The Most Dangerous Game

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On June 27th, 1981, a bodybuilder, a stockbroker, and 10 other men entered the woods of New Hampshire, determined to settle an argument. They called it The First Annual Survival Game, and the details are the stuff of the legend. The game marked the birth of a multi-billion dollar sports industry, but also sheds light on the squishy art of myth-making.

The Prologue

There’s a legend about the first marathon that goes something like this: In 490 BCE, during the Greco-Persian Wars, 10,000 Athenians faced off against 150,000 Persians in the Bay of Marathon. After the battle, in which the Persians sustained heavy losses and fled back to their ships, the Athenians called upon a great runner and professional herald named Pheidippides to bring the message of victory back to their home city.  The distance was about 25 miles along a curved road that cut over and through the mountains. Pheidippides - who had just marched the same distance to the battle, and then fought alongside his people - took to the road and ran and ran at top speed back home. When he arrived, he burst through the city doors, and shouted “Chairete, nikomen!” Hail, we are the winners!  And then, exhausted and full of joy, he collapsed and promptly died.

The tale of Pheidippides is not simply an origin story. It is an allegorical tale that tells us something about the soul of the marathon runner; about the very meaning of endurance; about the human capacity to meet physical limits and exceed them via sheer force of will. Indeed, many great origin myths serve those two purposes — to entertain but also to impart profound societal lessons.

However, myths often have the benefit of falling under the category of ancient history. We accept them as they are. The one you’re about to read is still being crafted… but it just might have the makings of a timeless legend.

GAME 1.jpg

The Legend of The Survival Game

There are two men at the center of this story. They have names (and you will find them written later in this piece) but for now, we will call them THE BODYBUILDER and THE STOCKBROKER.

In the 1970s, THE BODYBUILDER moved to the woods of a New Hampshire. He was a lover of all things outdoors. He camped, canoed, and climbed up mountains in black fly season, when the maples blazed red, and in the dead of winter with crampons and icepicks. He played tennis, lawn darts, and badminton. He threw rigorously scheduled parties he called BACKYARD OLYMPICS where friends and family members would face-off in different events. He lived for competition.

THE BODYBUILDER was a writer by trade, and throughout the course of the decade, he wrote his first novel, then a screenplay, and later a non-fiction book called Pumping Iron.  It was among the world’s first in-depth profiles of competitive bodybuilding to reach the national stage. The subsequent documentary of the same name launched the film career of a future action star and California governor. THE BODYBUILDER was becoming a huge success.

Around the same time, THE STOCKBROKER landed his first post-college career at a bank. It was a desk job. It was boring. THE STOCKBROKER was competitive, athletic, and eschewed the forced, polite, seniority of bank work. He ran the pathways of Central Park before jogging was trendy. He longed for more exciting work; something that got his blood pumping.

He found it on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Once he became a trader, he could get in the face of men twice his age without fearing for his job.  He thrived in the madness of Wall Street. The work was thrilling, and the money was too. THE STOCKBROKER was becoming a huge success.

One day, THE BODYBUILDER and THE STOCKBROKER were introduced through a mutual friend. They bonded instantly - and competed constantly. On the court or on the lawn, every walk was a race, every point was for keeps, and every conversation a debate. A friend later said, “they could bet on the length of a dog or number of bricks in a fireplace.” Soon they were spending every weekend together, traveling between New York City and the woods of New Hampshire.   

One night, during a summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, THE BODYBUILDER and THE STOCKBROKER were up late drinking gin and tonics and grilling fresh caught bluefish.  THE STOCKBROKER was telling a story. A friend of his had recently been big-game hunting in Kenya, and told him about the thrill of the hunt - of hearing, but not seeing, his prey. Afterward, THE STOCKBROKER and his friend stalked each other for fun, like boys, through the tall grass.

THE STOCKBROKER had never felt so high in his life.  It got his blood pumping like never before.

