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Dan Shea / MT

The Game Is On

Every Saturday night, a mob of affluent young people goes on a fast-paced, high-tech scavenger hunt around Moscow.

By Dan Shea
Published: September 8, 2006

It was almost 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the parking attendants in front of club B2 were tapping on the windows of the blue Mercedes idling nearby. "All right, all right, we're going in two minutes!" said Olya, the car's driver. Next to her, Vitya sat with a laptop on his thighs, awaiting the order from Base.

At the stroke of eight, the Mercedes and dozens of other cars around the city received the order. Beginning with a cryptic quote from the Mad Hatter of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," it ended with instructions to head to Vorobyovy Gory. Minutes later, hundreds of 20-somethings descended upon the city's best view, clutching teacups and saucers in their hands.

The battle lines were drawn for a dogfight that would last till sunrise. Split into 14 teams, the PR managers, programmers, consultants and students involved would spend the night piecing together riddles and speeding across the city in an often-confused, always-frenzied run for victory in the city's newest, biggest and most expensive scavenger hunt, Skhvatka.

"In one word, it's about challenge," said Vitya, who like Olya is a 24-year-old marketing specialist at a software company. "It's a new type of activity, and therefore an interesting one. Plus, it's a chance to go up against other teams and prove your strength."

The game's web site, located at www.cxmoscow.ru, goes one notch further: "You don't have enough LIFE. But we can make your life BRIGHTER." The objective of the game, whose name translates to Melee, is to use clues given out online to go to various locations in Moscow and discover hidden "keys" -- words or numbers that have been inscribed somewhere at the site. Since the clues are parceled out in riddles, every team has a Base (usually something as unmilitary as a cafe) where a few members pore over computers, trying to decipher the clues. They SMS, call or e-mail strategies to the mobile elements of their team. The team that finds the 10 keys in the least amount of time wins.

Skhvatka, which originated in Minsk, was brought to Moscow last year. It now attracts hundreds of people every Saturday night. Teams are made up of 20 to 50 people -- and with one car for every four people, and one Internet-connected laptop per car, the places where Skhvatka keys are hidden quickly come to resemble well-heeled warzones after a clue is given out.

Dan Shea / MT
Holding his teacup at Vorobyovy Gory, Vitya seeks the agent with the first key.
By 8:18 p.m. on the last Saturday of August, chaos had enveloped Vorobyovy Gory as players converged to find the night's first clue. Olya stopped her Mercedes in the middle of traffic. The doors flew open and Vitya, along with Andrei and Sasha, two other members of the "Dude, Where's My Car?" team, jumped out to look for an "agent" who would reveal the key if they recited the Mad Hatter's lines to him. Within minutes, they found the agent. Written on a chocolate bar in his hand was the clue: cxmarchnightmare.

The next clue soon appeared online. Like all of the clues that night, it had a Lewis Carroll theme: "Before Alice found the key, she went underground and looked in the mirror."

Consensus came swiftly: into the metro. But which station? A cryptic "Alice" excerpt about the need to race around in a circle before "drying out" sent the team on a wild-goose chase that lasted for most of the next hour. A confused SMS from Base suggesting that the team visit a Shokoladnitsa coffee shop didn't help. Eventually, Andrei and Sasha went into the metro, while Olya and Vitya remained aboveground in the car.

"A few weeks back, we went to the space museum near VDNKh," Andrei recalled during a brief pause at Bagrationovskaya. "The clue had to do with three walnuts. We found a car with a guy who was giving out the nuts, and we had no idea what to do with them. Eventually we realized they'd somehow put the keys inside the unbroken nutshells."

Skhvatka is not the world's only city-wide scavenger hunt. In the United States, similar games exist in places like Florida, Seattle and San Francisco.

Dan Shea / MT
Later, Andrei and Sasha look for a key in the metro.
But one thing that stands out about the Moscow game is the striking affluence of its participants. Given its high-tech requirements, Skhvatka players need to be a fairly well-off bunch -- something that's instantly evident from the BMW and Mercedes cars that many of them drive.

In the metro, Andrei said that most of the members of his team were university graduates working for Western firms. But, he noted, the game attracts "alternative" types as well -- "street-racers, hippies and people who live without restraints on their pleasure."

As the night progressed, things weren't going well for "Dude, Where's My Car?" The team fell a man short as Andrei got a sudden call and had to leave. A few clues came and went. Other cars from the team were sent to perform the heroics, and the Mercedes was given over to talk about marriage and the singing of old Soviet songs.

"We're a team of losers. Losers, losers, losers," Vitya said.

The next few hours saw "Dude, Where's My Car?" drop to eighth place. Skhvatka participants on motorcyles and cars with racing stripes barreled down to a furniture store on Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa. Sasha wanted to get food. And a handful of aborted trips were made to statues of Yury Nikulin and Vladimir Mayakovsky in search of a certain "Papa William's Soviet colleague." A blurry period of confusion and sleepiness set in.

Finally, it was 5:22 a.m., and Sasha was asleep in the back seat. Olya and Vitya were awake, and "When You're Near," a syrupy R&B song by Timati and Alexa, was playing on the stereo.

Vitya, at the computer, received the last clue: "Carroll was a deacon all his life, but never took the priestly robes. Maybe that's why you'll see here a cathedral of three religions, none of them Anglican. You'll also see a Caterpillar; the key is underneath."

The call from Base came quickly: "Go to Victory Park."

The park was closed as the sun rose over a cool, dewy morning. Sasha and Vitya jumped a fence to get inside and, following instructions from Base, headed for the tanks, passing armored boats moored in manmade pools. When they reached the tanks, dozens of people were climbing on top of them or crawling underneath them with flashlights. The key was eventually found under the chassis of a World War II-era tank: cx8x8.

Dan Shea / MT
Sasha pores over a map on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.
Word came back that "Dude, Where's My Car?" had finished third. The teammates gathered to celebrate their success. Then, they got some bad news from Base: The previous message had been a mistake. They had actually finished fourth.

"That's in the middle," Sasha said, trying to put the best face on a bad situation. Then the teammates started bickering about who should get dropped off at home first.

Amid all the clues and keys, it's easy to forget the central riddle of Skhvatka: Why would a group of young people choose to spend their Saturday nights chasing nonsense words hidden on chocolate bars, rather than going out to clubs -- or just drinking themselves stupid?

Part of it, perhaps, is the fact that Skhvatka is so utterly different from ordinary forms of entertainment. On its web site, the game touts itself as form of "extreme tourism." It is, indeed, a sort of sublimized fight club for professionals who spend too much of their workweek in a collar or in front of a computer.

Asked about it after the game had ended, Vitya said playing Skhvatka had given him a new perspective on Moscow: "Otherwise, you just wouldn't see some of the places. You have unforgettable memories of various places, especially late at night or at daybreak."

Olya, meanwhile, cited the feeling of being part of a team, as well as the opportunity to forget about one's adult worries and act like a kid for a few hours.

Besides, she added, there's always Friday for the partying.

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