Friday, February 24, 2012

How we traveled from the First Point of Aries: the solution to the 2011 Ginter Code

My name's Guillaume, you might know me better by now as @gyom39 on Twitter. And here is how my teammates and I solved that 8 month challenge that was the 2011 Ginter Code.

All it took was a lucky number.

Of course right, now, that’s how I feel. But back in the middle of July 2011, I was more mesmerized than anything. See, the 2011 edition of the Allen & Ginter Code happens to be loaded with red herrings. Literally, all over the place!!

It usually starts the same way for all codebreakers: scanning auction websites for potential scans of cards before the release date, or the more traditional way of getting packs/boxes/cases/truckloads of A&G to bust open, get the master set and work from there.

I personally did like every year, get my one box to open from Never Enough Cards in Port Jefferson, NY, and see what I can get my hands on and then use my (new) best friend Google to look for additional clues. I think I will now speak for many: those parallel cards with clovers in the corners looked veeeeery intriguing. So much so that I started looking for how many there were out there, until I realized that the ENTIRE base set was involved.

But something didn’t feel right: some clovers were dark, some others “golden”. Two puzzles? That looks complicated. Not to mention the money involved in acquiring the entire set. A trick that worked in years past was getting scans from auction sites, but this year everybody was smart about it: the corners were taken off of the scans. Already, the chase was getting difficult.

That’s when the first alliances/trades occurred: “I’ll give you so-and-so’s scans for yours” was the most common email sent around. But then came the point of the Brandon Phillips parallel: it only had 3 corners with a clover, but no cards with the same shade (dark) in only one corner to match it with!!

That’s when I looked in detail at the promo card for the first time: I figured that, like in years past (like 2010 and the stars), it would have to have a big clue.

And then it happened.

I opened 3 promo cards in my box, without paying much attention. Oh boy was I wrong. I was holding two promo cards side by side. The clock times look… different? It was subtle, but that is when I realized one of my promo cards read 3:14 and the other 3:15. This cannot be a coincidence. Check the 3rd one: 6:13. Bingo. And then your heart starts racing: how much time did I waste on the clover puzzle? Who else figured it out? Wait, “follow the Codemaster on Tweeter”!! I logged in, and started seeing the first two tweets: a poem was coming!!

The poem did not seem to have any connection whatsoever to the clover puzzle, and there was no announcement that the code was cracked either. So, patiently, I waited for the entire poem to be posted. Which took a month. A month!! That’s a lifetime to codebreakers!! 6 days later, August 25, a big confirmation: “The path to the keys begins where the Codemaster sits.” AHA!! It is the clock times after all. But wait, how many are there? Here we go again…

My hopes this time was that very few people would have caught up to the times, essentially because the clover puzzle was too big to pass on. So of course, scans of promo cards were easier to find. I got to 8 of them: 1:14, 2:20 (more on that later), 3:14, 3:15, 4:00, 6:13, 7:27 9:42. My first idea was to try to look at the master set again and force a connection. Being an avid reader, 220 reminded me of 221 Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes address; and Watson happened to have a card!! But I kept looking and looking at the promo card but couldn’t convince myself that the time was anything else than 2:20. Then another salvo of tweets appeared:

If you've put the puzzle together I hope you find it a beaut, because using it to solve the Ginter Code just does not compute

The secret is out!!

Best wishes to Jimmy Rollins on the day of his birth, I always like watching him play, for whatever that’s worth

Apologies for any confusion caused by my 11:27 communique, sometimes I confuse the day for the hour and the hour for the day

And that’s when I started trying to deal with the First Point of Aries (I will use FPA for short in the rest). See, last year, the code relied heavily on the use of birthdays, so I thought it couldn’t be the same thing 2 years in a row. But the time/date trick hinted me at the FPA, 3/20. Could it be 3:20? The poem says I have to go East of it, what’s East of 3:20… 4:00? In a mirror? COULD IT BE 8:00 INSTEAD? Oh my, it’s a 1-800 number!!

Err… well…

After trying every combination of 1-800 I could find from the clock times I gave up. Apologies again to that woman I got once who was very confused when I asked to speak to Reginald Thorpwell III. Furthermore, I discovered that there was 2 more clock times I originally missed, great… We were now at the end of September, and more tweets were coming about codebreakers being unsuccessful. So I read them all again. The “Boston tweet” was really bothering me because it seemed to point to birthdays again, at least that’s what the general consensus was. I really tried to deconstruct each clue, using google once again, along with any variation of 6:17. One of them being 617… oh, hello, Boston area code!!

