midnight Madness,” Mr. Wiesel said. “It was back to reality.”
Only, the game had five hours to go.
Game Control, knowing that the teams had not used their eggs wisely, started giving wholesale hints to speed up the game.
The Burninators had already arrived at the final puzzle, located on the steps of the Elevated Acre, a rooftop park, at 55 Water Street in Lower Manhattan. Still, they had no idea they were ahead because of the ambiguous structure of the game.
“We have our five keys!” a co-captain, Wei-Hwa Huang, 38, announced. They saw boxes with five locks arranged in rows, ascending the stairs. “Maybe it’s 5-bit binary?” Mr. Huang said.
There was a chronological code, but after running a mental marathon, the Burninators — and every team that followed — resorted to simply trying one key after another. When their keys opened the right box, they found a piece of paper inside that read, “7 WTC, 11th floor.”
They could not find a cab, so they walked, unaware of a team gaining behind them. Most of the Burninators were from the San Francisco Bay Area, so they were guided by the only full-time New Yorker, Gregory Rae, a former Google executive turned theater producer.
While they walked, Rich Bragg, 37, a former engineer at Google, spun the wedding twerking story from early in the hunt. Four of them had arrived around 10:30 p.m. at Gary’s Loft, an event space near the Empire State Building and the site for a rooftop installment with doors positioned to look like Stonehenge. They were early, though, and an unrelated wedding was still in progress.
Wedding guests were in the lobby, and they made the team members dance to enter. Did this really happen? Dan Egnor, 39, the other captain, proved it did with footage from his shoulder-bag camera.
Finally, at 12:21 p.m. on Sunday, the Burninators crossed the “Finish” bridge in an 11th-floor room overlooking the World Trade Center memorial. Three minutes later, players from Recovery Lox arrived, panting. They high-fived when they learned they were the first Goldman team.
Flush with moral victory, Ariel Amdur, 32, who flew in from Goldman’s Bangalore office just to participate, summarized his experience: “General awesomeness.”
The secret to his team’s finish, he said, was organization and navigation. The team had one person on a Citi Bike and three people on regular bikes, and the rest took taxis. They used an internal messaging app, as other teams did.
In this game, as the teams straggling into the room realized, the danger lay in overthinking. “It was an all-out assault on the players,” Mr. Wiesel said. “We outdid ourselves, maybe even made it too hard.”
There was a trophy, of sorts, for the Burninators: an origami black swan. Mr. Huang laughed, knowing that in finance, a black swan is an event that deviates from normal situations — one that is extremely difficult to predict. He stuck it in his bag and headed back to California.
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