When I Played "The Mole"

Recently at about 6 in the evening I was lying on my back on the floor in Eric’s bedroom. Eric is someone I don’t know, and have never met – still haven’t, because he wasn’t home. His roommate Matt was home, though, and Eric must be a very understanding roommate because Matt had hidden a series of treasure-hunt style clues in Eric’s room, and I was waiting a cue from my coalition partner Stacey, who was in another room, to begin searching for the clues. Matt, the clue-writer, had invited 13 people over to his house for a daylong game that lasted into the evening, and this hunt was just one part of it. The reason I was lying down was because at this point in the day it had already been a long and cerebrally fatiguing experiment, to say nothing of the lap I took around the block in my underwear about 4 hours previous. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or is it behind, since that happened previously?

In time, Stacey arrived with a clue from a different room (she had been assigned to the hallway, and was the courier for all the clues, which were unlocked in sequence). The clue she delivered indicated that the “Murricane’s movies” would lead me to a clue concerning “star crossed lovers.” I’d been in the room for about 20 minutes waiting for something to happen and rather than take the place apart and look for clues (which we’d been instructed not to do) I had used that time to familiarize myself with the things in the room. Eric’s belongings.

I pulled the four DVDs off the shelf that had Bill Murray in the cast: “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “The Royal Tennenbaums,” and “Groundhog Day.” Each DVD case had a slip of paper inside. Two had arrows on them and two had ellipses at the beginning and end, so I was able to group them together into two pairs of clues in order. One pair of clues indicated that I should count the number of drawers in the room and subtract from it the number of Isaac Asimov books on the shelf. The other pair prompted me to count the number of laserdiscs (laserdiscs!) in the room and hinted at the number of Easter eggs, which was a reference to an out-of-season Easter bucket found on a shelf. Performing some basic mathematical functions produced an Act number, Scene number, and line number. A hardcover copy of Complete Works of William Shakespeare was on the shelf, and the clues yielded the line from Romeo and Juliet that goes, in part, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Behind a bottle of Rose Grenadine on Eric’s top shelf, I found the last clue and handed it to Stacey, who delivered to Monica, who was waiting in the kitchen, and was next in the sequence to solve her room-specific treasure hunt. She began by observing which of the Christmas cards stuck to the fridge with magnets had, upon closer examination, some letters circled. The circled letters spelled out a message. And so on.

My hunt in Eric’s room was the fourth part of the larger treasure hunt, which was in seven parts, and was itself only one part of a 10 part game that lasted 11.5 hours. The winner claimed a prize of $65. This is the kind of thing I like to do with my weekends. Luckily there are guys like Matt who make it possible.

Here’s the story from the beginning.

I’d heard of Matt’s work before I met him. Before his move to LA, he was a Brooklynite and he’d achieved some renown in the Survivor fan community for producing home-brewed Survivor games, which played out in the park over the course of one long day. There’s a niche subculture of people who play Survivor and Big Brother games with their friends.

Max Dawson, a Survivor contestant I've become friendly with, alerted me that Matt had moved to LA and was planning a west coast Survivor day. Through Max, I asked if I could play and Matt invited me to participate. It was a fun day –also long, about 10 hours on the beach – and Matt filmed it with a retinue of helpers using iPhones. He may edit and put it online some time so I won’t say too much about the game itself. I will say a little about the prep I did for that game.

Aside from already being an avid and engaged Survivor watcher since season 1 and a serial consumer of podcasts (pun intended), I further prepared for the competition by watching the videos of Matt’s Survivor Brooklyn games, two of which are available on YouTube. Some of them I watched while taking the bus to the world’s largest maze on the Dole Pineapple Planation on the island of Hawaii. From watching Survivor Brooklyn 1 and 2, I learned two important things.

1.   The best player doesn’t always win. The final 2 in Matt’s first game included a competitor named Steve who played the better strategic game, but the guy sitting next to him had burned fewer bridges and the jury rewarded him. I watched that and thought, “If I make it to the jury and I don’t win, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. These people aren’t going to play and vote like Survivors on the show would.”

