(Note: All names below have been changed. Believe it or not, people who shell out $3,000 for lessons on how to pick up girls don't want their friends, family, and coworkers to know they did this.)
"Do you want to go with the mustache routine or '80s party?" Joe, a 23-year-old Duke graduate and investment banker, asks Pete, a 22-year-old varsity athlete and eating club member at Princeton. "Let's go '80s," Pete replies swiftly. "You open the set, I'm right behind you."
Joe eyes two bored-looking blonde girls waiting in line to use the restroom at the Park, a three-story lounge/club hybrid in Manhattan's Meatpacking district, and made his move. He sidles up to the shorter of the pair, leaving Pete to flank the other. I stay out of earshot, but I knew the exact words that were about to come out of his mouth:
"Excuse me, guys. My friend and I are thinking of throwing a party next week, and we can't decide on a theme. Should we throw a jungle one or an '80s party?"
Back near the bar, I watch Joe and Pete in action with The Don and Savoy, two master pickup artists who had spent the previous two days - 10 hours in total - in a windowless conference room in Midtown Manhattan preparing Pete, Joe, and seven other men for exactly this moment. Savoy breaks down the attempted pickup with the gusto of John Madden analyzing a naked bootleg. "Joe's leaning in too much!" he exclaims. "He needs to position himself against the wall and isolate. But look at Pete! He's getting some good touches. With some practice, he's gonna kill one day."
That day would have to wait. Three minutes later, the girls are gone. Joe and Pete head back to their instructors for a postmortem.
"So, what'd you learn?" The Don asks.
"We got in there okay, but I think they got offended with my cold read," says Pete. "I was like, 'You guys look like Jersey girls.' Turns out they were actually from California. Then I guessed L.A., but it was really San Diego."
"Never mind," Savoy pipes in. "New target: Asian girl, polka-dot dress. Pete, try the mustache line. GO!"
Pete does not look particularly interested in talking to the Asian girl in a polka-dot dress, and she does not look particularly interested in being talked to. But Pete knows better than to argue. Besides, he had coughed up $3,000 for exactly this type of kick in the ass. And so he takes a deep breath and trudges back into the field.
By now, the phrase "pickup artist" needs no explanation. Their goal is simple: Arm the "Average Frustrated Chump" with knowledge that, with some practice, patience, and the willingness to be totally embarrassed in front of strangers, will (hopefully) turn him into a smooth lady-killer. Or at least into a guy who can approach a girl without having to resort to such banalities as "Hi, What's your name? I'm X."
Savoy, who is 34, started what was to become Love Systems back in 2004. (The company originally released The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women into Bed.) He even makes an appearance toward the end of The Game (Strauss wrote part of the book at Savoy's home in San Diego).
Today, Love Systems' 23 "dating coaches" run weekly boot camps everywhere from New York to Dublin to Sydney. The format for each is the same: five-hour instructional sessions on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, supplemented by "field" sessions on Friday and Saturday night. Training for battle and then being dropped into a firefight on foreign soil, as it were.
"Essentially, what we've done is reverse engineer the behavior of naturally successful guys," says Savoy. "There's a method to what we're teaching. It works."
It better: Camp is a cool $3,000, not including travel expenses. But Savoy is so confident in his company's program that he throws in a money-back, no-questions-asked guarantee - a clause he says is invoked less than 0.5 percent of the time.
"There are obviously a lot cheaper ways to get laid," he admits. "But what we teach buys you a lifetime of beautiful women."
It's a nice hook: For three large ones, Love Systems will turn any Joe Schmo, regardless of looks, into a Don Juan. But is it true? Who are the Joe Schmoes? Who are the coaches? Is everyone getting laid?! To answer these questions and more, Savoy invited us to sit through boot camp to find out firsthand. There were only two caveats: Change all names, take no pictures.
Here's what we learned:
So, are all the guys who sign up socially maladjusted, sad-sack virgins or what?
Actually, no. All nine participants were nice, normal guys. (Joe from Duke was a bit of a meathead, but, hey, they're not all gonna be winners.) Three could be described as conventionally "attractive"; none were so physically off-putting as to make it obvious why they had trouble meeting girls. In short, most didn't seem like they needed to take the class. So what gives?
"Being in college, you sort of fall ass-backwards into girls," says Joe. Joe is wearing a polo shirt with a popped collar and cargo shorts, and has that haircut with the front flipped up and gelled into place that many frat boys sport. "Now I'm in the city, and it's all, 'Hi, what's your name? Where are you from? What do you do?' And that stuff doesn't work. So I'm trying something new out," he says. His was a common refrain.
"I've tried the bar thing, but I never felt comfortable," says Greg, a sales guy in his late 20s who had flown in all the way from Saskatchewan. "I figured this would give me an edge."
Only one guy, a soft-spoken, nebbish Asian fellow seemed up the paddle without a raft, but that's partly because he lives in Montpelier, Vermont, and partly because he says he has a sleep condition that makes it difficult for him to stay awake between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., which he feels takes him out of the game, as it were.
Two were older than the rest - late 30s - but were successful business men, which I'm told counts for something. All the rest were the type of guys you generally see out at night and probably wouldn't Mace if they tried talking to you.
Who were the instructors? Total sleazebags? How do you even become an instructor, anyway?
Over the course of the weekend, I met four instructors: Savoy, The Don, Big Business, and Fader. They certainly weren't the type of guys you'd look at and think to yourself, "Wow. That guy must sleep with a lot of chicks." (That is, none were particularly good-looking, well-dressed, or wealthy.) Savoy, The Don, and Big Business were all funny, affable, well-spoken, intelligent guys.
