Young insurance executives beat Minesweeper
In a moment that resembled a scene out of The Hurt Locker, three executives at Washfield and Belew Assurance have cracked the Minesweeper game that underpins Microsoft’s Windows operating system.
Minesweeper is the basis for Microsoft’s security algorithms. The game was previously considered virtually unsolvable, because the mines are all covered by blank squares, and exposing even one will make the mine explode.
But insurance company employees Sandra Sherman, Priik Dabral and Lendrick Jules used tools developed in their insurance industry to crack the Microsoft code.
Said team leader Dabral, “Using our books of actuarial tables and advanced mathematics, we discovered that there are underlying patterns in the Minesweeper numeric matrix. For example, if the numbers near a square show that it is next to two mines, and if there are two blank squares nearby, we can deduce that the blank squares must contain mines, without even looking under the squares. By using this and certain logical mathematical rules we’ve invented, we were able to figure out large portions of the grid.”
While his words may sound like meaningless egghead mumbo-jumbo, putting the theory into practice involved a desperate race against time, and white-knuckle risks.
“The timer is going the whole time,” said Jules. “We needed to concentrate, but your eye just keeps getting drawn to that ticking clock. There’s no room for error. One slip and you can easily click on a mine. And when you do, it doesn’t just blow up that one square like the ordinary that might lie under your neighborhood football field – it blows up the whole minefield.”
And the terror persisted until the last second.
“We were down to the last corner,” Dabral remembers, “and there were two blank spaces we just couldn’t figure out. It could have been one way or the other. There was just no way to know where the mines were.”
It was at that point the team put logic and mathematics aside and relied on Sandra Sherman’s female intuition.
“I tried to imagine what was going on inside the head of the person who made up this particular Minesweeper puzzle,” said Sherman. “The obvious place to put the bomb was right in the corner. But then I thought, that may be exactly what he wants us to think. So the corner square must be free.”
Jules was “literally within a thousandth of a second of clicking that mouse button,” when suddenly Sherman called out to him to stop.
“I just knew something was wrong,” she explained. “I could feel we were walking into a trap. A double bluff, if you will.”
The selection was changed – and not a moment too soon, for, as it turned out, the corner square had indeed contained the mine.
“They say there are no miracles, but the million-to-one shot we faced that day tells me otherwise,” said Dabral. “You can call it luck if you like, but I believe some higher power was watching over us that day.”
Computer scientists around the world are now examining the method developed by the three, and attempting to duplicate their seemingly impossible results.
Head Microsoft programmer Bill Gates was impressed by the feat. “My hat is off to them. They did what we thought could never be done.”
But Gates downplays the security risk to Microsoft. “Fortunately, we do have a backup security algorithm, based on alternating series of red and black playing cards.”