A Crypto Classic: The Fair Game Cryptogram

A hidden message in the credits of the Hollywood movie “Fair Game” has remained unsolved for eleven years. Will my readers succeed in cracking this cold-case cryptogram?

Deutsche Version

The feature film “Enola Holmes” from 2020 is well worth watching. It is about the sister of the master detective Sherlock Holmes, who also plays an important role in this flick. In the end, of course, the sister is smarter than her famous brother.

As I wrote last year, several ciphers appear in “Enola Holmes.” One encrypted newspaper ad that is shown even bears a striking resemblance to a cryptogram I featured on Cipherbrain that, to my knowledge, doesn’t appear anywhere else. I suspect that the producers of the film were inspired by my blog.

Quelle/Source: Enola Holmes

The solution of this encrypted newspaper ad is known and described in the film. The situation is different with another cryptogram that can be seen in “Enola Holmes”. It is not involved in the plot, and the plaintext is unknown:

Quelle/Source: Enola Holmes

The letter square on the ivy leaf looks like the key of a Playfair cipher (generated with the word IVYLEAF). The sequence of letters below could be a Playfair message. Unfortunately, if you apply the key to the message in the usual way, nothing meaningful comes out. Can a reader find the correct solution?

The Fair Game cryptogram

Today, however, we are actually supposed to be talking about a different feature film: “Fair Game” from 2010. It is a political thriller. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play a married couple who get caught up in the mills of the secret services.

I first reported on “Fair Game” in 2014 after blog reader Ralf Jäger alerted me to the fact that several dozen letters are highlighted in yellow in the five-minute credits. Together, they make up the following message (the question mark stands for a hidden and therefore unknown letter):


The meaning of these letters is unknown to this day. If it is a coded text (which of course is not said), it is unsolved. The plain text language should be English, because it is a movie from the USA. The frequency distribution of the letters is consistent with a letter substitution (calculated with CrypTool):


Quelle/Source: CrypTool

I have blogged about the Fair Game cryptogram several times. It is at position 36 in my top-50 list of unsolved crypto puzzles.


Rossignol’s transcription

Blog reader Rossignol, an experienced codebreaker from France, kindly provided me with the entire Fair Game transcript in the form of high quality screenshots. The complete set is available here. Here is an example:


Quelle/Source: Rossignol

As you can see on the next screenshot, some of the last names are covered with a white bar (probably for legal reasons):


Quelle/Source: Rossignol

In the screenshot below, you can see that one of the highlighted letters is contained in a hidden last name. This explains the question mark in the message:


Quelle/Source: Rossignol


The commentary of Martin Halpin

A reader who called himself Martin Halpin wrote the following comment on my first Fair Game article:


Does this tip come from an insider? In any case, Martin Halpin has so far only posted this one comment on my blog under this name. It could be that the production company hopes to get the code search going with such a hint, so that the Fair Game cryptogram finally brings the desired publicity.

The pseudonym “Martin Halpin” could be based on a gardener of the same name in James Joyce’s novel “Finnegan’s Wake.” This name also appears in the novels “The Glass Key” (1931) by Dashiell Hammett and “Mulligan Stew” by Gilbert Sorrentino.

If reader Martin Halpin is correct, then it is not the letter highlighted in each case that is relevant, but the letter following it. A blog reader named CJ wrote in response:

I think maybe you should focus on the letters next to the yellow letters.

Combine all the letters that are exactly left of each yellow letter, or combine all the letters that are exactly right of each letter, or combine both all the letters that are exactly left and right of each yellow letter.

From those groupings of letters try to crack the code.

Richard SantaColoma and Racingdevil48 sent me the sequence of letters that results when you take the letter to the right of the highlighted one each time:


The following message is created if you take the left neighbor in each case:



A Cold Case

The Fair Game cryptogram is a cryptological cold case. The puzzle has been known for years and has been discussed in detail on Cipherbrain several times. Nevertheless, the solution is still unknown. However, I assume that the cryptogram can be solved. After all, the production company has an interest in the solution eventually going through the press.

So the chances are still good that the Fair Game cryptogram will be solved. Can my readers contribute to this?

If you want to add a comment, you need to add it to the German version here.

Further reading: My appearance in a new Hollywood movie

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