Lock pick Contest Experiences

Well, I guess the cats out of the bag. As well as my penchant and skills for Wardriving and Domain Stalking I am also an amature locksmith (Meaning I like to learn about locks but am not necessarily employed as a locksmith).

Last year at H2K2 in NYC, I managed to get really great seats for Barry 'The Key' Wels and Laz of Setec Astronomy (Inside joke, watch the movie 'Sneakers') talk on lock picking. I unfortunately had to leave the con 2 years earlier at H2K before Barry's talk so I was quite keen to see it this year. For 2 hours I sat there mesmerized by the sheer simplicity of what I was seeing. It was such an easy technique I wondered why people trusted locks at all. Afterwards, in talking to my new friend Deviant, we both decided that this was a skill worth learning.

Upon returning home and preparing to goto Las Vegas for Defcon 10 I started reading up on lock picking from resources like the MIT lock picking guide and just googling around for other resources I taught myself the physics of what lock picking entailed. Deviant, in the mean time took a more practical approach. He followed some of the links that Barry had put in his presentation and found a supplier of locksmithing products that had a nice little training kit, consisting of 5 locks, each had a successive number of pins (1 had 1 pin, 1 had 2 pins, 1 had 3 pins, etc..), a snake, a half diamond point and a tension wrench. The idea being, you could learn through stages and develop the fine touch needed to set pins. It was most effective.

At Defcon Laz was there doing another presentation on Lock picking. During this presentation he commented how much he liked people who brought him beer. Deviant clued in and ran to the bar at the AP and grabbed a couple beers for Laz. A few minutes later he walked up from while Laz was doing his presentation and presented him with the beer. Laz thought this was great and hadn't expected it. Deviant explained how he'd seen him at H2K2 and had gone looking and bought the training set. He also added how he had to fudge the paperwork the company required to prove he was a valid locksmith. Laz was less than impressed with this fact until Deviant explained that the law where he was said that 'Any licensed or Bonified' locksmith could posses the tools. Deviant checked with a lawyer and the legal term 'Bonified' meant something to the affect of 'any person in the employ of or a serious hobbiest'. Meaning he was just doing what it took to get the tools he was legally able to order. The crowd and Laz loved that. He invited Deviant on stage and handed him a 5 pin tumbler lock and a pick and asked to see how the kit and laz's lectures had trained him. Took him a few minutes but he got it.

After seeing this, I defiantly wanted to get started. However, here in Canada Picks are a 'Possession of an instrument of Crime', which is basically a catch all crime that you can be charged with for possession of pretty much anything. A cell phone, hammer, brick, side of beef, 14" Dildo, a sponge, can all be considered instruments of crime in some fashion. It's a dumb regulation. This was not going to deter me since I was looking at using my picks for purely private sport reasons (Locks are a type of puzzle, picks are sporting equipment)

Deviant was kind enough to send me his training set a few months later. I trained on it and also used his picks as templates to fashion my own from brick strap I lifted from the trash at Home Depot (They had no materials suitable to sell me so I didn't feel guilty using their trash)

As a lone Lock pick here in Canada I thought myself pretty good after a year of tinkering and practicing against a pile of locks I had accumulated. However, with no-one to compare against I honestly didn't know how good I was.

Now back to the original point of this article: When I saw the Lock pick contest announced on the Defcon Forums, I was the 4th contestant to sign up. Finally a chance to test my mettle against others. I fully expected to get my ass kicked, but I was going to give it a go.

The next problem was travel. Since I'd have to cross the Canada-US border I really didn't want to take my picks with me. So after some email discussions a very kind soul I deal with on-line a fair amount provided me with a mailing address in Vegas of where to send my picks ahead of my via postal service. 1 padded envelope, a copy of the MIT lock picking guide as padding, and my pick case went to Vegas 2 weeks before the Con. Hopefully they would get there.

As planned I drove down to Vegas. Given the extreme amount of fun I had in getting down there, I wasn't sure if my luck would hold out and they'd arrive.

