MIT Mystery Hunt Sends Scott Seiver Searching for a Solution

Scott Seiver – one of the most highly respected poker players on the planet – spends one weekend every January putting his puzzle solving skills to the test against some of the brightest minds around in the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. There’s almost nothing at stake for any of the contestants, but Seiver does it for the opportunity to challenge himself in a competitive arena away from the poker felt.

David Hill
Feb 2, 2023
While many of his friends from the poker world are in the Bahamas, Scott Seiver is in an office in Boston solving away in the MIT Mystery Hunt.

Scott Seiver was playing a game. It wasn’t poker, or any kind of card game. And he wasn’t gambling. But to him, the stakes were still high. He was playing for fun, not for money, but there was glory on the line. Sure, he plays a game for a living, but this game, this was different. This meant more to him than money in his pocket and food on his table. In fact, it meant a great deal more.

It was sort of like a video game, at least at this particular moment on Saturday afternoon. He was on his computer and he was exploring a cluttered, messy office in a virtual world. He navigated himself over to a desk, where a virtual computer sat on a desk, and when he clicked on that part of his screen to sit down and see what was on it, another game opened up. A game within the game.

On his virtual screen that was on his physical screen, he saw a five by six grid that by now is familiar to pretty much everyone in America. “Ah,” he thought, “this is Wordle.” But the game on the screen was called “Quandle.” Perhaps a generic name to avoid a lawsuit? Not hardly. Nothing in this game is generic. Everything is imbued with deeper meaning and relevance. Everything was a clue.

He typed in a five-letter word as a guess. But rather than each letter turning green, yellow or black the way they do in Wordle to signify the correct guesses, each letter changed to bars of yellow, green and black – each bar wider than the other with a percentage associated with it. This wasn’t Wordle. And it didn’t take Scott long to register what he was playing.

“Quandle,” he thought. “This is probably quantum Wordle.”

He was right, of course. The game he was playing inside of this game he was playing was not Wordle, but fifty simultaneous games of Wordle at once, each superimposed on each other so that one could not be expressed independent of the other forty-nine. Quantum entanglement, q.e.d.

Scott turned around to members of his team that were in the room with him – the actual, physical, world of flesh and blood room – and explained to them his theory. Then a half dozen of them broke off in pairs to tackle the game by dividing it up between them. Scott paired up with Aaron, one of his oldest childhood friends, and the two of them set to work banging out one word after the next.

It wouldn’t be as easy as all that. What they needed to find was not 50 solutions for 50 unique Wordle games. They needed to use the concept of observation in quantum entanglement to “observe” and lock in individual letters such that only one target word was possible, then read the green letters in those fifty words to get the phrases “COLLAPSE SUPERPOSITION OF WORDS WHERE SECOND TILE IS GREEN” and “COLLAPSE SUPERPOSITION OF WORDS WHERE FOURTH TILE IS GREEN” then find those words and identify the letters in each column that was most unlikely. Those letters spelled “MOUNT WARIO.” 

This was the solution to the puzzle. Scott’s team found it in exactly 39 minutes and 50 seconds. They were the first team to solve this out of a total of 249 teams and 4,450 people playing this game with them. It would be 26 minutes before the next team would enter “MOUNT WARIO” into the virtual computer. Scott’s team was in the lead, but another team was in close pursuit. There was no time to bask in their Quandle victory. They needed to explore this cluttered office for the next puzzle, and fast. 

The game at hand was the MIT Mystery Hunt, one of the oldest and most difficult and intricate puzzle hunts in the world, held every year on the MIT campus since 1980. A puzzle hunt is like a race, where teams compete to solve a series of puzzles, which each unlock more puzzles that ultimately leads them to a finish line. The MIT Mystery Hunt takes place every year over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January. The game begins on Friday at noon and teams play 24 hours a day until someone reaches the finish and finds a coin hidden somewhere on the MIT campus.

This year’s Mystery Hunt contained over 150 puzzles, and the solutions to those puzzles then formed 15 other meta-puzzles. The puzzles came in every shape and form imaginable, and even some that strained imagination to its limits. They were designed to be brain-bustingly difficult, and as a result, even with an average team size of about 60 people working non-stop, eschewing sleep and showers and sometimes even food, only eight of the 249 teams were able to complete the hunt. The first of them didn’t find the coin until 7:23 am on Monday morning, 66 hours and 37 minutes after the game began.

Scott Seiver has been playing poker since he was a student at Brown in 2006, and he’s worked his way up from the smallest of stakes to the highest echelons of the game; made millions of dollars, won four World Series of Poker bracelets, and won the WPT World Championship. But before he was a poker player – roughly six months before, in fact – he was a puzzle hunter. He entered his first MIT Mystery Hunt in 2006, and climbed a similar trajectory over the ensuing years – going from a small team of rookies who couldn’t finish a single metapuzzle to being a member of Palindrome, one of the top puzzle hunt teams in the world, and the winners of the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt. “I would guess maybe only two or three people on my team even know I’m a poker player,” Seiver told me. “I think everyone at these things realizes that no one is defined by their job.”