This is how the argument began: THE STOCKBROKER claimed that he, skilled as he was in the high-risk high-stakes world of the New York Stock Exchange, was a natural survivor. He had felt his blood pumping while he stalked his friend, and felt sure that the same talents and abilities he had acquired on the trading floor were transferable to any environment - the tundra of Alaska, the savannah of Kenya, the jungles of the Amazon. He could survive, nay THRIVE, in any of them.

THE BODYBUILDER thought this notion was preposterous.  Country skills, the ability to traverse dense forest without being seen, to recognize helpful and harmful plants, to wield a rifle or knife - these abilities are learned, through practice and tutelage, and experiences on Wall Street were no such substitute.

They drank and argued into the night, but eventually retired and left the issue unsettled. How could either of them ever prove their point?

The Weapon

A few weeks later, a friend of THE BODYBUILDER’s sent him a catalogue. The two of them had both collected a handful of farm animals over the years, and the catalogue was full of farm equipment, for raising livestock, shearing sheep, etc.  

 An original Nelspot 007

An original Nelspot 007

On one page was an advertisement for the Nelspot 007 - the world’s first paintball gun. It looked like an ordinary pistol, though the barrel was especially round and a little larger than looked natural. The guns used C02 cartridges to shoot small pellets filled with oil-based paint. Each pellet had to be loaded manually, and made a satisfying “THWOCK!” noise when fired. The guns were developed by a paint company some years earlier for use by farmers, who used them to mark bred sheep, and by foresters who used them to target hard-to-reach trees.  

THE BODYBUILDER took one look at the Nelspot 007 and had an idea. A eureka moment. He knew how he and THE STOCKBROKER could settle their argument once and for all.

First they had to test the guns.  On his next free weekend, THE STOCKBROKER traveled to New Hampshire, whereupon he and THE BODYBUILDER wrapped towels around their waists, stood back to back, and walked ten paces.  Each one lifted a heavy black-barreled Nelspot pistol toward the other and fired. THE STOCKBROKER missed. THE BODYBUILDER struck his friend and rival in the butt.

It stung, he said, like a bee. Which is to say, it stung just the right amount. The contest was on.

There was a big grassy field on THE BODYBUILDER’s property. Tall grass, the kind a lion might love. The area was about the size of a football field. THE BODYBUILDER and THE STOCKBROKER retreated to opposite sides, ducked down, and disappeared in the grass.  They stepped forward, as silently as they could, and began to stalk one another.

The wind played across the top of the field like a ghost. THE BODYBUILDER could sense the whereabouts of his prey. Minutes passed in near silence, broken only by the hum of insects.THE BODYBUILDER crept forward towards the center of the field, where THE STOCKBROKER waited, ears perked in precisely the wrong direction. When he was only a foot away, THE BODYBUILDER stood, paintball gun aimed steadily at the back of THE STOCKBROKER’S head.  There was no need to fire. THE BODYBUILDER had won.

The Plan

Now this is exactly the outcome you’d expect in a legend, right? The prideful city slicker loses out to the woodsy and more grounded country boy. But because this is an allegory, the lesson has to be repeated to stick.  For THE STOCKBROKER, nothing had been settled. The game had lacked clear rules. THE BODYBUILDER had the advantage of knowing his own property. One game wouldn’t cut it - it ought to be best three out of five. And so the argument continued until a grand experiment began to take shape.  A spectacular game of survival that would end the debate, once and for all… again.

By this time, a third man joined the group - THE SKI-SHOP MANAGER. He was also competitive, if less successful in his career than the other two, a little rough around the edges, a little rounder, and constantly sporting a pair of tinted aviators.

The three of them spent the better part of a year finalizing the rules and arranging for referees, and finally, in 1981, they sent out invitations.

“This letter is to invite you to play in the First Annual Survival Game,” they read.

