It's Saturday night at Drink in Uptown, and Brent—a.k.a. "Private"—is decked out in full Wingman regalia: dark gray T-shirt scrawled with the words "Honor" and "Virtue" atop a complex, twisting shield. Two steps away, Brent's protégé Emilio, a handsome dentist from Ecuador, surveys the scene.
A five-foot-tall dishwater blonde steps directly between the men. She totters a bit on her heels, right into Emilio's path. He sees the opening and pounces.
"Excuse me," Emilio says. "What is the first thing you notice about a man?"
The blonde looks over her shoulder at Brent, who towers a foot and a half above her. "The way he stands," she says decisively. "He stands relaxed, confident. That's a beautiful man. That's a man that you want."
Then she strides past Emilio and continues on her way.
Emilio's face droops beneath his backward newsboy cap as his shoulders slouch. "She doesn't want me."
The blonde wasn't even that pretty, Emilio quickly points out. Still, rejection stings.
"It's ego," he admits.
Brent, the 32-year-old computer programmer who has organized tonight's expedition, isn't going to let the interaction derail Emilio from reaching his objectives.
"Are you getting warmed up?" Brent asks.
"Yeah," Emilio says. "I'm just going to work on my posture."
"You know, that's a good suggestion for later," Brent says. "But right now, don't worry about that. Right now, it's all about getting in the mood—knowing that you're confident. You just relax. Make a game of it."
Emilio nods and swallows hard.
Brent picks out a table across the bar. A girl wearing a rich red pea coat chats on her cell phone, surrounded by three women in tight jeans. A skinny guy in a basic navy T-shirt sits sentry, but the outer edge of the table is wide open.
Brent nudges Emilio, who is 35 but looks no older than 28, toward the target.
"You can't do anything wrong," Brent says.
"What do I say?" Emilio asks.
Suddenly, a mysterious man who calls himself "Renovo" sweeps in. He's nominally hanging out with Brent and Emilio tonight, but he's spent most of his time chatting up women.
Renovo locks onto the table and struts across the room. He throws his arms wide and a beautiful girl with silky blond hair jumps into them.
"Oh," Brent says. "Renovo knows her."
When he's finally ready to take the plunge, Emilio strides over and greets the party of five. "He-ee-ey!" you can almost hear him announce from across the room.
Brent slides into the booth to watch the action. His girlfriend Carolyn, a preschool teacher with perfect skin and a quick wit, settles in for the show.
Across the bar, Emilio is talking at the table, but mostly to the lone guy. It's going well. The guy laughs and Emilio slaps him a high five. The women smile at Emilio, too.
"They're all looking at him," Carolyn says. "They're all listening to him."
The girl with the red coat is still on her cell phone. She's the heaviest girl at the table, Carolyn points out.
"You can be the fat girl," Carolyn says. "And you can be the skinny bitch. But you can't be the fat bitch.
"Trust me," she says wryly. "I'm the fat girl."
Red Coat hangs up her cell phone. She leans across the table toward Emilio and laughs at his joke.
A waitress comes by bearing orange and yellow shots. Emilio downs a round with the table, then pulls out his credit card. He takes two more shots from the waitress and hands one to Red Coat. Together, they throw back their heads and drink.
Fifteen minutes later, Emilio returns to Brent with a smile on his face.
"We talked about salsa dancing Saturday night," Emilio reports. "I said she should come out and look for me."
EMILIO IS A NEW initiate into the secret world of the Minneapolis Wingmen—a Meetup.com group that exists solely to help men mack on chicks.
It began a few years back, when a lonely computer programmer living in Minnesota read the 2005 cult classic The Game, by Neil Strauss. Bound like a black Bible and selling for $35 at Barnes & Noble, the tome explains the formulas for attracting women that Strauss learned by spending two years with Erik von Markovik, a.k.a. Mystery, a world-renowned seducer who starred in The Pickup Artist on VH1.
The Minnesota computer programmer was so taken with the techniques that Strauss laid out that in November 2008 he founded a local Meetup group for guys who wanted to go out and practice together. The group quickly grew to 146 strong.
In January 2009, another acolyte of pickup techniques created the Minneapolis Don Juan Crew, an online forum where guys share tactics and brag about their successes in "lay reports."
The Mystery Method involves memorized routines for opening a conversation and strategies like the "neg," a backhanded compliment designed to throw a pretty girl off-balance.
"We study a lot of psychology to get this stuff to work," says Nick Savoy, who co-founded the Los Angeles-based "Love Systems" with Mystery. "To go take a class in dating and attraction, you already have to be somebody who can put their ego aside, who is interested in self-help, who is ambitious with their life."
Boot camps at Love Systems cost $3,000 for the weekend, and Savoy claims to have trained more then 10,000 men in the art of the pickup. Copycats have sprouted up around the world, regularly teaching their own variants of the craft.