2.   Not very many women participate in Matt’s games. There are always more men present.

So when I showed up on the beach I brought a relaxed competitive attitude and a determination to bond with the women, first by being friendly and cordial to them, and then forming strategic alliances with them and keeping them. There were two women on my tribe, and I told both of them in confidence and without any deceit that I would be loyal to them all the way to the end. One of them didn’t survive a tribe-switch scenario, but the other one, a woman named Stacey (the courier in the hallway), was my closest ally in Survivor Malibu, and we made it deep.

Stacey and I formed a tremendous bond that day. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. It was just a game. But we played it so full-heartedly, and being in such a tense, dramatic scenario fraught with paranoia, having someone I was completely loyal to and whom I believed was honest gave me great comfort. In a tiny way, it’s like the relationship the castaways form on the real show. I’ve run into Stacey once or twice since then and it’s always a delight, like a rare meeting a beloved kid sister who lives far away.

Matt must have liked having me play his Survivor game because some months I received an invitation from him to play “The Mole.” For those of you who are not familiar with the early 21st century reality show “The Mole,” I’m not going to describe it here: there are other online resources. It sounded like a fun opportunity and Laurel and I were able to work out childcare and timing. So in the morning I showed up, one of 13 contestants in Matt’s first ever home-brewed Mole game.

Weeks before the game, I replied to Matt’s email questionnaire with answers about when and where I was born, how many siblings I had, and favorite foods, TV shows, and celebrity crushes. He also asked all the players if we had any of the following colored shirts: red, blue, yellow, green. Like any good game designer, I have all. I was assigned to wear a yellow shirt.

I packed my shirt, cell phone and charger, a notebook and pen, and a variety of snacks. This turned out to be one of my best strategic moves of the entire game, for although the invitation told people to bring something to eat or drink, many people did not, and the only food available for the whole day was a selection of popcorn, crackers, and cookies. I ate everything I brought and even had enough to share with a couple of my more whiney and hungry competitors. For those who had brought nothing to eat, it was a very long day, but I had an advantage going into the game: four years’ experience being a dad. Always bring snacks. And bottled water.

Here’s what happened when I got to Matt’s house.

Thirteen suspects assembled. In the kitchen, we put on nametags and picked up a red or a blue cup that had our name written on it in Sharpie. There were also dollar store notebooks and pens for us to write in. I surveyed the other guests as they arrived. My thought going in was that being the Mole would be psychological torture, and that whoever was in that role would be having absolutely no fun whatsoever. My eye was drawn to one guest who was quiet, often sat by himself, and touched his face and eyes and hands in a way that, to me, indicated agony. Here’s the roster of suspects.

Me: Not the Mole. On the email survey, Matt asked us if we would like to be considered to be the Mole. I said no. I already know I’m good at lying, I wanted to test my skills of deduction and observation.

Stacey: My old alliance buddy from Survivor LA. She was also in yellow, and I was very happy to see her.

Steve: The runner-up from Matt’s first Survivor game. I introduce myself and said I’d seen him, and that he should have won. I also proposed a yellow-strong coalition (that’s what you call alliances on The Mole) and Steve and Stacey were on board, so that started things off well.

Paul: Paul and I do ComedySportz together, and 1 week earlier he’d been at my birthday party to play Food Chain. Paul arrived late, hung over, and hungry. He was in for a long day.

Kerry: We played Survivor together. She asked me the best jury question, which was, “You seemed to do a lot of weaseling around to get this far in the game. How do you have any respect for yourself?” Kerry does not mince words. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like me. She guessed I was the Mole in every round until she was eliminated, which was early on.

Monica: I’d never met her before and didn’t talk to her until after the first few rounds were through. Turns out she and Matt know each other through a Gay Board Gaymers Meetup that I’ve attended before, and she is quite a games maven, which factored in to some of the later rounds.