In addition to the three organizers of the event, there would be 9 other players. They were:

THE ALABAMA TURKEY HUNTER

THE GREEN BERET

THE SPORTS WRITER

THE MOVIE PRODUCER

THE TRAUMA SURGEON

THE FORESTER

THE VENTURE CAPITALIST

THE [OTHER] STOCKBROKER

and THE CONTRACTOR

GAME 2 (1).jpg

The invitation included eight pages of rules. The game was more or less an every-man-for-himself version of Capture The Flag, in which players could eliminate one another using the Nelspot pistols. The playfield was some 100 acres of slopey New Hampshire forest, bisected by a brook and pockmarked with lichen-covered boulders.  Inside the playfield were four flag stations, each one of a different color. At each station, 12 colored flags (one for every player) hung from a branch. Players would be equipped with camouflage clothes, a topographical map of the area, a compass, a couple handfuls of paintballs, a Nelspot 007, and a pair of shop goggles. The first player to collect one flag from each station, without being shot, and navigate their way out of the forest at a designated point would be THE WINNER.

The Night Before

The night before the game, the players and their families gather for a night of toasts and wagers. THE BODYBUILDER had rented out a private dining room at a local restaurant.  They drank and ate and revived the now familiar debate about survival. All of the players were successful in their own areas of expertise but would competition in Hollywood help with competition in the forest? How would THE TURKEY HUNTER fare against prey that hunts back?

Money exchanged hands - a round of betting began.  THE STOCKBROKER was no fool. Despite his own argument, he had made a fortune on shrewd investments, and he put his money on THE GREEN BERET, a Vietnam veteran who had led long-range reconnaissance missions during the war. The rest of the group argued back and forth, offering tales of why their strategy would work best.

THE [OTHER] STOCKBROKER had an elaborate plan - a bit of silent stalking, a dash of ambush, with a helping of sudden sprints. THE TRAUMA SURGEON was a wild card. THE FORESTER was perhaps the quietest, and hardly registered in the betting. THE TURKEY HUNTER made a vow - to abandon victory in favor of singular mission - to shoot and eliminate THE BODYBUILDER.

Eventually they drained their glasses and their wallets, and retired to couches, motels, and backyard tents, and fell into a deep slumber.  

The next morning, on June 27th, 1981, they woke up, donned their camouflaged outfits, and assembled in THE BODYBUILDER’S backyard. It was a hot and sunny day, but inside the forest it was dark and dappled, perfect for hunting.  Referees drove them out to the playfield and lined them up around the edges, out of sight from one another.

At 10 am, a cattle siren blasted out over the treetops. The players stepped forward, into the shadow of the canopy. The game had begun.

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The First Annual Survival Game

One hundred acres is a big plot of land, about 80 football fields.  So imagine, if you will, the initial moments of The Survival Game, when each and every player would have been listening to the papery rustling of the forest, completely alone, and yet surrounded by enemies. Every broken branch, every half-distant bird call would have leapt out of the darkness like arrow.

THE STOCKBROKER wasted no time.  He was an excellent runner, in better shape possibly than all of the other players.  He knew the paintball guns were hard to load and bobbled like wiffle balls after only a few yards.  His plan was to sprint straight towards the first flag station, then run back out to the perimeter. He would then run along the edge of the playfield, following the map, until he was square with the next flag station, and then repeat. Anybody he encountered along the way would likely miss and never catch up.

THE [OTHER] STOCKBROKER was the first to give up. He lost his compass and map, and left the forest without firing a shot.

THE FORESTER was accustomed to reading topographical maps. He carefully chose a route, and “still-hunted” his way through the forest. He took two or three slow-motion steps at a time, then stopped and listened.  

The yellow flag station was tucked into valley, where a brook snaked through the playfield. By the end they’d call it Blood Alley. THE SPORTS WRITER had started off not far from there, and was lying in quiet ambush when THE SKI-SHOP MANAGER shuffled by unaware. He aimed a shot at him but missed, and THE SKI-SHOP MANAGER fired back wildly and scuffled away into the distance.

