Mystery Bitcoin Game: The Hidden Keys

Friday 04 April 2014

My uncle was a polymath whose interests encompassed everything from science and maths to ancient languages and chess. In the early stages of bitcoin he became intrigued by the idea of cryptocurrency, and had the foresight to start mining while it was still possible with an ordinary desktop computer. Fanatical about security, he never trusted either hot wallets or cold storage. Instead, he relied on his remarkable memory and simply stored his private keys in his mind.

When he disappeared, suddenly and without warning at the end of last year, no one knew what to make of it. As the months wore on my family reluctantly came to the conclusion that something had happened to him and he was gone for good. The police were unable to shed any light on it, and since no crime had apparently been committed they told us there was little more they could do. Though I struggled to believe he was dead, this seemed the most likely answer. Nothing in his London flat had been moved, none of his personal effects had been taken. To all appearances he had walked out one day and never returned. The only thing missing was a body.

It was as I searched his flat for anything that might help me understand his disappearance that I came across a rectangular card, no larger than a postcard, in his desk drawer. It was slipped inside a book of similar notes, as well as sketches and other writings, little of which I understood – except that it must have something to do with the hundreds or thousands of bitcoins he had saved, which until then I had assumed were lost forever. One side of the card was divided into a grid of 30 squares, with a series of words taking up different numbers of squares. I wouldn’t have realised what it was at all had it not been for the address in his neat handwriting at the bottom.

BitScan mystery bitcoin game

I recalled two things he had taught me about his impressive ability to commit long strings of random characters to memory. One was that he had written his own application to generate mini private keys, each 30 characters long, using only upper case letters and numbers – simpler to remember and harder to confuse different letters, but still far beyond the power of the fastest computers to crack.

The second was that he used a series of mnemonics to help him remember combinations of letters and numbers. My uncle loved word games; when I was a child, he had often set me puzzles to solve in return for a prize on my birthday. I have no way of knowing whether he had created this one to help him remember one of his own private keys, with the intention of giving it to me on my coming 25th birthday, or simply for his own amusement.

Some of the clues were relatively easy for me. Others made no sense at all. Some, I supposed, may be references that only he would understand – like ‘Whitey’, perhaps a nickname that might represent the initials of a friend.

The best way to find the key would presumably be to write a piece of software that would allow me to set each element as I guessed it, then automatically fill in the blanks and check for a match with the address. But that is beyond my abilities for now. Instead, I prefer to crowd-source some help, offering the contents of the address as a prize, in the hope that if I can understand more about how my uncle thought and what happened to his bitcoin fortune, I might finally learn what happened to him, too.

As I solve different elements of the puzzle, I will post them here and on Twitter every day to provide whatever help I can to anyone who chooses to take up the challenge. If you guess all the clues, your confirmation that you’re the first to have got them right will be that you can sweep the reward out of the account.

If you manage to do that, please get in touch with BitScan so we can announce the winner.

Good luck!

Brandon Hurst

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