Mauricio – the last and latest person to arrive. He also had no shoes on.

Corey R and Corey J – Two nice guys named Corey, both on the red team.

Adam – Someone else I barely spoke to the entire game. He’s a huge Survivor fan though and we did get a chance to talk about that a little; he tipped me off to a good sounding podcast with some Survivor tittle-tattle.

Joaquin – Also played Survivor with me and Stacey. He won a push-up contest and expertly deployed a hidden immunity idol. Also a Survivor fan, a good athlete and a smarty.

Ryan – Also played Survivor with me. I was in an alliance with him but ultimately helped vote him out because he was my last remaining tribemate and I thought it would make me seem like less of a target if I had no allies left, Chris Daugherty style.

Brian – Definitely the Mole. Seemed very stressed out and often sat apart from everyone else.

Matt explained the rules, and the most intriguing was about the hidden exemptions. There were some hidden around the house, Matt told us, and they were small. The first person to give him one during a round would be exempt, and could not be eliminated no matter how they did on the quiz. Anyone else who gave him a hidden exemption in that round once one had already been handed in would have no bearing: in effect, they would have wasted it. And you could only play it once per game, i.e. once total.

The first challenge was a game of Celebrity with some wrinkles: players were divided into those who could speak and those who couldn’t. Everyone was collectively trying to get as many clues as possible to put more money into the pot. Brian (the Mole) got a ton of clues in his guessing round, but I figured that’s because he was laying low: no Mole would do anything brazen in the first rounds to reveal himself as such. In fact, it was better to identify the Mole early on – as I had, with Brian – because in later rounds that person would have learned how to model behavior and would be harder to detect.

Stacey tied for high score giving successful clues, which was remarkable because she couldn’t speak, and she cunningly won the tie breaker which required you to estimate the combined heights of everyone playing the game. She won the first exemption and we all took the quiz.

Each player got a group text from Matt containing a link to an online quizzing system. It worked smoothly, quickly, and slickly, and in what seemed like an instant Matt was able to calculate who was safe and who was out. And then just for style points, Matt had a play list with genuine music from the original season of The Mole, which heightened the experience, and he even put our faces up on the screen, using his phone, along with the green or red thumbprint depending on how we did. Very tech-savvy and impressive. It heightened game play. We were all breathless during the elimination ceremonies.

But there wasn’t one yet: after that first quiz, Matt revealed that no elimination would take place. Instead, we would play another game and the points would carry on, but Stacey’s exemption still held true.

During the strategizing and before the second round began, Steve pulled me and Stacey aside. “I found the hidden exemptions,” he said. “I found all of them. They were taped under our cups. I went around and collected them all.”

I was gobsmacked. Steve was a genius! He gave an exemption to me and one to Stacey. He’d already played his, so he was sure to survive the first elimination. This was some high level game play. I was glad I’d made the alliance with the yellow players, since they were doing so tremendously well already and the game had only just begun. We talked about who was suspicious, and I told them I was all-in on Brian, but Stacey and Steve thought it might be Kerry. I was in talks with Brian and Joaquin also, because I wanted to do some information sharing with Brian to help me do better on the quiz. And I was growing suspicious of Steve, my alliance mate.

Round 2 was a relay race. One person out of the 13 had to volunteer as being “Fast”. Steve, Paul, and Brian all volunteered, but Paul was voted in. The other 12 people would split into pairs of leaders and followers. Leaders guided blindfolded Followers through their portion of a racecourse through Barnsdall Park, next to Matt’s home. If the Fast person (Paul) could lap the group, he would win individual exemption but reduce the prize pot for the winners.

I’d forgotten about this part of The Mole, but was awakening to the prospect that the group’s winnings were always going to seem pitifully small compared to what we could potentially earn. I wanted to keep a lot of money in the game if at all possible so I formulated a plan.

