Whether staring at a jumbo screen that was showing “Mister Ed,” or at four costumed performers who couldn’t quite get their choreography correct to the strains of the Village People song “YMCA,” thousands of competitors scratched their heads Sunday as they waited for what participant Robert Crook called “the aha moment.”
Crook and two friends were among the throngs who raced around Washington trying to solve the riddles that made up the annual Post Hunt, a blocks-spanning game that is part scavenger search, part brain-teaser.
Hunters had to interpret various clues set up in the area surrounding the District’s Freedom Plaza, where the hunt kicked off at noon and where the final clue was read at 3 p.m.
The group that won the event — its members go by the team name Boneless Chicken Cabaret — is accustomed to those “aha” flashes of insight. The team has a remarkable record of success in the contest, which starts in the pages of The Washington Post Magazine and plays out in city parks and streets.
The Boneless Chicken Cabaret won the Post Hunt once before, in 2008 — the Hunt’s first year in Washington — and placed second and third in two other Post Hunts.
“The most brilliant people in the world,” Hunt co-organizer and Post Magazine columnist Gene Weingarten called the team’s members. Weingarten and fellow journalists Dave Barry and Tom Shroder are the coordinators and brains behind the Hunt, which they launched 30 years ago at the Miami Herald.
The long-standing members of the Boneless Chicken Cabaret — Todd Etter of Alexandria, Va.; David Forrest of Woodbridge, Va.; and Chris Guthrie and Charlie Scarborough, both of Arlington, Va. — have been friends for more than 20 years. This year, they included some of their children — Timothy Etter, 15, and Joshua and Rebecca Forrest, 12 and 15 — on their team.
They know the clue-writers’ methodology so well that they guessed, long before Weingarten announced the twist from the stage, that the clues the hunters had been told to circle in the magazine were intentionally the wrong ones. (In fact, they should have been circling the ones directly above those clues.)
The Boneless Chicken Cabaret even figured out a phone number — which was supposed to be the solution to the 3 p.m. clue — before the clue was ever read, and dialed the number at 2:14 p.m. Team members were waiting in the correct spot when 3 p.m. rolled around, and they had already taken the photograph that the clue would direct them to take.
Just 1 minute and 50 seconds later, they had won the $2,000 prize. The other teams clocked in at 3:14 p.m. and 3:20 p.m. to take second and third prizes, worth $500 per team.
Todd Etter said his team might donate its prize money back to the Post Hunt.
“Or maybe not,” Scarborough said.
“It’s a lot of Chipotle,” Guthrie said.
“We don’t know why people don’t put them in charge of the government,” Barry said of the winning hunters, who wore silly chicken T-shirts.
“Or maybe they are,” Shroder said.
Larger teams were the norm among the winners this year — a year after a solo player won the Hunt for the first time. This year’s second-place team had 10 participants, and the third-place team had six members.
Kevin Guyer, who competed as part of a nine-member team, said that having more minds on a team was advantageous. “One person gets one piece,” he said, “and then it strikes a chord in someone else.”
Even groups working together could be stymied, though. A half-hour into the event, Crook was stumped by a clue near the Treasury building. A performer walked in a patternless circle, stopping every so often to blow a whistle and say into a megaphone, “Follow me to the solution.”
One of Crook’s teammates, Jonathan Weber, said, “Think Fitbits. Number of steps.”
“You want to count her steps?” asked teammate Megan O’Hern.
He replied, “Maybe that’s the kind of sadism. . .”
“ . . .that Dave Barry would put you through,” Megan finished.
As that team counted, competitor Julie Louis was tracing the seemingly meaningless shape that the performer walked. As Louis drew one complex pattern after another on the edge of her Post Magazine, her teammate Eve Pogoriler, a four-time Post Hunt participant, mused aloud, “I really think that maybe it’s just ‘me.’ Follow me. How do we follow her? Follow me. Follow her. Follow me.”
Then something clicked.
“Oh, my God,” Pogoriler said. “I don’t know how to follow on Twitter!”
Moments later, the pair found the Twitter account @MeToTheSolution, which had tweeted the next hints. And Louis exclaimed to Pogoriler, “Aha! You’re so good!”
That clue was Todd Etter’s favorite. “I thought that was the most elegant,” he said.
In Franklin Square, Sobhi Mahmassani didn’t know what to make of the six silhouettes of U.S. states on the ground. “My brain is just not wired this way. Why would there be two Colorados?” he said. “I’m just going to stand in the shade before I become even stupider.”
One of Mahmassani’s six teammates, Natalia Beardslee, kept puzzling over the states. She wrote down the two-letter postal abbreviations for each of them: WA CO MA IL CO DE.
“Wacoma il code,” she read, listening for an answer in the syllables. “Waco mail code.” Then she realized she had just read words that make sense. “The mail code!” she said.
“For Waco, Texas?” her teammate Emily Joseph asked. “Yes, the Zip code!”
The team — which, decked in plastic leis, called itself Team Aloha — had just solved its first clue.