WSU math teacher wins MIT puzzle competition

By Becky Phillips, University Communications

coinVANCOUVER, Wash. – A Washington State University Vancouver math instructor is celebrating his win in the “Super Bowl” of puzzle hunts.

Thomas Gazzola is part of a 40-member team of solvers who successfully deciphered the 2015 MIT Mystery Hunt, an annual puzzle competition held in Boston during the Martin Luther King Junior weekend.

Thomas Gazzola with the winning "Nautilodestone" coin from the MIT Mystery Hunt. Photo courtesy WSU Vancouver.
Thomas Gazzola with the winning “Nautilodestone” coin from the MIT Mystery Hunt. Photo courtesy WSU Vancouver.

The Mystery Hunt, created by an MIT graduate student in 1981, is widely regarded as one of the world’s oldest and most complex “puzzlehunts.” According to the MIT website the event draws about 1,000 people each year and has inspired similar competitions at universities, companies and in cities around the globe.

“There were about180 puzzles in this year’s hunt,” said Gazzola, director of the WSU Vancouver math resource lab. “My crew managed to get through them all in just under 41 hours.”

Winning means his team has the dubious honor of designing the closely guarded theme and puzzles for the upcoming 2016 hunt.

This year’s theme, “20,000 Puzzles Under the Sea, was unveiled at noon on Friday, January 16th as 57 teams gathered in an MIT lecture hall. Teams varied from 20 to 150 members, some of whom worked remotely by Internet.

“A person came in and introduced herself as Dr. Nautilus,” said Gazzola. “She was accompanied by Jules Verne. They said our first task was to build a virtual submarine and then find the “nautilodestone,” which we knew to ultimately be the winning coin. Then, the first batch of puzzles was released.”

In a feeding frenzy, the teams dove in. “It’s like throwing chum in the water for sharks,” he said. “Some puzzles were shredded with astonishing speed!”

No Instructions

The puzzles range from crosswords, anagrams, cryptograms, number puzzles, multimedia puzzles, physical challenges, mystery trails, scavenger hunts, inter-team games to anything else organizers can come up with.

“One standard feature of the puzzles is that they almost never come with instructions,” said Gazzola. “The first challenge is to figure out what to do with what you are given.”

This year, for example, the teams were handed a small piece of basketball net with red cord tied in knots here and there.

“What’s the answer?” the organizers asked.

“One of our teammates quickly recognized the knots were a numbering system from the Incas called quipu,” said Gazzola. “We finally figured out that the net webbing was a map of the MIT campus and the knots were addresses on the streets.”

“Eventually, we discovered the initials of the buildings spelled out the answer.”

Gazzola said sometimes the team will be stuck on a puzzle for 5 or 6 hours while others can be solved in two minutes.

With each mystery solved, the team inches closer to finding buried treasure, the winning coin hidden somewhere on the MIT campus.

Breaking the Codes

Similar to The Imitation Game, a new film based on the intriguing use of cryptography during WWII, Gazzola said breaking codes is something every team wrestles with.

“What Turing and his cohorts did to break the Nazi Enigma code is somewhat like what we do here … but with much lower stakes, obviously. There are always going to be codes and ciphers that need to be cracked as part of most puzzlehunts.”

Mystery Hunt teams recruit experts to help break those codes. Gazzola’s team had specialists in crosswords, computers, music, pop culture and TV. One member designed a sophisticated software program to help unravel the puzzles en mass – something along the lines of Google Spreadsheets, he said.

“The answers to each puzzle are used to answer the next puzzle in a series of meta-answers and meta-meta-answers,” he explained. “Sometimes we have to skip over a tough one and back solve it later.”

Yet throughout the weekend the mood of the puzzlehunt remained one of great excitement.

“We started out at 12:17 pm on Friday and found the coin at 5:02 Sunday morning,” Gazzola said. “Much of the team didn’t sleep at all, but everyone was still hard charging at the end – that’s how much fun it was!”

Engaging teaching

Gazzola, who writes and solves puzzles for the wider puzzling world, said everything he does is also tied into his teaching.

“I tend to treat everything as a puzzle. Looking at different ways to approach tasks is an extremely useful tool for a teacher to have.”

Gazzola’s team hopes to nail down the 2016 Mystery Hunt theme by February and will then begin the arduous task of crafting puzzles for next year’s competitors.

“It’s a colossal challenge but I have a great team with lots of really clever people. I believe we can put together a very entertaining and challenging hunt,” he said.

The MIT Mystery Hunt is free and open to all who want to participate. For more information, see:

For beginners, Gazzola suggests the Seattle DASH event. DASH – Different Area, Same Hunt – is a global puzzlehunt that takes place in many different cities at the same time. See:


Thomas Gazzola, 503-330-7421,

Rebecca Phillips, 509-335-2346,