(paused for a second)

wait, I thought it wasn’t a phone number…

(paused some more, then left my pen on the table, and took the dog for a walk)

At that point, I nearly gave up on the code. I would still check tweets from time to time, but I didn’t feel as concerned as before. Until the 4 tweets of October 22nd: the clock times points to cards!!! The Codemaster shows us the key!!! The domain is often visited!!!

Wait, what?

There came the time to read the poem again, and try to make sense of it all. The more I read, the more I felt that a “domain” would probably mean a website, so I can always come back to that later, first I had to find the cards. Cue to me browsing Wikipedia like a mad man, until I stumbled on 942… the number of prophesies that Nostradamus wrote!! Nostradamus has a card in the World Mysterious Figure set, which also contains… DB Cooper, who hijacked a 727, another clock time!! By then, more people started figuring it out, and that’s when I received the help of a couple of people, one of them being Ryan, who I later teamed up with till the end.

We figured that those Mysterious Figure cards had to be THE set to look at: 10 cards, 10 clocks, looks like it can work. In the end, all clock times could indeed be connected to all 10 cards in the set:

-- 1:11 was Kasper Hauser, his DNA analysis was published in Volume 111 of a biology journal;

-- 1:14 was Fulcanelli, who died at 114 years old;

--- 1:19 was the Poe Toaster, being the date of the visit;

-- 2:20 was the Iron Mask, the length of the Bastille prison being 220 feet long;

-- 3:14 was the St Germain Count, mostly because of the Tebow tweet and a reference to a church St Germain founded;

-- 3:15 was the Babushka lady, appearing on frame 315 of the JFK film;

-- 4:00 was Captain Johnson: the guy pictured on the card is not actually him, but a captain who claimed to have sank 400 ships;

-- 6:13 was Rasputin: Rasputin is/was a restaurant in Ottawa, which area code is 613 (cue to the Boston tweet);

-- 7:27 is DB Cooper;

-- 9:42 is Nostradamus.

Phew!! Now what? Oh right, the Codemaster shows up the word that is key: it is the underlined word on the piece of paper in front of him, he’s even pointing to it with his feather, so that had to be it, we thought. And with the “kcul tweet”, Ryan and I had the same realization: the keys have to be the last word of each WMF card read backwards. But we didn’t have the domain, and the keys should fit “at the fore”.

And what if it points to the Topps website? So I tried taking Kasper Hauser’s key (1:11, the first time), “world”, put it backwards in the search field of nothing. “The fore”, “the fore”… in front of the domain name? That didn’t work either, so Ryan and I figured we were stuck. We tried taking the initials of each last word, taking the first word of the last line (trying to involve the mirror again). I’ll pass on me trying to squint my eyes really hard and try to read that underlined word on the promo card. But nothing.

That’s when, on a Monday afternoon, we all read that tweet:

Young Ethier Konerko Desmond Ordonez Thome Teixeira Oswalt Papelbon Peavy Sandoval Danks Ortiz Tabata Castro Owings McGee

Instantly, the first reflex was to take the initials: yekdottoppsdotcom…!! But I tried it!! It can’t be… only that I barely tried with the whole set. I grabbed the Nostradamus card, “landing”, that gives me “gnidnal”, and then I saw this:

Wow!! 11 characters!! It was indeed the last word, of the last card no less!! I tried entering it on the Topps redemption page, but I was met with another error page. At that point Ryan and I frantically tried all other last words, and ended up with 2 more websites. Another tweet moments later helped though:

You seek a time, a margin, two addresses, a date; numbers for a model, a card, a life’s work, a foreign state

Dang! It’s not just the WMF, it’s the entire master set!! This is when two things happened:

-- Ryan and I both tried to go brute force and looked for scans for the master set, trying all backwards words we could find;

-- as we found more and more, we realized that there were 30 total keys that could be found, now was time for reverse engineering: that’s when Frank joined in and offered to trade info on some of the types he found for some of ours.

After a couple of days, we were pretty confident on 9 out of the 10 clock times:

-- 1:11 is Card #111, Sandoval, a.k.a. the Giant Panda (from Animals in Peril);

-- 1:14 is the margin, candidate Dewey;

-- 1:19 is the date, the Poe Toaster;

-- 2:21 is the address, Dr. Watson;

-- 3:14 is the easy one, “pi” (as in easy as pie);

-- 3:15 is the time, from the Amityville drama;

-- 4:00 is the 2nd address, as in 16:00 military for the White House street number;

-- 6:13 is the foreign state, the one we were still undecided: we later found out that 613 is an area code in Australia, pointing to the Tazmanian Devil;

-- 7:27 is the model, DB Cooper’s plane;

-- 9:42 is the life’s work, Nostradamus’s prophesies.

All of those cards gave us keys that point to 8 clues, a cryptic 11 character word, and a gigantic map of 99 lines by 99 columns full of letters, 9801 in total.

