Zero-Sum Cards Solution

How It Works

The stated objective (if asked) was to best the dealer in two consecutive hands of the card game. However, once a team managed to defeat the dealer, they discovered that the puzzle was not completed. The dealer presented the team with a small slip of paper, explaining that it was a piece of a larger "written test" that the team would need to put together and complete. Unfortunately for the team, the remaining pieces of the test were scattered around the room, hidden. Once assembled, the test merely verified the team's understanding of the rules of the card game, at the same time revealing the answer.

Card Game Rules

Rules marked with (*) were known/explained to teams at the beginning of the game. All other rules had to be deduced from the results and the play of the dealer.

  1. (*) The playing area is divided into three contest zones, with each contest zone further divided into two play zones, one for each player (in this case, the dealer and the team as a whole). Physically, this looks like:
  1. (*) Each player is dealt 8 cards, 4 face up and 4 face down. Players may look at their face-down cards, and may look at the other players' face-up cards.
  2. (*) Players take turns playing one card from their hand (either face-up or face-down cards) into one of the three play zones on their side of the playing area.
  3. Cards have the following values:
  4. 2-10 have face value.
  5. Face cards are 10 points.
  6. Aces are 1 point when played alone.
  7. Red cards are negative value, black cards are positive value.
  8. Aces played on another card invert the color of the underlying card (regardless of the color of the ace).
  9. If the value of a play zone is reduced to zero (and that play zone contains at least one card), the owner of that play zone must remove a card from the playing area. Any card may be removed. A card with one or more aces on it is removed as if the entire stack was one card.
  10. After each player has played all eight cards, each of the three contest zones is evaluated. The player with the lowest absolute point total in the contest zone wins that contest zone, with the exception that a play zone with no cards cannot win a contest zone. If both players have the same absolute point total, or neither player has cards in a play zone, the contest zone is counted as a tie.
  11. (*) The player who wins the majority of the contest zones wins the hand.

Team Advantages

Teams were afforded certain advantages to ensure that the puzzle didn't take forever once the rules were known. These may have varied slightly from dealer to dealer:

  • After 3 hands, teams were informed that they could choose whether or not they would play first. (Previously, the dealer always went first.)
  • After 6 hands, teams were given the option of swapping face-up cards with the dealer.
  • After 9 hands, teams were given the ability to stack the deck once.

Puzzle Hiding Spots

The final "test" was split up into 25 rather small pieces and hidden around a standard Microsoft conference room. Here is the canonical list of hiding spots:

  • Above visible fire alarm
  • In box of butterfly clips
  • In tape roller
  • In re-light, behind MSN sticker
  • Under whiteboard tray
  • Under other whiteboard tray
  • On back of projector screen (raised)
  • In ceiling tile opposite whiteboard
  • Behind "conserve energy" placard
  • In projector remote control battery compartment
  • In safety booklet on rear of door
  • In conference room reference guide


  • On front of projector screen (raised)
  • Behind rear pillar, on floor
  • In window
  • Around end of monitor cable
  • Under A/V compartment lid
  • Above center of whiteboard
  • Under runner on wall opposite whiteboard
  • In audio cable jack
  • Behind trash can #1
  • On back of trash can #2
  • Under trash can #3
  • Under actor
  • In actor's pocket/wallet (given to teams)


The Test

Here is the completed "test":

Completed test


By using the rules of the game to get a point value for each group of cards, you can pull out letters. The letters are MARAUDINGPASTA. Or, if you assembled the pieces upside down: ATSAPGNIDUARAM. One might justifiably wonder what "marauding pasta" means; it's just "a stupid anagram". Either phrase was an acceptable answer.