The Sacred Urns of Dagobert Steinitz

11/25/2004 – Paul Hoffman, book author, TV commentator and chess writer, also moonlights as a paradoxologist: an inventor of puzzles and composer of mysteries. As part of a $50-million Internet and TV ad campaign for the Sharp Corporation, Paul has now set up a virtual treasure hunt for a set of mysterious urns. This is how you can join the search...

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Dagobert Steinitz and the Sacred Urns

The puzzle is connected with a book called "The Legend of the Sacred Urns", written by Paul Hoffman. In it the author "draws upon his unprecedented access to the original research and writings of Dagobert Steinitz, an eccentric millionaire who was so obsessed with the first world chess champion that he changed his own last name to Steinitz." Preordering started on November 24, a description of the book is to be found at Steinitz Press.

But who is Dagobert Steinitz? The Steinitz Puzzlers web site tells us that this man, born in 1925, was an anthropologist at prestigious Isidore University in Connecticut. He spent some years with the Nanahsnug, an aboriginal tribe in South America, and developed a controversial theory about advanced hominids that walk amongst us and are responsible for many of the world's unsolved mysteries.

His ideas did not go over well with his university colleagues, who dismissed them as comic-book fantasy and new-age quackery. In 1969 Steinitz left the university and retired to an old family chateau in the south of France. There he created what became his legacy, a puzzle that, when solved, would lead to three hidden urns. The first urn, Steinitz claimed, contained one million dollars. The contents of the second and third urns remain a mystery.

The urn puzzle remained unsolved for the rest of Steinitz's life. For the first few years, he would emerge from seclusion periodically to taunt those who had failed to outwit him. He died thinking he had beaten the world, on Christmas Eve, 2003.

At the beginning of this year the clues for the first urn were picked up by a computer programmer and amateur cryptographer named Peter Lindman, who solved the puzzle. One part of it involved a chess game, and Linderman was able to open a sealed box using the combination code RXH7+, which is the algebraic notation for the final move of the immortal Steinitz-Bardeleben game. An interview with Peter Linderman provides more details on his solution of the first urn problem.

What about the other two urns? And how does the quest proceed. Apparently we have to wait for Paul Hoffman's book, which according to the dust jacket contains among other things:

  • The most complete and accurate [Dagobert] Steinitz biography to date, including never-before-seen excerpts from his original field journals
  • A rare copy of one of Steinitz's original puzzle invitations, as well as the complete 1969 guest list
  • An in-depth interview with Peter Lindman, finder of the 1st urn
  • The author's own hypotheses regarding the locations of the 2nd and 3rd urns!

A little sleuthing on the Web reveals that the book – if it actually exists – is part of an elaborate $50-million Internet and TV ad campaign for the Sharp Corporation. There is a full description of the puzzle on the Morewasseen.com web site run by Sharp, with an interesting Flash Intro attached to it. The best way to start is to joind the discussion of the urn clues with other puzzle solvers on the Steinitz Puzzlers Forum. For Newbies there is an FAQ page to answer the most common questions.

That is all we are able to tell you at the moment. Paul Hoffman is not revealing any details of this virtual treasure hunt, even to close friends and colleagues. The only thing we were able to get out of him is that the Sharp campaign will have a prize worth about $10,000, and that he worked on the ad campaign with Wieden + Kennedy and Haxan, the folks who made the movie The Blair Witch Project.

Paul Hoffman, puzzler and paradoxologist

Paul Hoffman, known to these pages as a chess fan, writer, and TV commentator. He also moonlights as a paradoxologist: an inventor of puzzles and composer of mysteries. Not just any puzzles but diabolically hard ones.

Paul's most notorious puzzle was "Treasure", which was released simultaneously in 1984 as a book, a made-for-TV movie and a laserdisk. The puzzle included a number of mysterious pictures and images connected by a loose plot involving the theft of a golden horse. The one-kilo golden horse, worth $20,000, was buried, and the mysterious images were supposed to give instructions on how to find it. The lucky winners would get the golden horse and $500,000.

The clues to the puzzle were interesting and obscure. Some were solvable, and others were red herrings. There was a chess game involved, which turned out to be Anderssen vs. Kieseritzky, the "Shower of Gold" game. But it was not relevant to the solution in the end.

Treasure hunters went to great lengths to solve the puzzle. Someone at a credit-card company traced all the places Paul had visited, and went and dug them up. “I visited Crater Lake in Oregon, the deepest lake in the continental United States,” Hoffman said. “It’s the caldera of an ancient volcano, and the water is an iridescent blue. Well I stayed in a lodge there and paid with a credit card. Pretty soon people were showing up with shovels to deface this natural wonder in search of the horse. A sign had to be posted that said 'THE TREASURE IS NOT HERE'.”


Paul Hoffmann (middle) anchoring the ESPN coverage of Kasparov vs X3D Fritz
in January 2003, together with GMs Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan

Paul received a couple thousand letters a month from treasure seekers. One woman was convinced that the horse was buried at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The only way to get to the particular place in the canyon was to pay to ride on a donkey but she exceeded the allowed weight limit by some 100 pounds. She dieted for a year and lost 110 pounds. Then she rode a donkey to the floor of the canyon but she didn’t find the sculpted horse. "At first she was mad, and berated me in a letter," Paul tells us. "But then a month later I got a note thanking me profusely because for the first time in her life she had gone out on a date. She decided that the treasure didn’t really exist but was the love in a person’s heart!”

Nobody solved the puzzle in the five-year time limit, which ended at midnight on May 26, 1989. The horse was dug up and the prize donated to charity. Seven months after the deadline two men found the solution and dug in the right spot in Tennessee Pass, Colorado. They found a vial with a congratulatory note inside, together with a $200 bottle of champagne.

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