"To their credit, they're almost like scientists," says Los Angeles dating coach Evan Marc Katz. "Regardless of whether they're doing their science for good or evil, they're going out and trying different things."
Men in the Minneapolis pickup community swear that the teachings improve their lives, increasing their self-esteem and social skills. But the idea that men can follow rules like an algorithm to manipulate women has plenty of critics.
"There's already enough disconnection as there is in this world when it comes to love and relationships," says Kailen Rosenberg, a Minneapolis matchmaker. "And to me, this is just adding to that."
"IF YOU'RE GOING to get better, you're going to have to practice on a weekly basis," Brent explains to Emilio.
It's a few days after their pickup adventure at Drink, and Brent has agreed to meet Emilio at Southdale shopping center for a bit of one-on-one coaching in the art of approaching women.
"What are your goals?" Brent asks Emilio.
"Going to clubs Friday, Saturday, Sunday," Emilio says. "Trying to pick up somebody."
"You want to prove to yourself that you're the kind of guy who can pick up women?"
"That I can pick up the one I want," Emilio says, adding, "Every time somebody asks me to go to a club, I'm scared."
"That's something I can fix," Brent says.
Emilio looks doubtful. "I've had this for years."
"Would it blow your mind to know that it could just go away?" Brent asks, standing up. "Do you want to try some stuff?"
Emilio jumps to his feet, grinning nervously. "What do you want me to do?"
Brent proposes that Emilio ask shoppers for the time. The goal, he explains, is to start with something easy and work up from there.
The men head down the mall, passing a Lady Foot Locker. A girl with tan skin and wide brown eyes approaches.
"Hey!" Emilio calls out. "Nice boots! What brand are they?"
The girl looks a little startled, but recovers quickly. "North Face," she says, smiling.
"Oh, they are gorgeous," Emilio says, even though to all appearances the boots are rather ordinary. "Hey, do you know what time it is?"
"Quarter to eight," she says.
"Okay, great," Emilio says. "Thanks."
"No problem," she says, and glides away.
Brent and Emilio keep walking. They head toward Macy's.
"I called her 'gorgeous,'" Emilio says proudly.
"Why did you do all that other stuff?" Brent asks.
"Engage the conversation?" Emilio says.
"Ah," Brent says.
Brent and Emilio round a corner and stumble into the department store's cosmetics section. Emilio walks tentatively toward three brightly lipsticked women.
"Oh," he says awkwardly, as if he's never seen a makeup counter before. "What is this thing? Like, a place you get your makeup done?"
The trio of women looks at him as though he's from Mars. One folds her arms across her chest.
"Something like that," another says, condescension dripping from her voice.
"When can you have this done?" Emilio asks.
They look at him blankly.
"My girlfriend," he explains, "I have a girlfriend. This is something she would like. Do you have a business card?"
With the mention of the word "girlfriend," the clerks relax. One hands Emilio a business card.
"Thank you," Emilio says. "Do you have the time?"
Emilio returns to Brent, and they walk toward jewelry.
"How about trying just asking for the time?" Brent suggests, as they walk.
"Just the time?" Emilio asks.
"Just the time."
Emilio spots a shopper wearing oversized round glasses.
"Excuse me," he says, raising his voice. "Do you—"
"Nope, don't have the time!" she hollers, scurrying deep into the clothing racks.
Brent and Emilio laugh and take the escalator to housewares.
RENOVO'S ZEBRA-PRINT SCARF swirls around his neck like frosting on a fancy cake as he struts through Señor Wong in downtown St. Paul.
"Hey, man," Renovo says, clasping hands with the owner. "How's it going?"
Renovo removes his leather jacket and settles into a booth in the orange-walled dining area. It's quiet on this Thursday night—a perfect place to tell the story of his first pickup.
"The very first time, I was able to attract a very attractive woman," the 33-year-old says. "It's a night that still lives on in infamy."
Two years ago, he'd just gotten out of a nine-year relationship. Renovo and his buddy signed up for a singles convention out of town. She was the most beautiful girl there: skinny, 5' 10", D-cup breasts.
"She could have easily survived as a model," Renovo says. "Way out of my league."
When night fell and it was time for dancing, every guy in the room seemed to be circling her.
Not Renovo. He sat on the other side of the room, ignoring her.
Then, after making her wait, Renovo strode toward her and grabbed her hand. "Let's dance," he said.
She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him in. "She showed her level of attraction," Renovo says. "She got really close."
When he got back to his hotel room, his friends couldn't stop marveling at his skills.
"Shouldn't you be fucking someone right now?" they teased.
Renovo's face glows warmly above his plate of pad thai as he basks in the memory.
"Let's just say we had a wonderful time," he says with a sheepish grin. "I don't like to kiss and tell."