Something was still wrong though: most of the 8 clues we found referred to a “card value” and a clue card. Ryan, Frank and I got stuck for a long time at that step, and that is when it was the most frustrating, because we all felt we were so close to cracking the whole thing, and that we needed maybe just one more clue. But at the same time, the more clues were coming, the better a chance for someone else to solve it. On top of this, the Codemaster started saying he couldn’t help us anymore.

That wouldn’t stop us: all while trying to stay subtle not to attract too much attention, we kept tweeting for another hint at what the value could be. Meanwhile, I started working on a small computing script that would allow me to browse through the entire 99x99 letter map for any given value and in any direction: horizontally, vertially and diagonally, since one of the clues read “hours and degrees in equal measure”. By then the three of us had agreed that the map was in fact a star map, and that the poem reference to the FPA was meant as a tip to make us start our “navigation” from the center of the map. Which leads us to the Feb 16 tweet:

How to find card values, you want me to teach. You will need both hands for that answer to reach.

And right there we thought about the hands of the clock; and if both hands are needed, it has to be the angle between those hands. Some quick math gave us 10 angles, and what do you know: we have decimal values!! Reading the clues all over again, it became obvious that 3:14 was our Navigational Star, located at the North Pole from FPA, which means at the center of the 1st line of the map. If 3:14 is the Navigational Star, then its value from the hands is 13. The lucky number 13.

I ran my scripts for 13 following the diagonal going East from our North Pole, but I only got gibberish. That’s when I realized: if the North Pole is the starting point, then the corresponding letter, “C”, is part of the message and I should count 13 from there and not include it. I started going along: C, L, U, E… oh boy, CLUE!! Kept going, “bounced back from whence [I was]”, but again gibberish after “CLUE”. And then, an epiphany: how about I just try to go AROUND rather than BACKWARDS? Like around a clock? So I started following the diagonal going from the last letter of the 50th line to the 50th letter of the 99th and last line. I quickly realized that it was going to take forever to do by hand and I could also make a mistake. I then pulled back my computer scripts, modified them a bit and after I ran them I was faced with the following message:


Oh boy!! What is the clue card again? Well, the sum of the values without decimal and less than fifty is 13+47+39=99, from Hometown Heroes? That’s Andrew Bailey, from New Jersey. What’s the State Relic for New Jersey? (my heart starts racing) It’s related to the Battle of Gettysburg!! (huge pounding in my chest). What’s with the address, and a speaker? Quick, Wikipedia! (I’m frantic at that point) Wow, Lincoln gave a speech at the site of Gettysburg. But he has a card in the master set!! The Lincoln, FFF1.

It stared me right in the face. The twitter account @TheLincolnFFF1, “Flocculent Abe”. Frank had joined me via Skype, and was at least as excited as I was; at that point the main thought in my head is “don’t screw this up, please don’t screw it up”. I logged in using the final clue, the 11 character word from Nostradamus. And I tweeted the Codemaster. The only thing I remember after this is hitting the refresh button of Firefox and my F5 button about a gazillion time. Moments later, after Ryan got online with us too, here’s what we saw:

@TheLincolnFFF1 @gyom39 Check the email listed in your profile. The password is the same as for Twitter. #thegintercode #cracked

#cracked. The sweetest chain of 8 characters I have ever seen. I had to be quick, others could catch up to that last tweet. I checked Flocculent Abe’s twitter account, and found the email address with which he signed up; I signed up to the corresponding email account, and found an email in the inbox titled “codebreaker instructions”:


Leave the following message:

"This is [Your Name], otherwise known as Flocculent Abe. I have cracked the Ginter Code. You can reach me at [your phone number].

Give my regards to Uncle Reggie." "

I never grabbed my phone faster in my entire life ever. I left the message, speaking as carefully as I could. Frank, Ryan and I were already celebrating, trying to make sure this was for real. The moment we truly knew? After the first tweet from the Codemaster without a rhyme in it. There it was, no more clues, no more hints, we had done it.

And it might sound corny, but the first people we told and shared the info with were our respective wives. Not only to let them know about the great news, but also to announce that we could back to our normal lives. For having had to put up with our frustration, rants, mountains of paper notes, diagrams and drawings (not to mention hours in front of a computer of course), they deserve as much credit as we did for actually cracking it.

One question remains: shall we tell them there is another code to crack coming soon?

Nah, let’s just enjoy the moment.


  1. Congrats I was so lost and reading this I was never close. I had everything wish we could of teamed up as I would of glady sent you scans of all the code cards, clock, and the 30 decipher codes.

  2. Speechless. Absolutely amazing. Congrats. Check your Twitter we would love to have you on the radio show to discuss.