DASH is happening, for the fifth year in a row.
DASH (Different Area—Same Hunt) is a puzzle hunt event that happens simultaneously across multiple cities across the United States. The inaugural DASH in September 2009 spanned 8 cities. DASH 5 is currently being planned in 15 participating cities.
Those cities are: Albuquerque; Austin; Boston; Chicago; Davis, CA; Half Moon Bay, CA; London; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; New York; Portland, OR; San Francisco; Seattle; St. Louis; and Washington, DC. If you live in one of those, gather up a few friends and join. I’ve done it for the last two years and had an absolute blast. Damn right I’ll be doing it again this year.
What happened with The Great American History Puzzle?
Up until the last day, The Great American History Puzzle, the Ken Jennings-penned race through the vaults of the Smithsonian, was a masterful piece of puzzlemaking. Each puzzle was exquisitely crafted, most of them deserving the highest of accolades for the medium: they were elegant. The kind of puzzle that, after you crack it, causes a slow smirk and head shake in awe of its creator. Jennings managed to come up with a variety of clever puzzle types, many of them involving mechanics reflected in the puzzle’s final answer. (I’m intentionally avoiding specifics since people are still working on it, and they haven’t revealed the answers yet.)
I participated in the hunt, and appreciated the puzzles not only as a crafter, but also as a solver. And I had a lot of luck solving them. As the hunt was nearing its final stages, I sniffed around on Twitter to get sense of what kind of competition I was in. It seemed to be pretty sizable. Then Jennings posted a blog post saying fewer than two dozen people had solved all the puzzles so far. I had a chance to win it. So, I took a look at what clues were exposed about the final answer, and I realized the thing might be crackable. I cleared out an evening and spent an exhilarating four hours scratching my way through the final, half-hidden acrostic. I finally got it — and couldn’t really believe it.
Turns out I wasn’t alone — a handful of other folks figured out the same back door I did. But all we overambitious solvers had a weird problem — the rules stated we couldn’t submit our answers until 2 PM EDT on Monday, October 22nd. It appeared the contest was going to come down to a race for who could fire off an email fastest (the final answers had to be delivered to a then-secret email address) instead of puzzle aptitude. So we all clung to one hope: a proviso in the rules that said a tiebreaker would be issues for responses that arrived at the same time. But what would constitute the same time? Same second? Same minute?
We don’t know, because Smithsonian choose not to invoke the rule. I asked them why not, and they said, “While we would have loved to have the drama of a tie-breaker, we had a clear winner.” To them, that was Jeff Davidson, whose email arrived first, at 2:00:20 ET.
How close were the rest of us? Yesterday they posted the times. Thirty seconds separate positions 1 and 13. Seven more came in within the next few minutes. That’s not 20 fast puzzle solvers — that’s 20 people who were already done with the whole thing, who’d solved it the days beforehand and were racing to get their emails in first. (The 21st solver took 33 minutes more.) To me, that’s a tie.
It’s their contest and their rules and ultimately they’re the arbiters of fairness. But the whole thing leaves an unsatisfying taste, for me and several others who are in the same boat. None of us feel we deserve the prize outright — it very well could be that Davidson would have been the fastest on a tiebreaker puzzle. But we would have liked the chance to prove it, instead of being at the mercy of the vagaries of our different email servers.
It’s an unfortunate ending to an event that was an otherwise beautiful expression of the craft. I absolutely hope the Smithsonian does it again, and I hope they hire Jennings again. I just also hope they devise a more equitable ending, so those solvers who gave it the most attention are given a fairer shot at the prize.
Team Sheldrake, i.e. Luke, Joe, maxistentialist and myself, kicked ass at DASH 4 this weekend. Hats off to James and Wil and the other organizers across the country who did an incredible job. Every one of the puzzles was its own little masterpiece. The whole event, which is entirely volunteer-run, takes eight months to organize, and it shows.
If this kind of thing appeals to you, I suggest you sign up for their mailing list to find out about future hunts, in Chicago and across the country.
Calling all secret agents. Skulk, scurry and scavenge throughout Wicker Park and Bucktown, as you track down clues and secret hideouts in order to solve a great mystery. Beware. Competing agencies will also be on the prowl and subterfuge will be afoot. Where your typical scavenger hunt has much to do with brains, athleticism, and luck, the Clandestine Quest has everything to do with all those noble traits plus cheating. Wisely choosing from an array of officially sanctioned cheats, you can ensure your agency’s victory. With the purchase of the cheats, you will also ensure that 826 Chicago can continue to offer free writing programs for Chicago youth.
Team Rosebud takes on DASH 3
This past Saturday, four friends and I scampered around downtown Chicago as we participated in the DASH 3 puzzle hunt. DASH stands for Different Area Same Hunt, and as such, Chicago was one of 12 cities hosting the exact same puzzle hunt, with the exact same set of puzzles. There were nine puzzles in total, and it took us about seven hours from start to finish to compete, including time for solving, walking, and stopping for a burger at the Billy Goat for lunch. We didn’t win, but we came in third in Chicago. More importantly, we all had a blast.
The puzzles were all extremely well-constructed. Puzzle after puzzle showed a great combination of puzzlement, brute force solving, and one or two a-ha moments. Frequently we’d look back at a solution, after beating our head against it for a half-hour before solving it, and think, “Of course!” Which is always a good sign. We were always hungry for more, even after the final meta puzzle, which combined the solutions to the previous eight puzzles, and took us 77 minutes to solve. By the end, we were beat, and mentally taxed, but already ready to sign up for DASH 4.
DASH is an entirely volunteer organization. The whole thing is done for the love of the sport. If you’re interesting in helping plan the next one, which could come as soon as later this year, visit playdash.org and get in touch with the organizers. If you can’t figure out how, post a comment here or email me, and I’ll put you in touch.