There’s something inherently intriguing about a treasure hunt.
Like a hand of poker, a treasure hunt has its own built-in narrative and dramatic arc. The discovery of the treasure — like a showdown in poker — can provide a satisfying resolution. It can also frustrate or confound, causing the “story” to continue long after the hunt has ended.
One much talked about treasure hunt came to a close recently, the one involving the Forrest Fenn Treasure. Perhaps you heard about it. After all, the hunt for the treasure involved poker and the poker community here and there.
If you haven’t heard the story, it’s a doozy.
An art dealer hides a treasure chest in the mountains
It’s a true story, although it sounds like something out of fiction.
You’d be forgiven if it made you think of fantastic tales like Willy Wonka hiding golden tickets in chocolate bars. Or wacky film plots like the one in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Or everyone seeking an Easter egg in a virtual reality game like in Ready Player One. Or readers for decades trying to solve the mystery of Cain’s Jawbone.
Over 30 years ago, a man named Forrest Fenn, an art dealer who lived in Sante Fe, New Mexico, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Fenn had been a decorated combat pilot, flying hundreds of missions in Vietnam. In addition to his career as a dealer, he had authored several books.
However after a successful life highlighted by his management of a lucrative gallery, it appeared he only had a limited amount of time left to enjoy himself.
Perhaps inspired by the creative people with whom he had long associated, Fenn’s illness inspired an idea. He would hide a treasure chest full of gold nuggets, coins, diamonds and other precious jewels, and other valuable artifacts somewhere north of Sante Fe in the Rocky Mountains. He would then invite others to try and find it.
Happily Fenn was able to recover from the cancer, but the idea never went away. In 2010 he did hide such a treasure chest. He also wrote and published a book called The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir. The book shared stories from his life… and some clues!
Hidden in the text were hints regarding the treasure’s location. The epigraph to Fenn’s book has a poker reference, in fact, which some took to contain a possible tip:
“Life is a game of poker,
Happiness is the pot.
Fate deals you four cards and a joker,
And you play whether you like it or not.”
The book ends with a short poem, too. That’s where most of the hints were concentrated.
Fenn once confirmed the poem contained nine separate clues pointing toward the location of the treasure chest. In another of his books, Fenn published a map he said included the location, though without specifying it. (The map and poem are combined above.)
The chase was on.
Hundreds of thousands join the hunt, one finds the treasure
Over the next decade, seekers puzzled over Fenn’s clues while searching the mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Some estimated as many as 350,000 had at one time or another joined the hunt.
The chase produced many tales of adventure as hunters shared with each other stories of their searches as well as further speculation about clues. It also produced controversy, including some damage to national parks, other criminal behavior, and some injuries suffered by seekers.
There were even at least a couple of people — perhaps even four or five — who lost their lives in the mountains while searching for the Forrest Fenn Treasure. Lawsuits sprung up related to the hunt as well, with Fenn himself sued by one disgruntled hunter claiming it was all a big hoax.
Finally in June of this year, someone discovered the treasure. Its worth has been estimated as at least $1 million, perhaps as high as $2 million. In a statement, Fenn confirmed it had been found.
“It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains,” he said, adding it “had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago.”
He confirmed it was the poem had helped the finder discover the chest’s location. He denied knowing the finder’s identity, perhaps to protect it. In any event, the person would remain anonymous — for the time being, anyway.
“I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries,” continued Fenn.
“So the search is over.”
Skeptics emerge, ‘The Finder’ steps forward
Fenn died in September at his Sante Fe home from natural causes at age 90.
Despite Fenn’s proclamation, the search wasn’t entirely over. Many still wanted to know who found the treasure. Some sort of confirmation about what had been found would be nice, too, if only to prove the whole hunt hadn’t been an elaborate fiction.
One skeptic was poker pro Mike McDonald. In June, “Tîmex” offered a $10,000 reward to anyone able to help prove the treasure’s existence, including to the person who found it.
I'm a pretty big believer that Fenn's Treasure never existed.
If you prove to me you found it I'll give you $10,000. If you retweet this and are part of the chain of retweets that reaches the finder- you and others in that chain will evenly share $10,000 as well
— Mike McDonald (@MikeMcDonald89) June 9, 2020
Others reacted similarly. It was as though the (alleged) end of one treasure hunt had started a second one.
A little over a week ago came a conclusion to that second chase.
Shortly after Fenn’s death, someone published a post on Medium titled “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn.” While remaining anonymous, the poster claimed to have found the treasure. The post was simply signed, “The Finder.”
The Finder wasn’t allowed to remain unknown, however. The reason why involves yet another lawsuit involving the Fenn family and the person who found the treasure. Dealing with that meant making the person’s name part of the public record, and so in order to help save the Fenn family further unpleasantness, he stepped forward.
His name is Jack Stuef. He is a 32-year-old medical student from Michigan. Besides discovering the treasure, he’s now also discovered a way to pay off those medical school bills.
On Dec. 7, Stuef published another post on Medium titled “A Statement on the Disclosure of My Identity” sharing more about himself and his finding of the treasure. Stuef additionally spoke to Outside magazine for a feature that shares more about him and the Fenn Treasure.
Stuef did not reveal exactly where he found the treasure, only saying it was somewhere in Wyoming. And of course some want still to pursue various conspiratorial theories involving Fenn, Stuef, and the treasure.
When a poker hand is finished, the post-hand analysis sometimes involves still more hunting for “treasure” as players try to assess decisions and arrive at definitive answers about the meaning of what happened.
That’s the likely next chapter of the Forrest Fenn Treasure. Those seeking further nuggets of insight about the mystery will undoubtedly continue to dig. Some believe the lawsuit that forced Stuef out in the open might unearth other details about the poem and the treasure’s hiding place.
Who knows what will more will be discovered? It will be interesting to find out.
After all, as Fenn pointed out — and as poker players well know — the thrill is in the chase.