I was paired with Corey R. and put in the second position of the team relay. When the first team reached us and handed off the blindfold, Fast Paul ran by us. I stopped and asked him to throw the challenge, and, when he demurred, I gave him the hidden exemption that Steve had given to me. Corey R’s jaw hit the floor, and I was struck by the thought that, if this were TV, it would be a very exciting episode. Paul agreed to go back to the house and not meet his win condition, so the only thing holding us back was how fast we could the rest of us could go which, it turns out, is not very fast. Once I began to run with the blindfolded Corey by my side, he got quite nervous, so we slowed down and I talked him through each step and each turn.

Players who completed their portion of the course returned to the house. Ryan and Monica, the first two to do the race, got back first and were looking for exemptions everywhere, though of course they didn’t know they were all gone already. I was counting on Steve, my coalition partner, giving me another exemption I could use for myself to replace the one I’d given to bribe Paul, since he’d used his already and had no need for all the extras. Monica and I strategized in the stairwell and she told me she was certain Paul was the Mole. We both agreed Steve was the 2nd most likely culprit, but I didn’t want to tell her the truth, that Brian was definitely the Mole. Steve and Stacey were thinking Kerry, but I just didn’t see the evidence.

After the race was over, another pitifully small dollar amount was added to the prize pot and we took quiz number two. Brian did his quiz the fastest, and why wouldn’t he? There was no incentive for him to think about the answers, because he was the Mole.

Matt revealed yet another non-elimination, meaning that the next quiz would result in 3 eliminations: the lowest scoring 3 people would be out at the end of the next round.

That round required players to divide up into 2 groups, Voyeurs and Exhibitionists. We picked our role without knowing what they meant. Every subsequent round started this way. Matt revealed the Voyeurs had to go out and take photos of a bunch of people and get back in time. The Exhibitionists, of whom there were 6, were given the challenge: run around the block in your underwear. The more of you who do it, the higher fraction… of five dollars… will be added to the prize pot… that one of you will eventually win. After 11 PM tonight.

It seemed pretty easy. The six of us all said no thanks. For me, there was a time in my life where I would have been gung-ho about it, but no. And it would have been one thing if everyone was itching to do it and one person was balking – but there wasn’t any, “He won’t do it, he must be the Mole!” talk. It just didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

But then Joaquin murmured that he might be willing to. And Ryan said if someone else did it, he would do it. And Corey R. said the same thing. So I urged Joaquin to go through with it, and Joaquin said OK and stripped down. And I told Ryan and Corey R. that they couldn’t let Joaquin do it alone. That’s just wasn’t right. But then they backed out.

And letting Joaquin be the only person to suffer for the team just didn’t sit right with me. So I took off my clothes, and Joaquin and I ran around the block in our underwear. That’s the part I didn’t know if I wanted to tell my wife about. I still haven’t. And Ryan, that joker, hid our pants while we were gone. Classy, Ryan.

Anyway, so we made it around the block. We hardly saw anybody. I don’t know how many people saw us. Turned out the worst part of it was the cardio exercise, for though I have lost almost 20 pounds this year, I am not a runner. Joaquin is. I had to keep telling him to slow down. But we bonded on that run. I told him I was suspicious of Steve.

Joaquin, me, and the Voyeur with the highest score were in a tie-break competition for who would join Stacey and (secretly) Steve, for exemption in this round. The tie-break involved guessing how long the slowest person took to respond to Matt’s email questionnaire. I had the closest guess and won the tie-break. When Matt awarded me exemption, I declared, “I give my exemption to Joaquin, for being willing to do the underwear run by himself.”

I don’t know what I was thinking. I regretted it. Although I was pretty sure Brian was the Mole, there were going to be 3 people knocked out of the game in this round. It was a very risky move. But it was kind of outside the game. Also, I knew I wasn’t the Mole. I had nothing to lose by playing with brio. I figured the Mole would be playing quietly and subtly, not making as much noise as me. And if people thought that was a double-bluff and therefore I was the Mole, that helped me too because they would flunk the quizzes and be eliminated. There was absolutely no downside to playing flamboyantly, which is good, because that’s my natural inclination.

