It was a spring night in New York City as I surveyed the open seating section of an outdoor bar with my best friend Phil. Like so many of the other men around us fueled by the warm seasonal breeze and alcohol-induced courage, we were in search of girls.
Generally, the strategy behind selecting which girl to approach is as arbitrary as it is animalistic. Whether it's the first girl a guy sees or the girl who looks most receptive to conversing with a stranger, there's usually only surface-level rationalizing involved. Though, that night we weren't interested in which girls would be easiest to approach. We were in pursuit of the biggest challenge.
Phil had been studying the “science” of pick up artistry for months, and that night he was prepared to show me “The Cube” technique for the first time. “The Cube” is a personality exercise of sorts. The idea is to tell a girl that you could accurately describe her personality by asking a series of questions. You then recite blatant generalizations based on her answers, which more often than not, she'd perceive as detailed understandings of her own personality. It's not all that different than the curbside hustlers with novelty crystal balls and handwritten signs that advertise five-dollar psychic readings. The one job I had was to not screw anything up.
We finally settled on a table of three girls and three guys. Phil wasted no time. “I have to ask, do you believe in psychic intuition?” he interrupted. “I know this is random," he continued, "but I bet I can tell you everything about your personality.” He focused on the girls, ignoring the guys all together.
“So prove it,” one of them responded. Phil motioned for her to put her hands in his and instructed her to close her eyes. Before he could even get started the guys said they had to go and left the table without acknowledging us.
“Imagine a cube,” Phil began. “How big is it? What color? Now imagine a ladder. How many rungs? Now a horse. What kind and color? There's a storm. What kind of storm?” And so on and so on. All the while, one of the girl's friends nudged me playfully, assuming I had been privy to this show before.
When the questions concluded, the girl slowly opened her eyes, readjusting to the world around her. For the next two minutes, I sat in awe as Phil interpreted each one of her answers without missing a beat.
“The cube represents you,” he playfully admitted. Since she described her cube as being small, it meant that at times she was an introvert. Her cube was on the ground, so Phil told her she was well grounded. The ladder represented her friends, and since she described it as having only a few rungs, it meant she had a select few friends that she really cared about. The horse was her ideal man. She picked a stallion, which meant she wanted a masculine partner. Though the horse's color was white, so she also desired someone that could be sensitive and emotionally stable.
With each interpretation, which was nothing more than a series of basic abstractions, she grew more wide-eyed. “You're describing her perfectly,” one of her friends shouted. By the end of the night, the three guys had never returned. As the girl entered her number into Phil's phone, she explained that she had a boyfriend, but that she didn't know where the relationship was going. One of her friends gave me her number, and with that, we left as suddenly as we'd arrived.
I was first introduced to pick up artistry when Phil, following the end of a four-year relationship, turned to books on seduction to help heal his heartbreak. Like many before him, he was directed to Neil Strauss' New York Times bestseller “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick Up Artists.” As critiqued as it's been worshipped, “The Game” is a memoir that profiles the now mainstream personality Neil Strauss' rise from loser to ladies man, through the mastery of the highly controversial and taboo culture of pick up artistry.
There is an entire underground culture of men that dedicate their nights and intellectual capacity to learning the science behind attracting women. These men are not born alpha males that light up rooms with their charisma and physique, but by following a set of well-practiced rules, they are able to intrigue and even sleep with women that would otherwise overlook them.
After “The Game,” Phil devoured any related text he could get his hands on; from Robert Greene's “The Art of Seduction, to “W. Anton's “The Manual: What Women Want and How to Give it to Them,” to sales books about persuasion and FBI manuals about body reading. He was consumed by the notion that if he read enough words about what women wanted to hear, speaking and embodying those words would become second nature.
At first I dismissed the idea that there could be any legitimacy to the rules and aphorisms that Phil left lingering around our apartment. I never had any issues connecting with women, and the concepts that he presented seemed like the complete opposite of anything I'd ever done to attract a girl.
