After reading sheet music composed of grapes and baloney, reverse engineering a Scrabble board and converting parking signs into binary code, employees of Pine River Capital Management were first to reach the finish line of Midnight Madness, Wall Street’s most elaborate charity scavenger hunt.
The team started Saturday night in front of the flagship New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and criss-crossed Manhattan before arriving Sunday morning in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. Here a beautiful woman awaited a specific entreaty and gift (a bouquet of yellow roses) before disclosing the final clue, which led them to Daniel Chester French’s “Mourning Victory” statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We agreed if we won we’d never stop talking about it and if we lost we’d never talk about it,” said Anand Sharma, a trader at Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Pine River, a relative value asset manager. Chief Executive Officer Brian Taylor also played on the team, which was captained by Ben Hoffstein, a managing director.
The contest lured 21 teams from banks including Citigroup Inc. and Credit Suisse Group AG and hedge funds such as PDT Partners, Secor Asset Management and Bridgewater Associates. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, also fielded a team, which placed second. Cantab Capital came in third. Each team had 10 members.
The game’s muse was a model, no mere eye candy given the geekiness of the proceedings. Known as “American Venus” in the early 20th century, Audrey Munson was an artist’s model whose likeness is found on public sculptures throughout New York. These sculptures became the sites of clues. Other times, Munson appeared in the flesh, portrayed by members of the theater company Third Rail Projects.
Of course no one told players who she was: Figuring out the mystery woman’s identity and how to help her became a guiding mission of the game.
Elisha Wiesel, a partner at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and one of the event’s producers, discovered Munson when he stopped to look up at a statue he passes almost every day: “Civic Fame” atop the Manhattan Municipal Building on Centre Street. Intrigued by the idea of “a meme that’s occurring throughout the city that you might not recognize until someone points it out to you,” he and the designers set out to build the game around her.
The result: immersing players in a story of their own, where, in addition to cracking codes, they had to write poetry, sketch a live model and learn a period dance (while detecting the letters being traced on their palms by the instructor). The popular theater piece “Sleep No More” and the video game “King’s Quest” were two inspirations.
In the Waldorf suite, players met Munson and assured her she would not be forgotten, even though she wound up living most of her life in an insane asylum.
Money collected to sponsor teams yielded $3.1 million for Good Shepherd Services, a social-service agency with an $90 million annual budget. The estimated cost of putting on the event was between $500,000 and $600,000, paid for by Goldman Sachs Gives and personal contributions of Wiesel, a board member of Good Shepherd Services.
The other game designers were Dan Michaelson, co-founder of graphic-design studio Linked by Air; Mat Laibowitz, founder of research and design firm Futuruption; Lindsi Shine, founder of Insider, a concierge and event-planning service; and Jennine Willett, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects. More than 120 volunteers and staff helped run the game.