They paused on a corner at 23rd Street, puzzled by the sight of young men and women wearing lights strapped to their heads, crouched over spiral notebooks.
Just another Saturday night in New York? Not for the 300 bankers, hedge fund managers, lawyers and software engineers solving puzzles on sidewalks and traipsing all over Manhattan for more than 16 hours as part of an infuriating, exhilarating, night-bleeding-into-morning competition called Midnight Madness. An elaborate scavenger hunt put on by Goldman Sachs, the event raised $2.9 million for charity and cost about $360,000 to produce.
This was the second time that Goldman had staged the hunt. Half the teams came from outside firms and various hedge funds. Each team had a fundraising minimum of $50,000.
The money went to Good Shepherd Services, a youth-service company, to finance after-school programmes.
The competition requires knowledge of military alphabets, ‘80s songs and video games, and historical spots. At one point, a team of seasoned puzzle hunters twerked at a wedding. They thought it was part of the game.
Elisha Wiesel, a Goldman Sachs partner and the game’s producer, announced the theme: “Total Eclipse.”
Then the teams were each given a closed steel white box, a packet that contained cards of movie scenes, a key on a ring, and five foam eggs that players could exchange for hints.
There were two rules: No tampering with clues and no using private vehicles. Then Wiesel jumped into a taxi and raced to Game Control. The game was on.
At 4 pm on Game Day, Wiesel, marched into Big Daddy’s diner and seized control of a balcony - his command centre. He directed volunteers to set up workstations with digital cameras, iPhones, iPads and computers.
The first puzzle turned out to be the hardest, causing the game to get off to a slow start. The movie stills were supposed to be placed on the grid in a specific order. The San Francisco team, the Burninators, solved it in 45 minutes. Around 9 pm, when Game Control opened for hints, desperate-looking players bustled into the diner, foam eggs in hand.
Soon, dozens of players swarmed the restaurant. Some of the gamers outside knelt next to a pile of trash bags, poring over clues. Later, players would take naps there “like homeless people”.
At 10.30 pm, a synthesised voice began barking from each team’s white box, telling players to go to Pier 25, where a boat was floating in the Hudson River.
The boat sounded a note at one-minute intervals. Players discovered that when they plugged their white boxes into one another, each played a unique note.
Using a tuner on his phone, Trevor Cohen of the Citi Kats team labelled the boxes to form a 16-key piano that glowed violet.
When they played a note, the boat played it back.
In the next puzzle, designated letters in the names spelled out “Mayor Clarke,” who was buried in 1861 in the New York Marble Cemetery in the East Village.
At 3.51 am, the Alphanauts, a team from Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, were the first inside the stone-walled cemetery, finding three new tombstones with inscriptions that were clues to Queen songs. Knock out the right song’s beat and a video screen would flash a phrase.
The Alphanauts had planted a fake clue, directing gamers to a phone number. When teams called the number, a rhyming robotic voice suggested they quit. Some teams complained; Game Control was amused.
At 6.57 am, the city began to wake up. Park employees removed clues. The game had five hours to go. The Burninators had already arrived at the final puzzle, located on the steps of the Elevated Acre, a rooftop park in lower Manhattan. Still, they had no idea they were ahead because of the ambiguous structure of the game.
They saw boxes with five locks arranged in rows.
When their keys opened the right box, they found a piece of paper that read, “7 WTC, 11th floor.”Finally, at 12.21 pm Sunday, the Burninators crossed the “Finish” bridge in an 11th-floor room overlooking the World Trade Center memorial. Three minutes later, another team arrived. They high-fived when they learned they were the first Goldman team.
Ariel Amdur, who flew in from Goldman’s Bangalore office, summarised his experience: “General awesomeness.”