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Copyright 1999 The Seattle Times Company
Local News : Monday, June 21, 1999

Big Apple, big game, nearly big trouble for Microsofties
by Paul Andrews
Seattle Times technology reporter

NEW YORK - The city that never sleeps played unconscious host over the weekend to a game that never rests, producing several security incidents after the event's high-tech sophistication became a bit too realistic.

The annual event, simply called "The Game," sent 11 teams and 55 players combing the streets of Manhattan and environs in search of interconnected clues designed to simulate a paramilitary anti-terrorist training exercise.

A team of Microsoft managers called "Mission Control" coordinated the 27-hour race from a $575-a-night suite atop the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Most clues, posted at places such as the Extravertical Climbing Wall on Broadway, Lucky Cheng's nightclub in the East Village and the Pop International Galleries in trendy SoHo, were intended to show game players local color while testing their wits for solving anagrams, ciphers, acrostics and logic puzzles.

No charges

"Inevitably, however, some clues merged fantasy with reality, with less whimsical results. At the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel, vials containing dishwashing fluid labeled "radioactive waste" were discovered yesterday by custodial workers cleaning up a suite designed to simulate terrorist headquarters. Fearing they may have been contaminated, the workers notified police and port authorities, who briefly evacuated the 14th floor and an area of the basement while they worked to identify the substance.

Authorities decided against filing charges.

"No laws were broken and there was no an intent to create havoc," said Allen Morrison, spokesman for the bistate New York and New Jersey Port Authority. "But clearly it was not a great idea to leave sealed bottles marked hazardous waste where they could be found during clearing of a room or disposing of trash."

On Thursday night, a test team was questioned in New Jersey while searching for a clue in a park. And a clue site at Columbia University had to be dropped Saturday night when a team unintentionally set off a campus building's alarm system.

But security episodes failed to dampen enthusiasm for the event.

"We wanted this to be the biggest, best and most memorable game ever," said J Allard, a Microsoft Internet server manager heading the event. Allard, who was briefly questioned by police and port authorities over the evacuation incident, said, "I guess we succeeded."

Asked if New York authorities had ever encountered a similar episode, Morrison said, "This one is unique in my memory." The Marriott's response was a testament to New York's security procedures, he said. "We were erring on the side of caution, but we do take any potential episode like this seriously."

This year's event was coordinated by Allard's "Team Pink," winners of last year's version in the Los Angeles area. Teams began at a New York high school at 10 a.m. Saturday with the mission of tracking down a fictional terrorist operative named Alice Price.

From the school, the hunt took them to Central Park, where clues sent teams to consecutive sites involving Japanese haiku, IBM's Big Blue chess match against Garry Kasparov two years ago, a series of Roman numerals formed by attack motions against various body parts, and a charade-playing mime.

Twenty more clues and a long night of mind-numbing puzzles took teams to parks and woods in New Jersey and the site of the New York World's Fair. Team Silver crossed the finish line at 1:10 p.m. yesterday, five minutes ahead of Team White in the closest finish of the 15-year-old event.

A Silver victory

Joe Belfiore, a Microsoft Windows program manager, and his fiancee, Kristina Ota, a senior recruiting manager at the Redmond software company, led the five-member Team Silver to victory.

They sifted through the clues in a rented black van crammed with elaborate communications gear, including cellular phones, walkie-talkies, global-positioning-system devices, five laptop computers, two external antennas, a wireless Web connection and a printer.

For Belfiore, the victory culminated an effort he began planning a year ago after finishing third in last year's event by outrunning longtime friend John Tippett, another Microsoft manager, in a wild 100-yard sprint.

"Our team was absolutely hard-core about winning this year," said Belfiore, who, with Ota, spent recent evenings studying potential clues while mailing out interactive wedding invitations stored on CD-ROMs.

Belfiore, who co-founded the game as a Florida high-school student in the mid-1980s, took it to Stanford University as the Bay Area Race Fantastique and then to Microsoft as "The Game" after he was hired nine years ago. He said that by winning this year's event, he wanted to make sure he still had the edge.

An early favorite among game-watchers, the Team Silver nonetheless trailed Team White, another mostly Microsoft team headed by Raman Sarin, through much of the event. But it pulled ahead in oppressive afternoon traffic before reaching the finish line at Drovers Restaurant in Greenwich Village.

Waldorf as `Mission Control'

Teams cheered and high-fived one another as Black, Orange, Purple, Yellow, Green, Gray, Brown, Plaid and Blue arrived at Drovers during a four-hour time period. The majority of teams were predominantly Microsoft managers, but teams from New York, Silicon Valley and the Midwest also competed.

Allard's crew coordinated the event at "Mission Control" in the Waldorf-Astoria suite. By Friday, even before the event actually started, Allard's hotel bill alone had reached nearly $6,000. No official estimate of expenses was available, but sources said they were expected to top $50,000.

For Microsoft millionaires, expenses were secondary to the pursuit of a verisimilitude that occasionally merged role-playing with reality. An opening video to the event featured actual terrorist footage, and one clue excerpted text from the Unabomber's manifesto.

"Everyone seemed to agree we ruled on (high) production value," said David Treadwell, a Microsoft networking wizard, who linked several laptop computers and multiple phone lines in Mission Control headquarters.

Winners, after paying entry fees and spending thousands on travel, accommodations and equipment, traditionally receive nothing but bragging rights.

This year, however, coordinators offered an obelisk trophy to Team Silver. The trophy will be passed to winning teams each year.

Most teams said they expected to compete in next year's event. By late afternoon, Allard was already sketching plans. "Maybe we'll do Italy," he said.

"The important thing was for everyone to have fun," said Ben Jones, a Mission Control coordinator. "Every indication was that we succeeded on that point."

New York officials were scratching their heads at the players' motivations, however.

"Microsoft must be working these guys way too hard if this is the way they blow off steam," a local security official said.

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