Interestingly enough, The Don, Big Business, and Fader all started off as boot camp attendees before working their way up to junior instructor status. To become a junior instructor, you have to be nominated by two existing lead instructors. Leaders have to be nominated by three other lead instructors, and then they're subject to vetting by Savoy.
What, exactly, are they teaching?
The preferred phrase for what Love Systems specializes in is the "science of dating." (Not getting laid, mind you. "Dating.") "We're more focused on the process rather than the outcome," says Savoy. The most important thing is to make the process, from opening to closing the deal, as automated as possible - "trying to control the controllables," as Savoy puts it. Nothing is left to chance.
Take the following logic tree of an "opener," one of dozens offered to students:
"Excuse me, I have a quick question. Would you read your boyfriend's e-mail if you thought he was cheating on you?"
If she says yes, you follow with, "Note to self: Don't date this chick." She gets slightly embarrassed and feels the need to defend herself, and boom! You're off.
If she says no, you follow up with more details about how this girl you know (see? You know a girl. You are not a weirdo!) is debating whether to read her boyfriend's e-mail, and you're telling her it's a bad idea, and so on and so forth.
The idea is that all of the material is calibrated to elicit a specific response or reaction that you are prepared for and can follow up on. You know how she's going to respond because she is a girl and all girls act the same way, fundamentally. (If they act a different way, well, you are prepared for that contingency as well.) The next thing you know, you are touching her arm, she is looking at you like you're the most interesting person in the world, and you have to fend her advances off with a stick because making out in the bar will diffuse the sexual tension. (Save that shit for later, bro!)
So they're teaching you to lie?
"It's not about pretending you're something you're not. It's about bringing out the best of what you've got," Savoy says. Initially, though, the guys don't really have a lot to bring out, and so yes, they lie. Particularly in the openers. But Savoy notes that this is a temporary phase. Eventually, the goal is to use real anecdotes from your own life, not canned routines.
What else are they teaching?
They don't just prep you for conversation. They prep you for everything, including, but not limited to: how to position yourself at a bar to make it look like girls are hitting on you, and not vice versa (stand against the wall); how to meet girls in a club ("Approach a girl and ask, in a loud voice, 'On a scale of one to 10, how much fun are we having?' If she says eight, take her by the hand and twirl her. Then say, 'Now you're at a 10!'"); how to meet girls at the airport ("Fly Southwest - the open seating is great for sitting next to a hot girl"); how to "isolate" a girl and move her around the room to strengthen "trust"; how to plant the seeds of sex in her mind early in conversation; how to make friends with her guy friends so they don't punch you in the face; and even how to snag a threesome ("It's important to elevate intimacy with each girl in sync. Also, alcohol helps").
How did it go in the field?
"In the beginning, it's kind of like pushing people out of an airplane," says The Don. "Everyone is mortified." Another participant summed up the first night, at multi-tiered yuppie hangout Sutton Place, thusly: "I had serious approach anxiety. It was terrible." Initial results were what you'd expect: Most guys got the opening salvo off, but faltered after a few minutes because they couldn't sustain the conversation. "Cold reads" - snap judgments about a girl issued to demonstrate your "higher value," were hilariously off-base. Jose, a college student and native Spaniard with a thick accent, recounted one of his disastrous attempts:
Jose: "You guys seem like best friends. You grew up together, didn't you?"
Girl: "No, we met in college."
Jose: "New York?"
Girl: "Uh, Boston."
Jose: "Boston University, I bet."
Girl: "Boston College."
The instructors, to their credit, were great about making guys who had just struck out approach another "set" immediately ("You need a short memory in this line of work," says Big Business), at offering feedback about what went wrong, and even at playing wingman when the situation called for it. At one point, Big Business invited me to open a set with him using the mustache routine. ("We're thinking of growing mustaches for a prostate cancer fundraiser. What do you guys think?") "It'll be easy!" he promised. Sure, for him. I barely lasted five minutes before feebly excusing myself to go get a drink; he had his girl in stitches. "It just takes a lot of practice," Joe offered. "It's like basketball. You gotta learn to dribble before you can shoot."
Everyone's dribbling the next night at the Park was markedly less rusty. Pete from Princeton, painfully shy at Sutton Place, approached (sober!) a curly-haired blonde fiddling on her BlackBerry in the corner, and said, sarcastically, "Looks like the party's over here!" She laughed, and they talk for 20 minutes. ("No number close, but it went well," he told me.) Another guy went up to two short girls and declared, "Did your friends have to stack you two on top of each other just to get in?" They laugh, too. Guys aren't running off to have sex in the bathroom, but they're making progress.
Did anyone get laid?
One guy did! One of the old dudes, no less. The specifics boggle the mind. He actually had to leave the seminar on Sunday afternoon early after receiving the following text from a woman he met the night before: "Waiting in your hotel room with a bottle of Chianti. I'm letting it breathe." (I never got to ask him how she got into his room.) Some other guys got phone numbers.
Oh, and Big Business the instructor did, too. With a really cute brunette in a black cocktail dress who honestly kept staring at him like he was God's gift to women. She was significantly more attractive than he was, and far more put together. (He was wearing Sketchers!) And no, she wasn't wasted. I asked him about it later. "I've gotten pretty good at quick pulls, which is silly as I'm kind of over one night stands/same night lays."
Was it worth $3,000?
I posed the question to all nine guys. All nine said it was. "I don't feel like my game necessarily improved that much in a few days, but I can see myself getting really good at this," says Kenny, a 21-year-old student from Yonkers with a shaved head. "I have the tools. Now I just have to explain to my friends where the hell I was all weekend."
Witness the last thing Savoy told the class: "There is no reason why you can't succeed. Make a note of that."