“A neg,” he explained, “is a backhanded compliment. It's important to slightly offend the girl you're interested in. Or at least to not show immediate interest.”
“How does that make sense?” I asked half-heartedly.
“Next time you go out, watch how every guy interacts with the best looking girl. 'Can I buy you a drink?' 'What's your name?' 'You're really pretty.' The most attractive girls never have to work for affection, so they can't help but want the guy that makes his presence known but doesn't pursue them.”
Conversations like these became commonplace, and each time I found myself paying closer attention. It was our first summer living on our own in New York City, and like Phil, I too was recovering from the fall out of a four-year relationship. Breakups have a funny way of changing people in the first few months following the split. Some people go skydiving. Others get makeovers and chop off their hair. My ex-girlfriend got a tattoo the size of her torso and took up pole dancing. I, whether I knew it at the time or not, would spend the entire summer of 2012 becoming a pick up artist, and a good one at that.
I was only a few chapters into “The Game” when Phil decided I'd get my first real taste of gaming, as it was called. We were at a rooftop bar for a friend's birthday when he assured me I'd be leaving with the phone number of a gorgeous waitress he'd spotted. “I'll open, then you neg,” he instructed. An “open” referred to the initial approach, which was meant to gain the target's interest without displaying immediate signs of attraction. I felt extremely unprepared.
When the waitress made her way to the corner of the bar to catch her breath, we approached. “We've been debating about something all night and we wanted to get your opinion,” Phil said. “Our friend got in an argument with his girlfriend the other night because she got drunk and kissed a girl. He thinks it's cheating, she says it's not.”
This was all a devised lie of course, but it was my job to believe it, the same way the waitress would. Whatever her opinion was, Phil would take the opposite stance. He was the true definition of a wingman. Once she said she thought it was cheating, I playfully boasted that she'd sided with me. Then, without even thinking, I threw in my neg, and told the waitress that she looked like the type of girl that would hook up with other girls when drunk.
My insides tightened as the words slipped from my mouth. I'd never say that to a girl I was interested in, but to my surprise she laughed and stroked the length of my arm while chuckling, “No way, silly. I like guys.” This touch was referred to as “kino,” as in kinesthetic, and is defined as a friendly touch that signifies the girl's interest and comfort.
I ended my first official night of gaming with a number from the waitress, whom I found out was six years older than I was. As I said my goodbyes, I watched out of the corner of my eye as Phil locked lips with a woman at the bar. It all seemed too good to be true.
The following months would prove to be the most social of my life. Looking back, I have a difficult time determining where the social experiment ended and the full-blown obsession began.
Phil and I would spend nights repeating rules and as if they were biblical:
Never buy a girl a drink, make her buy you a drink.
Never give a girl your number, make her give you hers.
Always approach from the side, not directly from the front.
Make sure your body language makes it appear as if you're going to leave at any moment.
By the time mid-July rolled around, we considered ourselves highly skilled at winning the attention of pretty much any girls we wanted. When we told our friends they laughed at the idea, until we'd prove it to them. The first time I brought a friend out to game I ended up with an invite home from a 30-year-old woman, who moments before was showing me pictures of her kids and “baby daddy.”
Another night, a friend challenged Phil and me to game in a restaurant. Phil intercepted a woman dining with her boyfriend when she got up to go to the bathroom. I got a text later the same night from the girl I met after joining her and her friends at their table. It read, “I can't pick out a bathing suit for tomorrow. If I send pictures will you help me pick one out?”
Once in a salsa club downtown, I approached a stunning professional dancer who had a line of men waiting for a trial run with her. I asked her if she was an amateur dancer just learning the style, we ended up on the dance floor, laughing as I tried to learn the steps and she expressed that we should make the most of her first summer in New York. I found myself meeting girls while waiting for the girl I was supposed to be on a date with. I spent nights under the stars on strange rooftops, and once woke up in an apartment in Greenwich Village with a note that read, “I trust you” on top of a key.
