Deep Down They're Geeks: Goldmanites Dominate Big Scavenger Hunt

  • Bankers spend Saturday night solving ridiculously hard puzzles
  • The race, named Compass, is reboot of beloved Midnight Madness

The contestants in Wall Street’s epic scavenger hunt emptied their “Field Rations” boxes and arranged the contents: 10 spray vials, nine bags of cotton candy and a deck of five playing cards carrying messages in Braille.

The competition, formerly known as Midnight Madness and rebooted this year under the name Compass, had led the players aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, apparently to sniff and taste.

Working on multiple puzzles at once

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

One team sprayed the scents on the cotton candy (not helpful). Another touched itty-bitty pieces to their tongues, sure about banana, unclear about grape. One player identified every scent, from bubble gum to grass, in about a minute, while another was unable to tell the difference between the “food and cologne smells.” Picking them out was the only way to get the next clue.

It’s not the typical image of a Wall Street dealmaker’s Saturday on the town. Yet the scavenger hunt, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Good Shepherd Services, has still found its base. Each year’s iteration brings into the open the endearing dorkiness of the people who, increasingly, populate top firms: science and math majors reared on video games, hot on problem solving, now writing algorithms and using quantum mechanics to eke out a slight edge on market swings.

Patrick Bateman would be horrified at the way these men and women dress. Gordon Gekko’s mind would be blown at the way they cooperate and remain stoic under pressure. And for what prize? That, at least, had a Gekko flair: a bottle of Cristal.

In the end, it went to a team called Snow Crash from Goldman Sachs that included the securities division’s Sarah Gray and Theo Lubke. They nabbed first place at 1:55 a.m. Second place went to Aron J, a play on the name of the commodities dealer Goldman bought in the 1980s. Third went to Spicy Mustard, featuring the bank’s chief information officer, Elisha Wiesel, who didn’t seem disappointed that his colleagues had swept the top spots.

They’d earned it, solving puzzles for almost 10 hours without a break. The three top finishers beat 21 other teams fielded from firms including Bridgewater Associates (placing fourth and fifth), Barclays, BlackRock, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

The Aron J team examines a Mexican Army Cipher Wheel.

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

This year’s event was designed and run by Pine River Capital Management, which won the previous version of the puzzle hunt that Wiesel produced for Good Shepherd Services reviving the Midnight Madness he’d played years before. The players-turned-organizers looked pleased as they put teams through their paces.

The race started with a telegram from Col. John Tiltman, a World War II codebreaker, urgently seeking help for Bletchley Park. “Please assign your top NYC analyst teams. Decrypting this critical intercept likely to end war and ensure victory.” Then came a line of code of 40 characters and a clue that all that was needed to finish the game was in the telegram.

Here’s a look at some of the puzzles -- and the foibles -- that followed:

Group Photo

It took the cooperation of every player from every team to reveal one of the early clues --  by holding up placards to form an image, with a photographer on a cherry picker to take a photo for distribution and decoding after. First, though, they had to figure out where to stand on a grid corresponding to midtown Manhattan.

Collaborative clue making

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Graphing the Hudson

Getting in a kayak on the Hudson River looks easy enough. Even falling out of a kayak and getting back in, which happened to one person, looked easy compared to the rest of the work that needed to be done to solve this puzzle.

On a graphing mission

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

It was supposed to be a graphing exercise. Organizers attached altitude and depth gauges to balloons and buoys just off a dock with a 50-foot long number line running from -35 to +35.

The gauges were pre-set with the y coordinates, and the number line was marked with x coordinates. Teams kayaked, collected numbers, then graphed them to see the shape of the constellation Ursa Major. It also took decoding a message in a bottle and using a stellarscope to get to the solution, the word "Overtake."

Musical Phones

At the Petzel Gallery in Chelsea, teams were guided to black touch-tone phones in the quiet white-walled space exhibiting work by Thomas Eggerer. The paintings weren’t a clue. Instead, there was a Mad Lib to fill in by dialing the phone numbers on the retro device -- specially programmed to play musical notes. The challenge was figuring out what rhythm to use to type in numbers, so they sounded like a recognizable songs to complete the Mad Lib.

On the phone

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Turns out the chorus to “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang is seven notes or digits, which yielded the first word of the Mad Lib, “Celebrate.” And the riff to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is 10 notes -- a 7-digit phone number plus area code.

But even when a team recognized a tune, identifying it was an obstacle. That Cream riff delayed Bridgewater’s Alphanauts, until co-Chief Investment Officer Greg Jensen filled in the blank before it with “Vanilla Ice.” The next word -- Cream -- suggested itself, but only after another teammate had listened to five songs by Jimi Hendrix and Googled “greatest rock anthems” to try to place it.

Colin Teichholtz, a partner at Pine River, had tested the phone and Mad Libs at home. “My wife and kids got that puzzle done so much faster,” Teichholtz said. "I don’t know what to say."

Scents and Candy

“I created this puzzle,” said Anand Sharma, Pine River’s head of execution trading, as he observed some players wrinkling their noses. In a private corner, taking care not to be overheard, he told its story.

Pine River’s technology chief, Ben Hoffstein, has this joke, according to Sharma. “He’s always like, ‘My ideal cologne is grass -- just a freshly mowed lawn of grass.” And then one day Sharma was at Duane Reade and discovered that it actually sells that scent. He brought back a bottle, setting the wheels in motion for the puzzle. The company that makes the scents donated bulk quantities for the game.

Keeping Score

“When you score a goal in hockey, what is it?” Wiesel asked after watching a film showing teams scoring in different popular sports.

The answer was the start of a sequence -- a Fibonacci sequence, to be exact -- which he figured out when another teammate corrected him on the score for darts (13). It might have come faster if he’d paid close attention to the handle of the Periscope account where the movie was posted: @LPB1175. LPB stands for Leonardo Pisano Bigollo, better known as Fibonacci, and 1175 is his approximate birthdate. All the footage was found and assembled by Hoffstein.

Into the Flames

Decoding a cocktail menu

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Josh Stabiner, who runs information security at Pine River, had an idea to make a puzzle that involved flames of different colors. His colleagues didn’t think that would pass their safety standards, so instead, he decided to have teams mix colorful liquids.

The puzzle turned Tribeca architecture firm Fogarty Finger into some mad scientist’s version of a mixology class. The players were instructed to wear gloves and not drink anything.

Enigma Machine

By midnight, which was around the time the game was supposed to end by the organizers’ original estimate, a group of volunteers dressed as sailors were installed in the Enigma Room. Their job: to only permit teams with the correct set of code to enter the room.

Snow Crash with an enigma machine.

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Many teams had entered without a dash of code to proffer when Snow Crash arrived and read out a 40-digit sequence. “You’re approved,” said the sailor as another whisked the group into a darkened room with an enigma machine.

With a set of instructions and all the preparation of the evening, the next steps were fairly simple. Slowly, they pressed letters and looked for the one on the machine lighting up, deciphering the message from the telegram: "Go Party. Your Target Is Clear. Give Peace a Chance."

On the Flight Deck of the Intrepid, a clear safe awaited. Snow Crash used the code “Peace” to open the lock and was the first to sign a treaty -- a declaration of sorts of their intellectual competitiveness. And then they grabbed that champagne from Teichholtz’s personal wine cellar.

There was another reward: helping Good Shepherd raise about $750,000 toward its $90 million annual budget for aiding youth and families in New York City.

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