Sure enough, Thursday morning I spot my friend with a very familiar envelope, They arrived right on time. I had bought a proper pick set while I was at the Con put as any athlete will tell you, they prefer their own worn in gear to unfamiliar new stuff. I signed in for the contest and started practicing against the numerous lock boards that were around the con, as well as a few I had with me

Friday rolled around and I was ready to go. The DC719 crew had really done a great job in setting up the contest. In the first round They had 6 identical locks interior door locks (the kind with the lock in the middle of the knob) mounted onto boards. Each locks latch pressed a button that was housed inside a simulated door jam. The only way to release the button was to unlock the lock and spin the knob. The buttons were all connected to some custom circuitry and into the parallel port of a laptop that recorded, from when the timer started, to when the button was depressed. A great system. Unfortunately the laptop they were using didn't care much for the heat outdoors and was suffering heatstroke, causing them to resort to manual stop watches on the second day.

I also ran into Laz again. I thanked him for his presentations last year and showed him my home made picks (Which I used exclusively throughout the contest). He was also taking part in the contest just for fun (he's a professional locksmith so it wouldn't be fair)

As mentioned before, the first round was interior knob locks. Standard 5 pin tumbler locks, nothing fancy. We all had to start standing, tools in the air. They called "Go" and I dropped to my knees (the locks were at waist level). I jammed my tension wrench in, turned counter clockwise, jammed in my snake, raked about 3 times and spun the knob. I took only about 6.3 seconds to do all that. I shouted 'Got it' and received some applause. I then realized I was the first of the 6 in this heat to do it. OK, maybe I know something of what I'm doing.

At this point I wander off for the wardriving contest which is starting right away.

Just an observation. I saw alot of contestants that I'm not sure how long they've been picking, but thier technique needs work. They looked like they were trying to kill the lock or saw right through it. One guy in the first round gave up after about 5 minutes because he couldn't get it. Everyone encouraged him to continue and he did. He was putting an incredible amount of tension on the wrench so much that the pins were jamming and had a whole hand grip on the rake sawing back and forth without adjusting the tension on the wrench. I'm not sure if he was new to it or hadn't seen proper technique (not that mine is perfect), and no offense intended, but he needed alot more practice.

After Wardriving I hang around the lock pick table a bit more until the last round. I then ask Kaigoth where I placed. He showed me on the laptop that I was 4th. I thought this was pretty good. He then informed me that 2 of the scores were to be trashed for technical difficulties and that I was in fact in 2nd place after the first round! The first place went to Laz who really didn't count, so in a sense I was first! I felt pretty damn proud of that. Later on they had the top scores posted on the projector at the DC-Info booth with my name in 2nd place. Throughout the rest of the day I had friends & total strangers coming up to me and congradulating me on my placement. That was pretty damn cool.

Saturday came up with a helluva hangover. I stumbled out of bed late and was a few minutes late to the contest. The heat stroke issues had finally done in the laptop and they had resorted to a stopwatch. The delays were putting some major constraints on those of us in the wardriving contest. Finally they said they'd hand time those of us needing to goto the wardriving contest. Bobcat went first (an aquantance from setec astronomy). He spun that lock in about 10 seconds. I went next. 'Go' was shouted, I dropped down, jammed my tension wrench in and started raking. I had the pins set in about 6-7 seconds, and spun the plug, but the plug jammed and would'nt spin all the way to pull the latch at 8 seconds. A little jiggling relased it all the way in 10.3 seconds. I let Kaigoth know they needed to hit the lock with some WD40 or something.

After wardriving I found myself in 4th place (3rd if you take the plug jam into consideration). Still not bad for only a year of light practice on very few door locks.

Later that day was the 3rd round. This is where it got interesting. Previously it had been purely really easy locks in time trials to whiddle down the field of roughly 60 to 10 or 12 I think.

This round was a multiple lock time trial, but this time, head to head. They had a "Magnum" padlock on top, a deadbolt in the middle (same as previous but re-keyed in a truely evil fashion), and the interior door lock (also rekeyed in an equally evil way). All the locks were mounted on a wood box and were securing a door in the box. You had to pick all the locks and open the door to finish.

I watched a few rounds and realized everyone was having a tough time with the padlock (partially because of the small keyway), I ran back to my room to get some extra gear. Since we could only use hand picks I could'nt use a pick gun or anything, however there was nothing to keep me from using my headlights (a pair of plastic glasses with flashlights on the side) to get a good look at the pin shape to make an educated decision about what pick to use.