“There’s just very few things in life in general that truly rewards intelligence for the sake of intelligence…”

“Everyone at these things” includes people from all walks of life. The hunt was started in 1980 by a student stuck on campus for winter break who made a scavenger hunt for his friends (the number of puzzles: 12. The prize: a keg of beer) and for many years it was limited to MIT students. Today the hunt is played by people all over the world. Of the over 4,000 participants this year, only about 1,700 of them were on campus. The rest were on discord and slack channels, or huddled up in Airbnbs or Boston hotel rooms. Sure, there are the classic MIT Mystery Hunt teams made up of entire dormitories or the MIT University Marching Band. But there are also teams made up of Wall Street traders, computer engineers, video gamer clans, crossword puzzle enthusiast clubs, and escape room designers; everyone from stay at home moms who love cryptic crosswords to crypto billionaires who love Japanese logic puzzles. Most of the Mystery Hunt players have very little in common in their regular lives. What binds them together for these three days every year is their particular type of intelligence.

“There’s just very few things in life in general that truly rewards intelligence for the sake of intelligence,” says Seiver. “Our society rewards intelligence for the sake of creating capital, for creating wealth. And very rarely do we sit down and say, wow, look how impressive this person is at being smart just for the sake of being smart. And that’s to me the really romantic, beautiful part of the MIT Mystery Hunt. These are truly the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

When Seiver first encountered the MIT Mystery Hunt in 2006, he was majoring in computer science and economics at Brown. He and about a dozen of his friends slept on air mattresses in an MIT classroom. They were inexperienced and outgunned, and only managed to solve a couple of the metapuzzles before Monday morning. It was grueling and hard, but to Seiver, that was the appeal. “I’ve always been attracted to the concept of things that are incredibly difficult. The idea of overcoming a challenge has just always had this like, really beautiful concept to me. And the feeling you get of working with other people to overcome a shared obstacle – just instantly I fell in love with the concept of it. It kind of got me hooked right away.”

But soon after that first Mystery Hunt, Seiver discovered poker. And poker scratched a similar itch for him as Mystery Hunt. “When I first started playing poker, I basically only played heads up. And so much of my joy from getting better at being a poker player was me trying to unravel what it meant to play against someone else – to search for the metagame, to poke holes in whatever their strategy was. And that’s what I found beautiful. The idea of tinkering with this puzzle, where the puzzle was the person I was playing against,” Seiver said. “I’ve just always been in love with games, pre poker, pre mystery hunt, and I’ve always been unbelievably competitive, just like psychotically competitive.” Seiver’s competitiveness made him want to play against the best poker players in the world. He certainly didn’t mind the money, but that wasn’t what drew him in. He wanted to compete at the highest level, to be across the table from someone whose genius he respected, and to hopefully beat them. Within a couple of years of playing, he had over a million dollars in tournament winnings and was a world champion.

WPT Champions Club member Scott Seiver in the 2016-2017 Tournament of Champions.

Mystery Hunt, however, had taken a backseat to his new passion. The hunt was held every year on the same weekend, and so was the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. “I felt that I couldn’t justify skipping what was one of the biggest poker weekends of the year for Mystery Hunt. So I stopped for a few years,” Seiver said. He didn’t play in the MIT Mystery Hunt from 2010 until 2015, opting instead to play in the PCA. In 2013 that decision may have seemed prescient. He won the Super High Roller for over $2,000,000. But eventually, he grew to miss the MIT Mystery Hunt, and decided he had given up something that meant much more to him than the money he could earn in the Bahamas. “l just one day realized how completely foolish I was and how much I missed.”

In 2016 Seiver called up his old teammates and found that while he was leveling up at poker, they were leveling up at Mystery Hunt. They had joined one of the top-tier teams, Palindrome, and were no longer playing Mystery Hunt for fun: they were playing to win. Palindrome was a legendary team. They won Mystery Hunt in 1997, 2000, and 2007. They invited Seiver to join them.

The difference between Seiver’s Mystery Hunt experience in his early days and of playing with Palindrome in 2016 was night and day. For one thing, Palindrome was a large team, maybe 60 or 70 people. They took up an entire lecture hall on campus as their team headquarters during the hunt. They hauled in computer equipment, projectors, boxes of supplies. They had everything you could ever anticipate needing for puzzles that could take any shape or form: hand tools, art supplies, electronics, crafts, reference materials, everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. They had tables and tables of food. They had a rigid and well-defined team structure, with roles and rules. And they had members of the team who were among the best in the world at certain types of puzzles. To Seiver, this was on par with a basketball fan getting to suit up and play with the Warriors. “It’s a very special experience for me to get to be with such smart people in their element. You want to go see a professional tennis match or go to an NBA game because there’s something very special about getting to see the best do what they do. And I have that feeling when I’m on Palindrome solving with these people. Getting to just watch the best in their element.”

