The Game: my lifelong obsession with Hide & Seek

Brad Willis
Posted on: November 27, 2022 15:58 PST

For my money, there aren't many more exciting moments in life than those in which you have absolutely no idea what is about to happen. That is where I find myself tonight at just after midnight ET on November 28, 2022. It probably all started sometime around 1985.

When I was a kid, we called it–for lack of a better name–The Game.

Here’s how it worked:

My parents would leave my brother and me alone while they went out for the night. My best friend and his little brother would join us. We’d turn off every light in the house. Three of us would disappear into the darkness. One of us would count down long enough for the other three to hide. And then The Game began. 

The Game was barely more than Hide-and-Seek. If the Seeker found the Hiders, he won. 

That’s how it began, anyway. Over time–and literally over years–the simple game of Hide-and-Seek got a little boring. So, while the rules stayed the same, the Hiders started taunting the Seekers. 

At the same time the Seekers developed methods of drawing out The Hiders. It started with crass jokes meant to elicit a laugh from a closet or under a bed. It ended with one Seeker grabbing a can of Lysol and a cigarette lighter and ending The Game forever by nearly burning down our house with his makeshift flamethrower. All in good fun. 

So, it began with The Game, and now this lifelong fascination with hiding and seeking is culminating in a thing I’ve been dreaming about for years. We’ve named it Runner Runner, and it’s going to occupy 98% of my brain for the next 19 days or so. 

Beginning at just after midnight tonight, someone is going to become a target and the rest of the people in America are going to become bounty hunters. If the target manages to remain uncaptured until 11:59pm on December 16th, that target (who we’re calling The Runner) will get to go to the Bahamas in January and play in a big buy-in poker tournament that could make The Runner a millionaire. If a bounty hunter manages to track down The Runner, the bounty hunter will get to play for millions. 

You know, just a fun little game. 

Bigger playgrounds

When my childhood friends and I got too old to hide under beds, we graduated to–if you will allow me to show my age–some early generation Laser Tag that we played under the cover of darkness with the freedom to roam over our entire neighborhood. We created cat-and-mouse games like Presidential Protection and Man on the Run. Back before our modern times in which people can legally shoot you if they simply see you in their backyard, there were countless places to run and hide.

When virtual combat started to feel too pedestrian, we progressed to paintball and spent entire days in hundreds of acres of forest. We’d hike through briars, climb trees, and spend hours tracking each other with the intention of shooting each other with balls of paint that would leave bruises and welts on our skin for weeks. We couldn’t have been happier.

And then we suffered the same indignity that the luckiest people must suffer: we grew up. 

We reached an age when we thought we were too big or busy to spend days hiding and chasing each other. 

I grew up, but I didn’t grow out of my obsession of running, hiding, and tracking people down.

Paging Johnny Utah

So, I decided to become an FBI agent. 

Really. That was my plan. 

I went to college planning to major in English, go to law school, and then ride that law degree right into the world of the FBI. Like countless others of my generation, the books and then films Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs made high-stakes hide-and-seek feel like a career choice. 

I won’t further belabor the minute-by-minute progression of my obsession, but ultimately I decided my ability to write and my compulsion with chasing people might combine well for a career in journalism. 

Before I graduated, I was working in television news and managed to get embedded in a law enforcement task force tracking a survivalist-turned-killer. The task force welcomed me into the home of the killer’s second victim which doubled as the cops' temporary command post. There were maps of killer sightings all over the walls and tables. 

I skipped college classes for weeks as part of a statewide search party. I learned to shoot a handgun. I stayed overnight in a spooky cabin in the woods and drank in bars with the hordes of national media that came to cover the manhunt. It was simultaneously the scariest and most exciting thing I’d ever done. I had no idea what was going to happen next.

When the cops finally caught the killer, I was happy for everyone involved, but I missed the constant chase and the way it occupied my mind. Years later, I was sitting in a restaurant in New Orleans with my wife. I looked across the room and saw Harold Dow, the CBS correspondent I’d met during the hunt nearly a decade earlier. He’d become one of my heroes and made my year by buying me a drink and letting me talk about the short time we spent together on the chase.

I repeated the experience of that chase over and over again for years. In the woods. In the middle of cities. In a helicopter. Countless days and nights of breathless hunts for people in which sometimes there was actual gunfire. One time a bank robber made a crude joke about my mother. He went to prison. I went out for a beer. 

And one time I was in the office of my local FBI Special Agent in Charge, and she told me I could still make it to Quantico and become an FBI agent. She told me I was perfectly suited for it. And I think she probably would have helped me succeed in making my teenage dream a reality.

I spent way too many nights trying to decide if that was the right thing for me, and ultimately determined I was better off chasing people so I could tell stories rather than chasing them so I could put them in prison. 

And, hell, if I’d chased that FBI dream, I wouldn’t be here today involved in what could be a multimillion-dollar manhunt for fun and profit.

Are you crazy enough?

I never stopped chasing people. Even after I quit working in a job that paid me to find people, I kept doing it. Like every armchair cybersleuth in the world, I spent my spare time trying to solve crimes and find people online. I’ve been working professionally in poker since 2005, and I still spend my spare time trying to hunt people down. 

It’s an atavistic albatross hanging on some weird part of my DNA. It’s probably why The Most Dangerous Game appealed to me at an early age. It’s probably why I became obsessed with the Richard Bachman/Stephen King novella The Running Man (and also probably why I hated the film it inspired). It’s probably why I basically memorized the movie The Fugitive and obsessively seek out films like Catch Me if You Can. It's probably why I have an unhealthy relationship with the original version of Point Break. But, hell, as Bodhi once asked Johnny Utah, "Are you crazy enough?"

It’s all Hide and Seek, a pure game with infinite variables. 

And then along comes Evan Ratliff with what I still consider to be one of the best damned story ideas in modern journalism. 

After working on an article about how easy or hard it is to disappear in modern America, he tried to do it himself. He and Wired magazine put a $5,000 bounty on Ratiliff’s figurative head and dared literally everyone in America to find him. 

America responded as you might expect: with a “hell yeah” and a legion of cybersleuths and hackers who made sure Ratliff would never last the full month he’d planned to be on the run. It didn’t matter that Ratliff wore disguises. It didn’t matter that he had burner accounts. It didn’t matter that he did everything he could to throw people off his trail. He made the mistake of looking for some gluten free pizza in New Orleans, and the rest is history. 

Ratliff, an amazing storyteller and innovator, studied as much as could and went to incredible lengths to try to stay off America’s radar, and he couldn’t do it. America pursued him for $5,000 and the thrill of the hunt. 

I’ve been obsessed with Ratliff's story for more than a decade, and now I’ve managed to fall in with a group of people who agreed it might be fun to up the stakes a little bit, try to recreate Ratliff’s groundbreaking attempt to vanish in America, and offer a stupid-big prize to anyone with the will and brain to catch our Runner. 

And that brings me to this moment.

Somehow we’ve just started a game that will at least send the winner to the Bahamas in a couple months….and at most could end with the winner being a millionaire.

The road to this point has been as weird and unexpected as I figure the Runner's will be. I wasn’t sure we’d ever get this show (or the Runner) on the road.

But here we go. 

I have no idea what is about to happen.

Ain’t that the best feeling?

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