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The art of the pick-up

They're the new big thing: dating gurus who claim to be able to seduce any woman they fancy. Tim Walker enters their secret world

The French girl at the bar is strikingly beautiful, which might as well be door policy at Movida, the kind of central London nightclub where well-dressed, well-moneyed and occasionally well-mannered chaps think nothing of ordering a 1,000 round of drinks on a weekday evening. She's surrounded by such men, and yet the one she's exchanging phone numbers with is an unlikely charmer from the East End, who sports pink highlights, questionable facial hair and a pair of faintly naff, square-toed black shoes. He's Adam Lyons, recently voted the UK's top pick-up artist, or "PUA", and she's making a date with him after just a couple of minutes' chat. This is what's known in the pick-up business as a "number close". "I'll probably call her tomorrow and cancel," Lyons says when he returns to his table. "She's not hot enough for me."

In 2005, journalist Neil Strauss published The Game, a funny, articulate and bestselling account of his life among the Californian PUA community, men who believed they had found a foolproof way to lure women into bed using a by-numbers system of language and mannerism, based in part on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Since then, the publishing industry and the internet have both seen an explosion in PUA literature, while the seduction schools that sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic have been turning lovelorn losers into lotharios with ever-increasing regularity. "Mystery", the master who mentored Strauss, even has his own reality TV show.

When he started writing The Game, says Strauss, the community was "just a bunch of guys on the internet trading tips. We'd never met face to face. Then Mystery started teaching workshops, and we began meeting everybody else in the community. It went from an anonymous online exchange of information to being a social circle. Once the guys who were in it started making money, the community became an industry."

Like many other young men, Adam Lyons picked up a copy of The Game three years ago, and it changed his life. As a teenager, he'd been a self-confessed nerd, obsessed with Star Wars, Star Trek and especially the role-playing and strategy game Dungeons and Dragons. A virgin until the age of 18, he was voted least likely to get a girlfriend by his school chums. He'd slept with four girls by the age of 25. Now, he says, he sleeps with four in a fortnight, sometimes more.

On the week of his 27th birthday, he had sex with a different girl every night except Sunday. He has a rolling roster of six or seven girlfriends, all of whom are well aware of his proclivities. There's Leila, for instance, a ditzy but glamorous dancer who is his regular "Monday"; Amanda, a Texan cheerleader; or Mel, a sassy Australian who's open to threesomes. The pink highlights, he says, are just a symptom of the "crazy, rock-star life" that he now leads. Lyons claims he's slept with models, actresses, celebrities and Cambridge graduates. Recently he pulled Miss Poland. Well, Miss Poland 2000. He pulled a recent Big Brother contestant just to prove that he could, but he didn't sleep with her: "She's not hot enough for me."

The London Seduction Society, of which Lyons is a leading light, is now the largest PUA community in the world, with around 3,000 registered members. The LSS web forum, closed to non-members, is alive with discussions of nights spent "sarging" for hot chicks, tips for getting a "ripped bod" or a male multiple orgasm, and advice on how to pick your "wingman". YouTube, too, is brimming with PUA material, including a clip of Lyons performing the "60-second kiss close". Lyons earned his title as the country's top picker-upper at the International Seduction Summit in Los Angeles last August. The accolade came to him not as a result of the notches on his bedpost, nor the many numbers in his address book, but because of the quality of his blog posts. LSS members not only found his advice useful, they also thought his anecdotes convincing compared to some of the far-fetched fantasies of his fellow bloggers. He'd only been a PUA for 18 months. "I took to it like a duck to water, and I decided I was going to be the best of the best, whatever it took. I have a very competitive personality."

Now, Lyons is one of only a few instructors who can charge 75 for an hour of one-to-one practical tuition. He makes a living from this and from his regular seminars with the seduction school, PUA Training. Using a mixture of the techniques he learned from books and those he honed personally, he has distilled his method into an eBook called The Principles of Attraction, which he flogs online for 20. But PUA techniques, from The Principles of Attraction to The Mystery Method, all sound to the untrained ear like variations on old themes like "be confident" or "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen".

"You can teach yourself for free with the material that's available on the internet," Lyons admits, "but I'm like a personal trainer. The gym's there, you know how the weights and the machines work. But if you find that you're not actually doing a workout and you want someone to come and push you through it, you call me."

As Lyons sees it, there are four phases leading to a successful pick-up. The first is "comfort", in which he establishes a level of perceived intimacy during a brief conversation that would otherwise take weeks or months. Luckily for his unsuspecting Parisian victim, he spoke her language: "I heard a French accent, so I built a rapport based on that. I know enough French to cause some trouble. I've always had a knack for languages."

Next comes the "rapport break". He teases the girl about the company she works for, telling her he's never heard of it. She's forced to defend herself and thus prove herself to him. By engineering this symptom of attraction, he tricks her into thinking she is actually drawn to him. "I validated that by giving her a little hug," he explains. This is "building attraction", and it's quickly followed by the final phase: "escalation". In this case, the "number close". "I said, 'I don't have time to chat now, I'm at a table with some friends, but why not come for a party tomorrow night?' I got her details and justification for a 'secondary meet-up.'"

He never utters the words 'phone number', because it's a phrase so closely associated with the pick-up. Instead, he simply asks this HB10 ("Hot Babe', 10/10") what the best way is to contact her. In the age of texting and Facebook, this gives her myriad options, all of which Lyons has made tactical provisions for. He shows me a tame text from a former conquest and boasts that he could quickly and easily transform such an unpromising exchange into a sexual encounter. Later, he proves his point by showing me a sexually explicit message recently received from yet another girl. He once, he claims, played Cyrano for a friend who was pursuing a Hollyoaks actress, securing the fellow a date with just three dirty texts.