Still, despite all that firepower, Palindrome struggled to win. In the first five years Seiver played with Palindrome they finished 4th, 5th, 3rd, 2nd and 2nd. One year they missed winning by mere minutes. “That just, like, shouldn’t be possible for something that takes 30 hours to do,” Seiver laughed. But in 2021 the Mystery Hunt moved to be entirely online, with the campus closed due to the pandemic, and Palindrome finally managed to cross the finish line in first place again. Their prize? The right (and responsibility) to create and run the next year’s Hunt. A task so all-encompassing and daunting that a full year la ter Palindrome was ambivalent at best about trying to win the Hunt again. But still, the official word from Palindrome was to not take the foot off the gas, and they pressed. For Seiver, however, that ambivalence meant that he’d allow himself to actually sleep this year. “In years past where you have say 60 people in a room, there’s something very special when eight to 10 people are like, ‘Hey, I’m staying up from 4:00 AM to 9:00 AM,’ you just, like, build a closer camaraderie, it seems with them. And I’ve always really enjoyed that, but this year I kind of purposely chose not to push as hard as I had in the past, and I think I’m happy for it. It felt more balanced, and I think I felt better because of that.”

Seiver still only ended up sleeping about six hours each night. And his team still managed to stay in contention throughout the weekend. But this year’s Hunt wasn’t like other year’s hunts. This one was considerably harder. It took Palindrome nine hours to solve their first meta puzzle.

“I’ve, you know, seen a lot of puzzles. You just kind of get a feel for the average amount of time people are taking to do a puzzle and you’re just like, wow, this is going very slowly.”

Seiver and his team pressed forward throughout Saturday. They were asked to weave baskets, to deconstruct a colored fan and reconstruct it to discover a coded message, to traverse Boston Commons searching for certain names on statues and plaques, to imitate certain animal mating dances at a soiree in an MIT ballroom, to solve crosswords in multiple foreign languages, to find hidden messages in a YouTube livestream of a coding competition, and, of course, to solve 50 entangled Wordles. It was fun, but it all felt a bit tougher than usual. “By Saturday at like two, three in the morning, I think everyone was pretty certain that this was going to be a very long hunt.”

In the end, Palindrome solved 102 puzzles and 13 metapuzzles and finished outside the top ten for the first time in the team’s history. Seiver didn’t mind. After all, Palindrome had won already. “Mystery Hunt – it’s just a big deal. It’s very, very cool. There is genuine prestige for winning it. There’s a real joy of the thought of getting to leave your mark on the hunt for other people for the future.”

Scott Seiver’s competitiveness pushes him, relentlessly, to the top. But once he reaches it, he’s finally able to relax, look around, figure out what he actually cares about. He needed to win in the Bahamas to finally realize he would rather be in Cambridge. And he needed to win Mystery Hunt to realize there was something he loved about it even more than winning. It was being around people that saw the world the same way he did; that found joy and beauty in the same esoteric and specific forms as he did. He explained what it was about his teammates at Mystery Hunt that made him cherish those three days every year: “These unbelievable geniuses just showcasing the speed of their intellect at such dizzying, staggering rates that you never really get an insight to in day-to-day life. Because life doesn’t really necessitate the force of such intelligent people to work in such an outside the box way. I’m getting to just see brilliance for the sake of its own brilliance.” It was something refreshing, and unlike what he encountered in his day to day life at the poker table. “At the end of the day, you know, sometimes people just do what they do for love instead of as a means to make money.”

That isn’t to say that poker players aren’t brilliant, or incapable of seeing what he sees in Mystery Hunt. In fact, Seiver thinks poker players would excel at it in much the same ways he has. “Poker at its truest core is about pattern recognition and pattern matching,” he explained. “You see a situation when you’re playing live with a person, you can’t even fully describe what it is you’re seeing, but there’s some subconscious feel that says, ‘okay, in this spot when this guy does this after these three hands happened and he’s a little upset about this, this then predicts that X, Y or Z is more likely to happen.’ And most poker players don’t even realize they’re doing this. It’s all preternatural, it’s under the hood.”

To Seiver, that’s what puzzle solving in the Mystery Hunt is all about. “It’s about getting this feel for, ‘Okay, I am seeing these things that on their own make no sense, but how can I create something? How can I create order out of the chaos?’” If he is a good puzzle solver, it is because he can look at something unusual, with no instructions about what to do, and he can intuit a strategy based on his experience, just like playing a hand of poker.

Winning a hand of poker is a puzzle. The solution to that puzzle is the information in your opponent’s face down cards. How to get that information requires lateral thinking, intuition, pattern recognition. On the face of it, figuring out those hole cards should be impossible. And yet the chips always seem to find their way to the best players’ stacks. For some, that’s a living. For Scott Seiver, finding order in chaos, finding secrets hidden in plain sight, finding meaning imbued in the small details, that’s more than a living. That’s art.