My turn came and I laid out my picks for easy access, donned my headlights (much to everyones amusement), selected a snake and tension wrench, and decided to focus on the padlock. Once again, 'Go' and I was off to work. The padlock used a slightly more angled pin shape and a very small keyway which caused problems for alot of people. I went to work for a while on the padlock and was getting frustrated. As with any lock pick project, I learned to take a breath and go for a 'confidence lock', a lock that is easier that reminds you that you still have the magic. I switched to the deadbolt and after 15-20 seconds I popped the lock, but I discovered they had basically re-keyed it to use an alternating high-low pin config (a real pain since the differences are so big). Confidence back, I moved back to the padlock. At this point I decided to have some fun. The other guy competing head to head with me was now working on the deadbolt and having a tough time. I shouted some advice to him which I'm not sure if it helped or not. I also started shouting at the crowd and reminded them that 'this was a competition, lets have some noise!' to many cheers and encouragments. Still stuck on the padlock I went on to the door lock. Popped it in short order, all that was left was that padlock. The other guy was still behind a lock but was now working on the door lock after he got the deadbolt. I kept working on the padlock while he popped the door lock and restarted on the padlock. I realized at one point I was probobly getting the pins too high since with the small keyways and the size of the snake I was using (my home made one) was pushing the pins at least half way on insertion. I angled the snake past the first key guide into the lower part of the keyway and restarted. This was the trick. Finally hearing that satisfying click was just wonderful. I ripped the padlock off the clasp holdong the door, spun the knob and opened it for a rough time of 5 minutes and 48 seconds (waiting for the official times to be posted) and a big round of cheers. The other guy was about 20-30 seconds behind me and got an equally deserving round of cheers. My time put me in 3rd place for those who had competed so far, but the day was not done.

Towards the end of all the competitors I had slid to 5th and I think that's where I'd stayed. Sadly this was not enough to get me into the final round which was the top 3 people. They had the same challenge, but different keyed locks once again.

I was far from dissapointed, there's a certain element of luck in lock picking that was with me, but also reared it's bad side in the last round. The fellow who won 3rd failed to open all the locks in the 15 minute time limit. He still won 3rd, but it goes to show that at a certain level, skill leaves and luck enters.

The contest went very well. Just a few critiques that have been sent to the orginizers:
1. Test the electronic scoring for heat issues next year

2. Scheduling was wierd, no one seemed to know when things were going on. It was also very closely scheduled to the wardriving contest. Driving around for 3 hours on rough roads does wierd things to your hands.

3. Crowd control. I did'nt mind the crowd, it's just that around that table not everyone could see very well.


1. See if it's possible to get one of the speaking rooms next year in the evening. Putting video of the contestants working on locks on the screens would help the crowd and make for more of a competition atmosphere.

2. More 1 on 1 competition. I found it really fun to go head to head with 1 other person in the 3rd round. Against 6 it's not as fun. Perhaps 1 easy lock in a 'Quickdraw' (or quickpick) style.

I came home with good memories, a PXS-17 pickset and a set of Wardred Picks and a new found thrill for opening locks without a key. I came in 5th out of 60 with home made picks (I did'nt use any in the contest that I had bought)and limited practice. Next year I'll be back and well practiced.

If you have any locks you'd like to donate to help me practice for next year drop me an email. If you want I can pay postage. I'm looking for pin tumbler, wafer locks, and warded locks. Locks of all shapes and sizes. Padlocks, desklocks, door locks, anything.

A note to Law enforcement: I know that my site is crawled regularly by various Canadian, American, and international law enforcement agencies. I know that you now know I am an amature lock pick and posses these tools. These are for recreational use. Locks are a puzzle, a mental and dexterity exercise. I only pick locks that I have bought, been given, or have permission to pick. If I'm out behind a radio shack at 3am picking the back door, please bust my ass. If I'm not and am not commiting any crime, I would hope you would realize that my picks are sporting equipment and not hassle me over them. I am aware that possession is a crime, but almost anything can be used as a pick. The old womens hairpin trick does work, does that mean that hairpins should be illegal? My first set was just brick strap, hand filed down into specific and well know shapes. Is brickstrap illegal? I am convinced that locksmiths pushed through many of these laws because they wanted to maintain thier hold on the ability to open locks without a key and charge huge amounts to stranded people. A spare key under the doormat is a dumb idea, but a pick under the mat so you can pick your own lock in 15 minutes is a good idea. A burglar would'nt risk the exposure of 15 minutes in the open, so hand picking locks is only useful to those with a need to do so.

If you've read this far and are an amature locksmith in Canada and wish to compare notes/locks/picks. Please mail me. I'd love to chat.


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