THE MOVIE PRODUCER shot and eliminated THE CONTRACTOR.

THE TRAUMA SURGEON ambushed and eliminated THE SPORTS WRITER.

THE BODYBUILDER saw no one.  He found the first flag. The second flag.  And then on his way to the third flag station, he came upon the top seeded player: THE GREEN BERET.

They both fired and missed, and then took cover.  THE GREEN BERET leapt inside an abandoned shed that tented off the forest floor like an old witch’s lair.

As THE BODYBUILDER sat behind a log catching his breath, something arced through the air.  “Grenade!” the GREEN BERET shouted, and launched something out the window of the shed. A potato thudded to the ground at THE BODYBUILDER’S feet.

THE GREEN BERET and THE BODYBUILDER had a good laugh and made a friendly truce, agreeing to head off in opposite directions.  
But the sounds of the scuffle had attracted another enemy. THE BODYBUILDER’S nemesis: THE ALABAMA TURKEY HUNTER. THE BODYBUILDER heard him coming and spun around, too late; the ALABAMA TURKEY HUNTER fired off a round at close range. It hit THE BODYBUILDER square in the chest.... And bounced off.  It didn’t burst, and THE BODYBUILDER was still in the game. Even better, his opponent was standing at close range with an empty pistol.

THE BODYBUILDER lifted his pistol and yelled, “I’ve got you!”

THE ALABAMA TURKEY HUNTER reached into his pocket and pulled out a paintball. He burst it with a thumb, reached forward, and marked THE BODYBUILDER, who stood there in shock.  

They were both out.

Hours  passed.  By this point, THE STOCKBROKER had successfully retrieved three of the four flags before being shot by THE TRAUMA SURGEON, who had given up winning in favor of shooting as many players as possible. He eliminated five by the end of the day - nearly fifty percent - and earned the nickname “The Death Doctor.” He later claimed the experience was cathartic.

And meanwhile, THE FORESTER slowly gathered flags. He was never seen by any other player. He never shot a single paintball. Like a camouflage tortoise, he still-hunted his way from one flag station to another, then followed the map to the extraction point. When he made it back to the perimeter, he walked along the edge of a dirt road until he came upon a referee.

“Who’s out? Who won?” he asked. It was afternoon, and the sun was beating down.

“No one else is out,” the referee said. “You’re the first.”

The Lesson

Again, the parable delivers its message. Only this time, it feels stronger. More concrete. There was admittedly some chaos thrown into the equation - who would have guessed THE TRAUMA SURGEON would take on the spoiler’s role? And the guns weren’t perfect. More than one player reported a well-aimed ball had gone unbroken and shifted the tides.

But after all was said and done, it wasn’t THE BODYBUILDER who bested his friend and rival, THE STOCKBROKER. Rather, it was a real country boy, a quiet, competent, professional forester that showed everybody up. His point was made best because a better qualified man had taken home the trophy.

The best part about this parable, and most sports parables, is that it’s infinitely repeatable.  You get to stage it all for yourself, only with a starring role. You get to to be the BODYBUILDER, or the STOCKBROKER, or maybe the FAST FOOD WORKER, or the PUBLIC RADIO EMPLOYEE.  You get to see if the lesson still sticks, and imagine yourself as part of the legend.

 Ritchie White, THE FORESTER, wields his original Nelspot 007. To the bottom right is the engraved mug he was awarded for winning the First Annual Survival Game. 

Ritchie White, THE FORESTER, wields his original Nelspot 007. To the bottom right is the engraved mug he was awarded for winning the First Annual Survival Game. 

Does it matter how much of it's true?

When it comes to legends, we suspend a certain amount of disbelief. It’s compelling to know a story is based in truth, but poetic license is to be expected, and some outright fiction isn’t out of the question.  

 Charles Gaines, THE BODYBUILDER [photo credit:  Adkisaac ]

Charles Gaines, THE BODYBUILDER [photo credit: Adkisaac]

But a modern legend doesn’t get that same license.