Lyons is convinced that what he teaches his pupils is actually a skillset familiar to women. Far from being sexist, he explains, the game puts men in touch with their feminine side. "Girls had intricate social games going on at a young age," he explains, "while guys were just playing football. Women have books and magazines full of social technique. Men just have 'how to pleasure her in bed', 'great chat-up lines' and 'what car to drive to impress girls'! Every female has had a lifetime's practice at social manipulation; the game just levels the playing field."

Lyons maintains a coterie of protg PUAs: Cenk, a sweet, shy 20-year-old, was a virgin a year ago, but he's lost weight, gained confidence, and is now in what sounds like a healthy relationship. Joss, who dances like a toddler at a wedding reception and requires regular pep talks from Lyons throughout the evening, seems nonetheless to be drawing a blonde HB10 under his spell. Taylam is a cocky young man who tells me he's a master of the direct approach, bragging that he can have sex with a girl within a minute of meeting her. "After one second I'll have said hello," he says, "After 10 seconds we'll be kissing, and after 60 seconds I'll have my cock in her pussy." Taylam admits that this particular technique has only a modest success rate.

Has Lyons ever been caught out using his PUA techniques, I ask. "I was once out with a student and a girl turned to me and said, 'You're that seduction guy. You're teaching him how to chat up my mate'. And I said, 'I can't believe you're picking on me. It's a Saturday. Do you think I work Saturdays? It's my day off! Anyway, tell me three interesting things about yourself...' And of course, I slept with her two weeks later. Biggest breasts ever. An awesome chick."

Psychologist Oliver James, author of Affluenza, suggests PUA techniques are not as universal as their exponents would have us believe. "Domineering, charlatan-like, chameleonic behaviour will work with women who have been pre-programmed to respond to that sort of thing by their culture, their childhood history, and the extent of their exposure to Sex and the City," says James, "but it's useless in countries with different value systems to ours, like Denmark or New Zealand," which might explain why the world's most active PUA communities are in the UK and the US.

Criticism of the PUA community often focuses on the sinister potential of game theory, but Neil Strauss is unconvinced. "If you've got dastardly intentions, if you're claiming to be someone you're not, or if you don't like women, these things shine through," he says. "Women have great intuition; the guys who genuinely have a woman's best interests at heart are the ones who do well. If you go into the game right, you actually become more honest."

Before he became a PUA, Lyons was a psychology student and then worked in PR for seven years. He has a knack for self-publicity. On his website, he offers a potted autobiography, describing his idyllic childhood with a doting mother who, to support the family, held down three jobs as a secretary, a taxi driver, and an exotic dancer. After his parents split, Lyons lived with his mother, but they fell out dramatically according to Lyons when she sided with her boyfriend instead of her son over a financial dispute. Now, Lyons visits his elderly father every day without fail. But he hasn't spoken to his mother in more than five years.

He's candid about the effect this episode had on him. "Before that I was crap with women, and it has affected my relationships because I now don't let people in that quickly. Girls have a hell of a long way to go before they get to know the real me." He tells a rather crushing story of a girl with whom he was infatuated before he became a PUA. She was a friend who'd never found him attractive "in that way". Now, of course, she fancies him, but he's not interested. After all, he says, "she's not hot enough for me."

Oliver James argues that PUAs like Lyons are often sex addicts, who fear real intimacy. "These men see the whole thing as a game, and once they persuade the woman to have intercourse with them, they lose interest and move on," he says. "Sex addicts think that if they physically unite their body with another they will be close. They're desperate for emotional intimacy, and they're hoping that the solution will be physical union. But the intimacy [of the PUA] is confected intimacy."

Lyons is adamant that he isn't a player, the kind of man who will lie to women simply to get laid. He doesn't believe in one-night stands, ensuring before he sleeps with anyone that it will not be a one-time-thing, but that they are also happy to have an open relationship. He has a policy of 100 per cent honesty with all his girlfriends, hence they are comfortable sitting by as he recounts his sexual exploits. He doesn't drink or take drugs, and the bombshell he tells me he's only slept with around 30 different women since joining the community, though he also claims to have turned down 80 already this month. He goes for regular sexual health check-ups, and quotes Spider-Man to explain his reasons: "With great power, comes great responsibility..."

Lyons' inner nerd never really went away, but nowadays he's a nerd about pulling girls, which is a marginally more socially acceptable pastime than his first love. "But I will be playing Dungeons and Dragons again," he says. "I'm just waiting for the new edition to come out. It's going to be hardcore."

I'm not convinced Lyons is nearly as smooth as he says he is. He runs a side business, helping club promoters to attract punters by filling their venue with beautiful girls, lured by the promise of free entry and drinks all night. Smoke and mirrors are his stock in trade. But he believes his own hype, and that may be half the battle.

"I wonder if this is going to be a funny blip in our culture," says Neil Strauss, "or if it's the beginning of a men's self-help movement, where men can finally admit they need help without feeling emasculated. There's a tendency to demonise these guys, but when they really get into this stuff they start taking Alexander Technique courses to work on their posture, improv courses to be more spontaneous, going to vocal coaches or personal trainers or learning about spirituality. It sets them down a self-help route that they would have sworn off before."

"People have forgotten how to approach someone random and have a conversation with them," Lyons argues. "I don't agree with the method of just chatting someone up on the street. It's a good way of learning that you can talk to anyone, but realistically you want to build a healthy social life and stop being afraid to tell someone you fancy them." Perhaps he's just an old romantic at heart: "I want to be able to say to the girl that I eventually end up with: 'I could have had almost anybody, and I chose you.'"