That summer, gaming became the only form of interaction with the opposite sex Phil and I knew. Though our methods were a peculiar combination of the many philosophies we'd sought out, there was one guideline that truly drove the success: no fear of rejection.
Anyone can memorize lines and read advice books, but we were able to shed the unnerving terror that is paired with the idea of rejection. After all, it is the fear of being rejected, not rejection itself, which limits us in so many aspects of life. When someone you're attracted to rejects you, what really changes in your life? You'd still be breathing. You'd have the same health, the same life, the same friends, the same everything.
We forced ourselves to confront rejection using the three-second-rule. We'd dedicate days to approaching beautiful women within three seconds of seeing them, which forced us to engage in conversation immediately, never allowing our minds enough time to develop excuses and worst-case scenarios. By embracing rejection as a normal part of life, we in turn exuded an obvious aura of confidence. Plus we were armed with enough openings, negs and closing lines to fill a novel.
The routine became mathematical. I could critique a girl's nail polish and she'd end up all over me. Phil became a master at spending nights strategically chatting with the friends of the girl he was interested in, completely ignoring her all together. This, of course, resulted in the girl fighting for his attention. We could predict when girls would let their guards down. We knew exactly when they'd provide a touch or a laugh. We spent the entire summer with the women that the guys around us wished they could be with.
It was sublime. It was transcendental. And by the time the summer was over and the chilling fall breeze made itself known, I'd realized it was terrible.
What was intended to be experimental and harmless had become a programmed and systematic habit. Phil couldn't walk outside or ride a train without approaching a new target. My phonebook had become a dense collection of numbers with names I didn't remember. Some of the girls we'd meet with again, but most were one-time results of the game at work. Trophies collecting dust somewhere.
Worst of all, my view of women had become severely skewed. While the confidence I had gained was a great and important feat in itself, it was depressing that the tactics I was using were delusory. I had learned how to get women to fall for me within minutes of speaking to them 99 percent of the time, but the success was fueled by dishonesty, rudeness, and characteristics I had never intended to acquire. The line between seduction and deception was blurred.
The fact that such engineered strategies worked so well on most women was equally depressing. In the beginning, Phil explained that attraction lies in the idea of pursuit, which is why so many of the women we intentionally didn't show attraction toward so greatly desired us. Though the entire concept became meaningless once I realized that through gaming I had lost the excitement of the pursuit.
Even when we did meet girls we were interested in getting to know on a personal level, we couldn't help but put on the disguise we'd become so comfortable wearing. I was living in New York City with a roster of more willing girls than I knew what to do with yet I felt lonelier than I ever had.
By October, I had stopped myself from going out as much. I figured alone time could help remedy the whirlwind experience of the summer. I needed my cube to be small.
One night I was walking into the gym when I ran into a familiar face. It was a girl from my hometown, though we had never said a single word to each other despite going to high school together for four years. We shared an awkward hello and that night I decided I'd reach out to her on Facebook and ask her to grab a drink sometime soon.
We ended up getting together a week later, catching each up on our lives, and in a strange way, meeting for the first time. On our second date, we ended up on the couch in her apartment. I explained to her that I had the ability to tell her everything about her personality and instructed her to put her hands in mine. She did, but with hesitation.
As I went through the motions, asking her the series of obscure questions, it became increasingly obvious that she could see right through the entire bit. Suddenly the whole act sounded stupid and contrived, because it was. By the end of my performance I admitted to her that it was a just a stupid pick up artist trick I had learned from a friend.
For the rest of the night we laughed together, equally astonished at how I ended up in her apartment six years after high school. Nerves shot through my body and butterflies tore through my stomach; something I hadn't felt in a long time.
I could have kissed her that night, but I decided not to. I figured there was no rush. And as I walked back to my apartment, toying with the idea of fate, I couldn't help but notice that for the first time since the beginning of the summer, I didn't feel so alone.
This essay will appear in Greg Dybec's forthcoming book, "The Art of Living Other People's Lives," available for pre-order here.