"The win might need an asterisk on the end of it," says Nick Minor, one of the members of that single, successful group.

With ten minutes left, Minor's teammates manhandled a chess board that contained the magnetized key. It got stuck inside. But Chezrony decided to retroactively award them victory.

"Had that key not gotten stuck, they absolutely would have had enough time to finish the puzzle," he says.

Some of the puzzle boxes from Enigima Productions' Trapped, Volume 2.
Tom Carlson
Some of the puzzle boxes from Enigima Productions' Trapped, Volume 2.
Master builder George Koval constructing puzzles in the Freeburg, Illinois, workshop.
Danny Wicentowski
Master builder George Koval constructing puzzles in the Freeburg, Illinois, workshop.

For Trapped: Volume 2, Chezrony and Landow tried to create slightly easier puzzles.

"I almost feel bad for my creatures out there, because I want them to win," he says. "But at the same time, I don't want them to win."

It's a recent Friday afternoon, and the seventh team is about to attempt Trapped. So far, there have been no winners.

Eleven-year-old A.J. Panarejo walks into the waiting room, his black hair swept over one eye, his slight frame looking even skinnier under a fluffy polar bear hat complete with ears. A.J. enters the room with his parents and their friends.

"Just stay in the corner there," says his dad, Albert, as the door closes and locks behind them.

The Panarejos made the two-and-a-half hour trip to St. Louis from their home in Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri, where Albert is on active duty. One of his wife Jasmine's coworkers had seen the event pop up on Yelp, and they bought all ten tickets for the 5 p.m. time slot. A.J.'s parents told him he should just watch and try not to get in the way.

Thirty minutes in, the team of coworkers and career military staffers is unraveling. It takes them nearly 25 minutes to solve the "for more clues, be silent" poster, while A.J., ignored by all, concentrates on the other inscrutable poster hanging above the large black box. It reads:



Notes begin slipping under the door, and in a singsong whisper, A.J. reads them to himself — "You haven't gotten HIJKLMO yet? It's ELEMENTARY!" and "Or should we say ELEMENTAL?"

He bounds over to his mom on the other side of the room.

"It's fire or wind!" he says. "Fire or wind! Those are elements!"

He's right. "HIJKLMO" is meant to be read "H to O," or "H20," water. The opposite of water is "fire" — and the corresponding code will open the black box.

But no one is listening to A.J. It takes another clue and ten more minutes for the adults to finally translate and enter "fire" into the large black box. Twenty minutes later, time is up.

This is one of the biggest challenges teams face — knowing whom to listen to within their ranks. Many times someone will say the right answer only to be ignored while the rest of the team chases bad ideas. Chezrony has seen it time and time again.

"It's really frustrating to watch," he says. "If you have people who are dominating, and they aren't open to other people's suggestions, it can shut down an entire room."

As for A.J., he sits on a folding chair while his parents collect their belongings, his polar-bear ears back on.

"I got some clues early, just looking at how everything fit together," he says matter-of-factly, kicking his heels.

Despite getting steamrolled by the adults, he's excited to try the next Trapped event. A few feet away, his mom jokes with her coworkers that if they'd only listened to her son, maybe they'd have won.

"He likes problem-solving," she says. "Being who he is, it doesn't really surprise me that he couldn't sit it out."

Seated with Landow in front of an iPad, watching the camera's bird's-eye view of the room, Chezrony is anxious. Yet another team is failing. He worries no one will get to the last two boxes, that no one will win. Just like it is for his "creatures," time is running out for Trapped. There's only one team left to try it before the whole installation will come down.

"I would be disappointed if no team wins," he says. "My goal is around 10 percent of participants to get out."

So far, the teams are easily fixated on wrong ideas, wasting time and energy on dead end after dead end. One woman becomes convinced that the black bordering on the room's ceiling is some kind of map, ranting, "Don't you see it?" at her teammates. One group of cocky graduate students actually pushed Chezrony's notes back under the door, yelling "We don't need your clues!" And then there was the woman who, believing she'd had an epiphany, simply tried the doorknob. Nope, it really is locked.

There have also been moments of astonishing luck, like the team that randomly guessed the correct combination for one of the boxes — a near-impossible feat. Still, they lost.

Landow is sitting on a folding chair next to Chezrony, watching the surveillance of the room from the iPad.

"I have no idea what winning looks like," he says. "I just want to see that moment of jubilation and joy."

On the final day, Chezrony feels resigned to the fact that no one will escape. But there was one thing he couldn't plan for: sheer dumb luck.

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