It’s 20 hours before the third annual Dutch Open lock-picking competition will begin, but the room is already packed with 50 or so men and women wielding burglar tools and representing the international steel bolt-hacker diaspora.

By the kitchen you’ll find Jean-Marie, a debonair French military “surreptitious entry” instructor in a black commando sweater, chatting with a lock enthusiast about his collection of Abloy disc tumblers. At the door is Barry Wels, the event’s host and a coinventor of the CryptoPhone. He’s hacking an expensive, high-security, dimpled Mul-T-Lock using only a filed key and a steak knife handle. Behind the bar, a pair of locksmiths are speculating about which of the newbies is really an undercover cop. By the pool table, a gaggle of Dutch programmers probes the latches of a combination padlock with a broken tape measure, while behind them a German cyberpunk sells a hand-milled Kryptonite skeleton key to an American satellite engineer: 100 euros – cheap.

Standing above them all, with a beer stein in one hand and a cigarette in the other, is Arthur Bühl, a private dick from Hamburg and one of the most successful lock pickers of all time. Even in this crowded, smoky room, you can’t miss him – he’s the one standing 6’5″ in snakeskin boots, with a kidney-length mullet cascading over the broad shoulders of his double-breasted zoot suit. Bühl’s Fabio-the-Barbarian look stands out. So does his record. Although he’s never won a Dutch Open, he’s won most everywhere else, earning him Germany’s ultimate lock-picking accolade: Master of the Universe.

“Arthurmeister!” booms Arthurmeister. Across the room, beer mugs chink at the cry of his name. The Master of the Universe ranking reflects his cumulative lock-picking score – it’s a title that the lock sport commissioners bestow on the world points leader. If Bühl wants to keep it, he has to keep winning. Tomorrow, his sights will be set on toppling the current Dutch Open champion – a slight, mustachioed man in a T-shirt and acid-washed jeans named Julian Hardt. Back in Germany, Hardt works as a rainmaker, piloting his twin-prop to seed thunderheads with silver iodide.

“For me, a lock is an intellectual puzzle, like chess!” Julian the Champ yells in Bavarian-accented English. He yells because two men behind him have started pithing a steel safe with a cobalt-tipped drill. “But when you break a lock, when you crack that first puzzle, when you feel pins click and the cylinder go – it’s like a drug,” he continues. “So then you want to try a harder one!”

Arthurmeister throws an arm around Julian the Champ and laughs as only a Master of the Universe should. “Ja, life is good,” he declares. “But tomorrow, you are mine.”

Hardt smiles in concession. His eyes level at Arthurmeister’s chest hair. “Arthur, tomorrow is tomorrow.” Hardt says. “Why not have another beer today?”

Marc Weber Tobias is the author of Locks, Safes, and Security: An International Police Reference, a two-volume, 1,400-page compendium referred to here as De Bijbel. Last summer, Tobias’ report on how to use a ballpoint pen to hack tubular locks – locks with circular key interfaces, like those made by Kryptonite – made headlines coast to coast. Much to the company’s horror, Tobias publicly ridiculed their bike lock as an overpriced horseshoe. “Those people are unbelievably arrogant,” he says with a smirk. “I can’t wait to break their next design and destroy that company.”

Tobias shrugs off the notion that by publicizing the vulnerability, he’s creating a crime wave. “People are just mad because they wasted 50 bucks,” he says. “People trust their lives and safety to these locks. But most locks are garbage. Look around, they’re easy to open. Not knowing that doesn’t make you safer.” Tobias rolls his eyes and waggles his head incredulously. “I mean, what do people want – security through ignorance? Wake up.”

This rumpled 59-year-old ur-nerd isn’t in Sneek to compete. He’s staying in this “godawful miniature prison” to give a PowerPoint presentation (“Vulnerabilities of Master Key Systems”) and to videotape the newest attacks against the latest locks. So he’s perfectly happy to offer a few friendly tips to a fellow American who’s new to the sport and struggling to learn the ropes.

“You’re retarded,” Tobias says, watching the neophyte wrestle with the pins. Tobias takes the lock and looks inside to make sure it isn’t broken. It’s fine. “I’ll tell you how they teach it in covert-entry camp,” he says, laying a hand on the poor picker’s shoulder. “First, I stick you in a cage. Then I lock the door.” Tobias straightens and smiles. “End of story. Trust me, it works,” he says. “Death is a fantastic motivator.”

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