We took the third quiz, Matt cued up the suspenseful music, and began the first elimination ceremony. Ryan, the hider of pants, was eliminated. “From the moment I saw everyone writing stuff in their notebooks,” he said as he gathered his things, “I knew I wasn’t going to be good at this game.”

Corey J. was eliminated. He was one of the silent players in Celebrity, and I never interacted with him at all. Turns out he was not good at the game. Cheers, Corey.

The third person eliminated was Brian, the person I was certain was the Mole. The person who I thought was so obviously the Mole, that I was going to be bored playing because I’d just observe Brian’s actions all day and coast to the end. But no. Brian left. 10 players remained. And I had no idea who the Mole was.


Next we played a game of Telestrations with modified points scoring. Another total fiasco in terms of adding money to the pot. Some particularly undrawable guesses and unguessable drawings included “wheel mountain top” and “river camera.”

Joaquin was eliminated. At least I saved him once before he went. In the days after the game ended, Matt sent out a graph with some stats in the game and there were some interesting things about this round. Kerry had the worst performance in the quiz, but she played a hidden exemption – not sure how she got one – and that’s why Joaquin went home. Kerry, who was certain I was the Mole, would have gone home sooner if not for that.

In the next round, we split into 2 groups and played 2 different card games – Timeline and Cranium Pop 5 – and Kerry, no longer saved by hidden exemption and convinced that I was the Mole – did the worst on the quiz and went home.

In the final 8, half of us went to play Flip Cup and the other half did a memory challenge, looking at pages of a ghost story in one room and running to another room to transcribe it accurately. I came within 15 words of finishing mine, and made no mistakes, so won the most for the pot. Around now, I was pretty sure Paul was the Mole, but was distributing my answers around on a few people to cover my bases. I was also beginning to get worried about making it home on time to relieve the babysitter.

Stacey, Steve, and I had done nothing to conceal our coalition, and we were doing a lot of talking with Monica too. Corey and Adam were clearly always together talking. Paul was always kind of doing his own thing, whining about why there wasn’t any food and giving inconsistent or side-stepping answers to his own biographical questions. But around now, people started to say: what’s the deal with Mauricio? He has no partners, no alliance. He’s never talking to anyone. How is he still hanging in there?

Steve in particular was suspicious of Mauricio, and I was still suspicious of Steve. Steve did give me another hidden exemption, which I played in the round after Kerry used hers, just to keep myself in the game long enough to observe a little more. But despite his loyalty to me, Steve’s moves were so bold it reminded me of how I probably would have played as the Mole. But it wasn’t Steve: he was eliminated after the card game round, the first of the yellow alliance to fall.

And then there were seven, as Anderson Cooper would say. This is where the room-by-room treasure hunt happened. To hide the clues, Matt made all of us go into a bedroom for sequestering. During that time, various groupings conferred to trade theories and share info. To do so with privacy, we took turns stepping into the closet, until we noticed there was also a bathroom to step into, which was a lot less awkward. I talked to Monica and Mauricio, whom I didn’t suspect at all, and to Paul, who seemed to be getting more focused on the game. I hadn’t collected any info on Stacey at all. If she were the Mole, she’d have so completely hoodwinked me that I wouldn’t still be in the game because my quiz answers would have been so far off base.

Around here is where my suspect list got too broad. Adam hadn’t done much to shake up the game, and I didn’t know much about Corey either. I always think it’s a bad job when Survivors in their post-game interviews say that there were some people they simply didn’t speak to at all. With so few people in the game, it seems obvious you have to spend at least a little bit of time talking to everyone. But I had fallen prey to that same lapse, and what I didn’t know was making my paranoid. I tried to compensate for my lack of certainty by pointing the answers to my quiz questions at a range of people, to give me a better chance of being right on at least some questions.