Renovo is the most active member of the Don Juans when it comes to the online forum. He's posted 418 times, more than any of the other 105 members. His writings read like kernels of Yoda-esque wisdom, rich with metaphors and high-minded ideals.
"We spend more time in plateaus than we do getting better or worse," he writes. "But it is these plateaus that allow us to get better."
Renovo's been working on his pickup skills for two years now. First, he hired an image consultant, who helped him add "statement pieces" to his wardrobe, such as his zebra-print scarf.
Then he focused on becoming more decisive—being a leader among his friends. As he started making more plans rather than waiting passively for other people to come up with the social calendar, his phone started ringing more and more.
Now, Renovo tries to go out with the core Don Juans at least once or twice a week to practice. He refuses to talk about how that has added to his "score"—in pickup parlance, the number of women he's bedded.
"I prefer quality over quantity," he says. "If I find the right woman, I'm ready to settle down."
THE LOCAL IN DOWNTOWN Minneapolis is hopping at 8 o'clock on Friday night. Girls in flouncy skirts spin on their barstools, twirling their hair between their polished fingers.
At one of the high-top tables, a goateed 25-year-old digs into his basket of fish and chips. Tonight he's without his trademark accessory: a black knit cap that's earned him the moniker "The Black Hatter," or just "Hatter" for short.
Hatter listens attentively as his friend Travis explains how the Minneapolis Don Juans revolutionized his life.
"I was one of these guys who had a lot of hate and anger," gushes the 28-year-old. "Now, I am loving myself—just being nonjudgmental."
"That's fucking huge," nods a 24-year-old in a gray Rolling Stones T-shirt who goes by the codename "Xenu." Xenu takes a bite of his salad.
Travis explains that he was once a full-out geek: totally into comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and Final Fantasy videogames.
"I was always horrible with women in high school and college," Travis confesses.
A few years back, a friend of his who was really into Chuck Palahniuk books noticed that The Game was popular with fans of Fight Club. He suggested Travis read it. Travis picked it up and didn't put it down until dawn.
Before long, he was going out to practice hitting on women. At first, the decision cost him socially. His nerd friends didn't like the concept of pickup.
So Travis found new friends who were trying to hone their own pickup skills. The guys would go out and practice together, then compare notes.
Eventually Travis moved in with two fellow pickup artists. But now both of the roommates have found their way into happy relationships. So Travis had to find new wingmen. Which brings us to tonight.
The guys pay their checks and part ways to stalk their prey. Hatter spies two pretty girls sitting at the back of the bar. He's feeling a little rusty, so he opens up with a routine—a scripted set of lines he's used before.
"So, we were just wondering, who lies more, men or women?" he asks.
"Hmm," says a willowy brunette with red lipstick and retro glasses. "Men lie more, but women are better at it."
"Yep," the redhead agrees.
"So what do the two of you do?" Hatter asks. "No wait, let me guess."
He points at the redhead and says, "Lion tamer."
She tips her head back and giggles.
Turning to her friend, he hazards another guess. "Accordian player."
"No, I work in a bank," she says, her eyes down. "But actually, I'm an actress."
He banters with them for several more minutes, eventually copping to the fact that he's a grad student in chemistry.
"Oh!" says the willowy brunette. "So you know about string theory? I love string theory."
Hatter is into her, but the night is still young. He gets both of their numbers.
"You guys should meet up with us later," Hatter says as he departs.
After he's gone, the girls review his performance.
"I thought he was nice," one says.
"He was entertaining," says the actress.
The Don Juans regroup and compare notes. A fourth member has joined them: 31-year-old "Franz," who wears a green army cap above his unlined baby face.
"I don't really do pickup," Franz says. "I'm the fun guy. I rely more on my looks. Usually, girls just come up to me."
Xenu seizes the moment to make an announcement: "Dude, I had sex with my first black girl last night!"
THE DON JUANS move on to Brothers, where Travis approaches three tiny girls who look just over 21.
"He-ee-ey!" he calls out, his arms wide. "What are you girls up to? Out being social? Celebrating something?"
Two of the girls look bored and tired, but the one closest to him, in tight jeans and a tiny leather jacket, lights up like a candle.
"We're just having fun, bar-hopping," she says, smiling up at him.
Travis keeps the conversation going for a few minutes, but the girls are decidedly on their way out. When they leave, Travis instantly shifts into analyzing his errors.
"I should have talked to all of them equally," he says. "That's a bad habit I have."
Meanwhile, Franz is at the bar chatting up two girls who say they're sisters. Eventually they lose interest, but Franz is adamant that it's not his fault.
"I didn't approach those girls," he says. "They started talking to me."
Travis and Xenu haven't scored either. Still, as the night comes to a close, Travis is feeling good.
"Hey, do you guys like to do a post-game debrief?" he asks. "We have a hookah in my apartment. We sit on my couch and smoke, my roommates and I, and talk about our man feelings."