I’ve been a radio producer for close to a decade, and in that time, I’ve never heard as natural a storyteller as Charles Gaines. Charles is THE BODYBUILDER of this tale, and it’s no surprise that he knows how to work a room: as a writer, weaving narratives was his job.

 Hayes Noel, THE STOCKBROKER.

Hayes Noel, THE STOCKBROKER.

Hayes Noel, THE STOCKBROKER, is less the charming antagonist in real life than he is in our tale; amicable but on the rambly side, and, I daresay, more straightforward than Charles.

The two, now in their ‘70s, are still best friends, but I spoke to them separately. It didn’t take long to find there are parts of this story that they tell very differently.

The Survival game took place nearly forty years ago, so some details were bound to slip away or become confused  Charles recalled that THE GREEN BERET (Tony Atwill) threw a potato at him. Tony himself wrote an account of the game, in which he says he lobbed a different root vegetable: an onion. Hardly a big deal, though I prefer potato for some reason.

Other discrepancies are a little more mischievous than that: the first stalking game that Charles and Hayes played after they tested their guns, Hayes (THE STOCKBROKER) says that he won.  “My version is the true version,” he told me. Speaking of testing the guns, Tony Atwill writes in his account that the first trial wasn’t a duel. Instead, he says, they shot Charles’ teenage son, Shelby.

And then there’s the streamlining of the narrative. The details that would’ve been too boring to recount get blended over many tellings, so that the story becomes a soup that enhances flavor but obscures clarity.  

From what I can tell, the argument that Charles told me started in Martha’s Vineyard  is actually an amalgamation of many nights of debate between Charles and Hayes, and whoever might’ve been sharing in the alcohol and argument on any given night.

The detail that, for some, may call the entirety of the legend into question has to do with motive: The first game of paintball doubled as a soft launch for the paintball industry as a whole, and the narrative of the argument is a conveniently wonderful tidbit for the public relations side of advertising.

I neglected to include the details of the business in the legend, because Charles downplayed that piece of the puzzle when he told me his story. And frankly, knowing that profit was a factor (for Hayes anyway) drains the tale of some of its magic.

NSG

 A page from the 1981 October Issue of Sports Illustrated.

A page from the 1981 October Issue of Sports Illustrated.

The Survival Game (which was attended by several professional writers and at least one magazine photographer) was written about in Sports Illustrated, Outside Magazine, and Sports Afield. After the magazines were published Charles Gaines, Hayes Noel, and Bob Gurnsey (THE SKI-SHOP MANAGER) started a business.  It was called the National Survival Game, or NSG. They sold starter kits that included directions, a Nelspot pistol, a compass, and some paintballs.  They started a paintball industry where adventurous pioneers could rent equipment and THWOCK one another, one on one, or eventually in teams. They packaged the rental model and franchised it out to other entrepreneurs who wanted to start fields in other states and countries.

Charles was the PR man. His role was to go on national television and battle critics who thought the game was violent, and peddle the charming origin story to the masses. No doubt he relished the role (and perhaps perfected his storytelling) because after the novelty wore off he sold his share for a six-figure check and moved on. He wasn’t particularly interested in running an actual business.

Hayes put up the money, and so he stayed on longer. He served in a more advisory capacity. Bob Gurnsey, who may well have played a much larger role in shaping the first survival game than some stories would indicate, did the actual day-to-day managing.

Throughout the ‘80s, competitors starting popping up. There were new fields, new guns, new styles of play, but it was NSG that took the inevitable flood of injury lawsuits. They were the public face of paintball, and with a product that involved people shooting one another with fast-moving projectiles, it’s hardly surprising that legal matters started to swamp the business. Somewhere near the end of the decade, they started manufacturing their own guns (the Splatmaster series), but nevertheless fell behind in the technology race for faster, more powerful weapons. NSG had launched the paintball industry, but they were no longer in the cockpit.