The treasure hunt took us, collectively, 43 minutes. Paul went first and seemed especially dense about finding clues in the Friends DVDs. Each of us was confined to our assigned room, but I was adjacent to Monica and to Stacey, and I compared notes and conspired with them both.

The next round was that new popular spy themed card game about guessing secret words; I’d never played it before, but Monica had, and she was good at it. I would have been better if I had some experience: remembering all the hint words from earlier in the game is crucial, but I figured that out too late. Also, we’d been up and playing games for not a few hours already, and I was worrying about getting home on time. The group I was on lost that game and, though the remaining Corey said at the beginning of the elimination ceremony that he felt sure he’d tanked the quiz, it turned out this was the end of the line for me. With 6 people left in the game, I was eliminated.

I was sorry that I couldn’t play any more, but it was a blessing for sure because by the time I drove home, picked up some stuff, and went to pick up my son, it was 9:26 and I only had until 9:30 so if I’d lasted even one more round I would have been late. I wish I’d won, but I definitely got my money’s worth of entertainment.

When I left, I hugged Stacey and told her to fill me in on what happened. I was so utterly puzzled by the time I left that I had no certainty at all about who the Mole was. As I drove back to the west side, I really thought Adam and Corey, who had done so little to draw attention to themselves, were the most likely candidates.

Adam and Corey were the next two to be eliminated, Stacey texted me.

That left Monica and Stacey, the two people I felt certain were not the Mole, and Mauricio and Paul, the two people who’d been the last to arrive at the party in the morning. I felt sure the Mole would never be late. I still didn't know what to think.

Mauricio’s luck ran out. Stacey told me that it was her and Monica in the finals, with Paul the obvious Mole. Monica did better on the quiz questions; Stacey came in second, and Monica collected $65 for her troubles.

Paul was the Mole. Paul! Paul who had volunteered for the running position. Paul who accepted the hidden exemption I gave him and pretended to be happy. Paul, who only the week before at my birthday Food Chain had been at the dining room table with me when we were the first two players eaten in the first round. Paul who, according to his Twitter, had been stealing people’s notebooks and trashing their cups (one quiz question in every round was, “What color is the Mole’s cup?”). Paul who didn’t tell anyone his home town, his favorite food, or favorite TV show. Paul who, if he had not been the Mole, would surely have tanked the quiz so he could go home to eat, sleep, and hydrate. It all seemed clear to me in hindsight, but I didn’t have the wits of Monica, Mauricio, and Stacey, whose longevity in the game was assured by their early intuition that Paul was the Mole. Monica tried to tell me that, starting before even the first elimination, but I guess I just wasn’t prepared to believe her.

As I said, I felt sure going into the game of that whoever was the Mole would be tortured and would have  no fun at all. When I look at the group photo we took, Brian, my original suspect candidate, has a big smile on his face. The only person with the corners of his mouth turned down into an exaggerated frown is Paul.

It’s not like I didn’t suspect Paul. Another question that appeared on every quiz was, “Who is the Mole?” and I did list Paul as my choice, though only once, according to Matt’s stats. I pointed many of my other quiz answers at him. I wasn’t the only one on the wrong track though: the person who most people thought was the Mole was me. Paul received 30 total votes over the course of the game, most of them from Monica. I was the runner up, with 10, and the only reason that number was so low was that most people who gave answers indicating me didn’t last long in the game.

So what did I learn from playing the Mole? My observational skills are OK when it comes to absorbing a lot of information, but when it comes to sifting through it and deciding what’s important and what’s not, I am still highly prone to missing out on what’s staring me right in the face. Maybe because I knew Paul from ComedySportz and knew how idiosyncratic he can be, I was inclined to give his odd behavior a pass, whereas someone like Monica was able to see him more clearly for being a traitor.

I had a great time, just like I did when I played Matt’s Survivor game. I played the only way I know how which is with exuberance and zeal. I wish I could do something like that every weekend.

Thanks to all the players for a fun day. And thanks for Matt for working so hard. No thanks at all to Paul. And thanks to you for reading.