The winning team knew they had eaten lunch too late as they sprinted toward the final clue. Why did the creators of this puzzle-filled scavenger hunt seem to always make them go running up an incline? The four men darted out of Freedom Plaza, across traffic, up the hill, past the Macy’s, and feeling the weight of their late-lunch sandwiches in their stomachs, bolted for the man holding a sign for the final step — the winning piece of the 2015 Washington Post Hunt.
More than 10,000 people came out Sunday for D.C.’s 8th annual Hunt, a complex adventure that takes over downtown for one day each summer. The tradition began in Miami in the 1980s, when the organizers of the hunt — journalists Tom Shroder and Gene Weingarten and humorist Dave Barry — were working for Tropic Magazine, a publication of the Miami Herald.
Each year, the three meet on one of the coldest days of winter to plot the five puzzles and one “EndGame” that cause head scratching, deep frustration and invisible-lightbulb-moments of joy for the teams that compete to win the prize of $2,000 (and geeky, but impressive bragging rights).
From the coldest day to one of the hottest, this year’s Post hunt played out in an afternoon of high-80s temperatures and shoulder-burning sun. Free tote bags became sweat rags as teams spread out across the city, looking to solve puzzles that begin in the pages of the Post’s Sunday magazine and lead them to parks, statues, stages and, this year, a giant inflatable nostril.
The winning team was comprised of Matt Hartman of Pittsburgh, Todd Etter, Chris Guthrie and Charlie Scarborough, all of Virginia. Their dash to the finish line wasn’t their first. The team, dubbed the “Boneless Chicken Cabaret,” won the hunt in 2014 and in its first year, 2008. They’ve also previously placed in second and third.
Among them there is a professional puzzle creator, a former science teacher, an attorney for the Department of Justice and an IT consultant.
Though many said this year’s Hunt was one of the most difficult yet, old timers seemed to have the advantage. One group of teenagers, whose parents met playing Dungeons and Dragons in college decades ago, said they’ve been dragged to the Hunt for years now and are convinced they know how the organizers think. One engaged couple brought their closest friends to the Hunt because they were using it as a wedding shower. (Who needs new kitchen utensils when you can run around chasing clues in a plastic veil?). Many spent weeks reading up on past hunts and spent the night combing through the pages of the magazine for anything that has been considered a clue in previous years.
“They’ve studied us like we used to study the Kremlin during the Cold War,” organizer Tom Shroder said.
Technology was a key part of the Hunt this year. In one clue, participants were given a link to Bubbli, a program that lets you take 360 degree images. The image shown was the intersection of 9th and F streets, where they were to “Check for most significant difference.” Hunters had to figure out they needed to go to that corner and compare the photo with the reality. The most significant difference is that in the photo , the Pi symbol in the sign above the restaurant Pi Pizzeria had been altered into a big check mark.
Crowds gathered outside the restaurant, turning in circles with their phones a few feet from their faces. When they realized there was a missing Pi symbol in the photo, they quickly flipped to the two pages in the magazine where all of the possible solutions (all numbers) were listed.
But there was no 3.14 there. Dismayed, many began to make the puzzle more complicated. What’s pi squared, then squared? What does pi stand for again? As the day wore on and that nearly 90-degree sun beat down, they also tended to get distracted. Oh man, do you smell that pizza? Maybe we should stop and eat…
The beauty and the agony of the puzzles, though, is that the answers are often right where you thought they were. 3.14 wasn’t listed as a possible answer, but 31416 was. That’s simply Pi rounded up, without the decimal place.
“Maybe they made it more difficult this year,” hunter Alex Chin told his friends as he furrowed his eyebrows at the pizza eaters. “Or maybe we just got stupider.”
Overall, the participants proved that the District, or at least the people who participate in scavenger hunts here, are not exactly stupid. The five puzzles were solved in less than an hour and a half by a four-person team: Jessica Held, brothers Bob and Tyler Gregg, and their third brother John who was helping them through email and phone from Japan. They sent in their answers at 1:26 p.m., winning them a $500 prize.
By the time the 3 p.m. clue, called the “EndGame,” was administered, more than 300 people had sent in their answers.
“We actually had to ask people to stop sending in the solutions,” Gene Weingarten later told the crowd.
As Weingarten, Shroder and Barry stepped on stage at the end of the Hunt to give away the much-coveted answers, it seemed everyone had figured out the puzzles. Or rather, everyone said they figured out the puzzles.
“It’s amazing how smart everyone is after the hunt is over,” Barry told them.
But the winners were separated from the pack in the EndGame — literally, because they sprinted away from the pack toward the final clue.
They sent the answer in at 3:06 p.m., clinching their third First Place title and the $2,000 check. Last year, they used the money to go to a practice scavenger hunt in San Francisco. This year, they’ll probably do the same. You can never have First Place too many times.
“We’ll be back next year,” team leader Todd Etter said. “Until they stop running it, we’ll be there.”
And they’ll eat lunch a little earlier, too. They’re probably going to be sprinting up another hill.
Wanna check out the puzzles for yourself? (They seem way easier on the page, we swear.)