Eventually, Hayes sold his share of the business to Bob Gurnsey, for substantially less than Charles received for his share a few years earlier.  Bob kept it going another few years, but filed for bankruptcy in 1995. NSG had been sued more than 100 times in less than 15 years.

I wasn’t able to speak with Bob Gurnsey for this story - he died of cancer a few years ago - so I have no idea how many other discrepancies I might have found if had been able to hear his version. When he died, Charles and Hayes hadn’t spoken with Bob in years. They were both successful men, with careers outside of NSG. Bob was more fully invested, had more to lose. I get the impression that he never forgave the other two that the business went belly-up.

 Tony Atwill, THE GREEN BERET, wrote a manual for The Survival Game that doubled as multi-chapter advertisement for the company.

Tony Atwill, THE GREEN BERET, wrote a manual for The Survival Game that doubled as multi-chapter advertisement for the company.

The Making of a Legend

Paintball has changed a lot since the 1980s. An arms race for faster, more powerful paintball guns (which coincidentally leads to the purchase of more paintballs) took the sport out of the woods and into a different, more urban setting. Today, competitions are held in small fields with lots of smaller obstacles. Players work in tactical teams that would look at home in a Call of Duty game. Woods-skills are superfluous in this new arena, and ironically, today’s stockbrokers could have the advantage after all.

Those changes have led some to maintain a deep nostalgia for the early incarnations of the game. In 2011, a man named Steve Davidson set out to find the exact location of the First Annual Survival Game, now recognized as the first game of paintball on record. He wanted to petition the state to put up a  historical marker - one of those green highway signs you see on village squares around New Hampshire.

 Steve Davidson reenacts a famous shot from the 1981 Sports Illustrated coverage of The First Annual Survival Game.

Steve Davidson reenacts a famous shot from the 1981 Sports Illustrated coverage of The First Annual Survival Game.

It was harder than you might think. Identifying one patch of woods from another isn’t easy in New Hampshire, and many of the early participants have died or moved away.  But after about a year of research and lots of phone calls, Steve was able to find and match a distinctive boulder that appeared in a Sports Illustrated photograph taken that day on June 27th, 1981.

The location is in Henniker, New Hampshire.Steve gathered his evidence, as well as dozens of signatures, and filed a proposal with the State’s Division of Historical Resources. They were excited to help celebrate a little modern history, but when Steve tried to finalize the wording that would appear on the sign, everything fell apart.

Bob Gurnsey was still alive then, and the falling out between him and the others wound up leading to some uncomfortable conversations.

“The language being proposed was I did this, I did that, I did the other thing… and I was like, hey, isn’t this supposed to be about the sport?”

Eventually, Steve withdrew the proposal.  

Elizabeth Muzzey was working with Steve on the proposal at the time. She’s now the state’s Historical Resource Officer. I met her in her office where she showed me a thick file that the state still has on the historical marker that never was.

“Working with the recent past can be very challenging,” she told me. “Time has a way of filtering history. So, as the years go by, the specific events, the details of those events, the people involved in those events, really rise to the  surface as what was most important. But when we’re talking about something that happened in the 1980s, it’s a little more difficult to come up with the most important aspect of the story, because we all remember the details.”

I asked her, “doesn’t that seem backwards? Doesn’t it seem like the long ago past should be harder to discern?”

Elizabeth sighed.
“Working with history we try to be objective, and it’s tough do that when that’s something from your own past,” said Elizabeth.

“Do you think in another 20 or 30 years, this will be easier to do?” I asked.

“Probably,” Elizabeth said after a while. “Probably.”

Legends it seems, aren’t crafted overnight.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Taylor Quimby and Sam Evans-Brown. Our staff includes Jimmy Gutierrez, Hannah McCarthy,  and Justine Paradis. Erika Janik is our Executive Producer. 

Special thanks to Lauren Choolijian, Annie Ropeik, Robert Garrova, Baby Hugo, and Pheidippides. 

Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.