I am far from attractive. My nose is large for my face and, while not hooked, has a bump in the ridge. Though I am not bald, to say that my hair is thinning would be an understatement. I have indentations on either side of my forehead, which I like and believe add character to my face, though I’ve never actually received a compliment on them. When I look down at my pale, skinny body, I wonder why any woman would want to sleep next to it, let alone embrace it.

So for me, meeting girls takes work. I’m not a guy women giggle over at a bar or want to take home because they’re feeling drunk and crazy. I can’t offer them a piece of my fame and bragging rights like a rock star, or cocaine and a mansion like so many other men in Los Angeles. All I have is my mind, and nobody can see that.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned my personality. That is because, in the last year, my personality has completely changed. Or to put it more accurately, I have completely changed my personality. Researching a book proposed by an editor, I allowed myself to be taken under the wings of the greatest self-proclaimed pickup artists in the world and entered an underground subculture of men dedicated — sometimes to an unhealthy extreme — to figuring out the mystery of the opposite sex. For lack of a better term, they refer to themselves simply as “the community.”

For most, entry into this cult-like cross between self-help group and locker room begins on the Internet. Type “seduction” or “how to meet women” into a search, and you will find hundreds of sites trying to part you from your money. But the lucky few, able to wade through enticements to “meet models now,” may find one of the free Usenet groups, Internet mailing lists or message boards where hundreds of men labor day and night to turn the art of seduction into an exact science. From New York to London to Croatia — places my reporting took me — many of these men meet off line in groups known as lairs to discuss tactics and techniques before going out to bars and clubs to put their theories to practice.

It is a world with its own jargon (AFC., for example, denotes an Average Frustrated Chump, PUA a Pickup Artist) and luminaries known by pseudonyms like Mystery, Juggler and Formhandle. Those who manage to earn the respect of their peers through online postings or real-world prowess can make money writing e-books or running workshops. This has given birth to a seduction industry marketed almost entirely through online newsgroups and mailing lists. Some have turned it into a full-time career with six-figure incomes, others into a lucrative sideline allowing them to collect a few thousand dollars here and there.

My real-life entry into the community began when I took on a pseudonym and withdrew cash from the bank, stuffed it into an envelope and wrote “Mystery” on the front — not the proudest moment of my life.

I took the envelope to the lobby of the Roosevelt Hollywood hotel, where I found myself waiting with two other students (one had flown in from Australia, the other from Canada) who, like me, had arranged to spend four nights on the town with Mystery, one of the most admired men in the world of seduction. Born Erik von Markovik, Mystery is known for spitting out long, detailed posts that read like algorithms of how to engineer social situations to meet and attract women. In detailing his social life online, he has single-handedly invented much of the jargon and tactics that men around the world are using to meet women.

The “neg”, for example, is his invention. Neither a compliment nor an insult, a neg holds two purposes: to momentarily lower a woman’s self-esteem and to suggest an intriguing disinterest. (“Nice nails. Are they real? No? Oh, they look nice anyway.”) Mystery cautions online, however, that negging is only for exceptionally beautiful women used to a steady stream of compliments.

A thin, long-haired 28-year-old standing 6-foot-5, Mystery strode into the hotel atop a few additional inches of platform boot. When the four of us had gathered on lobby couches, he explained that he was once like us. At 21, he said, he was lonely and living with his parents on the outskirts of Toronto. In hope of improving his social life and perhaps landing a job as a magician in the process, he began taking a public bus to bars and clubs at night. After hundreds of rejections, he put together, piece by piece, a method that he called group theory, which allowed him to display his personality to people before saying no was even on their mind. He started landing magic gigs at corporate events and on talk shows. His goal in teaching workshops, he said, was to support a touring magic act.

Speaking in a booming voice that he said was modeled on Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, he introduced his theory. “You will not be hitting on anyone tonight,” Mystery said, making piercing eye contact with each of us. “Normally, the whole concept of meeting a woman is walking up to her when she’s by herself and trying to seduce her. The game doesn’t work that way.”

If a guy wants to meet a woman who is sitting at a table surrounded by men, he continued, he will most likely be rejected — or beaten up — if he walks straight up and asks for her phone number. He will be much more successful if he befriends the men first. After winning the good will of the group, he will be able to talk to the woman one on one — especially if he has already shown a lack of interest with a well-placed neg.

After several hours discussing group theory, our style of dress (he wanted us to “peacock” more, or stand out with louder clothing) and the characteristics of an alpha male (among them: a smile, careful grooming and being seen as the social center of a room), we took a limo to the Lounge at the Standard, a hotel on the Sunset Strip. There, the limits I had once imposed on human interaction were extended far beyond what I had ever thought possible.

In one corner, two couples were sitting together. I recognized one of the men as the actor Scott Baio, who was with a blonde who could have stepped out of the pages of Maxim.

To me it defied all common sense to try to meet a woman who was apparently with her boyfriend, but success, Mystery said, requires “being the exception to the rule.” He then demonstrated group theory.

He approached the men, and showed them a piece of magic by stopping Mr. Baio’s watch.

“Be careful with that — it cost $40,000,” Mr. Baio said.

“Do something else?” the woman with him asked.

“Wow, she’s so demanding,” Mystery said, turning to Mr. Baio. “Is she always like this?”

The more he performed for the guys, the more the woman clamored for his attention. After a few minutes, he relented and engaged her in conversation.

“Tell me this is all an illusion,” Mr. Baio said at one point, “and he’s not actually stealing my girlfriend.”

Mystery walked away 10 minutes later with the woman’s phone number, which he never called. It was only a demonstration, he explained to his floored students.

The seduction community dates to the late 1980’s, when Ross Jeffries, who described himself as unattractive and frustrated, wrote a small book called “How to Get the Women You Desire Into Bed.” His method was based on an adaptation of neuro-linguistic programming, a school of hypnosis holding that one can communicate with the subconscious through seemingly normal conversation. When a student of his created an Internet newsgroup, the seduction community was born. Soon, Mr. Jeffries’s mailing list grew to 2,000, and the newsgroup took on a life separate from him as new attraction experts emerged, many with competing philosophies about how to turn AFC’s into PUA’s.

“I don’t know if anybody can really understand the community until they get involved in it,” said Juggler, a comedian from Michigan who teaches his own method, focused on approaching women directly and mastering the art of natural conversation. “They view it as guys trying to be players and lying and doing anything for sex, and there are some people in the community that take that tack. But I find that the people who get really good at this aren’t like that. That’s because to get good, you have to believe that you are the prize. And when you are the prize, you start doing more giving instead of more taking.”

An extraordinary amount of effort seems to be put forth to achieve something so shallow, raising a question: What, exactly, do men expect to get out of this? After talking to over 100 would-be Casanovas, I rarely heard the same answer twice.

Some students — in their 20’s, 30’s, even 40’s — said they were virgins who had exhausted most other options in trying to meet women.

“My goal is to get comfortable with myself and show who I truly am,” said a 20-year-old virgin from Long Beach, Calif., known as Sky. “I feel like a Ferrari that is stuck on first gear when I know I have a sixth gear.”

A millionaire known as Slippery joined the community to find a wife, and he soon succeeded. Their first child is due this week. And one pickup artist, who did not want to be identified, said his entire goal is to be in a committed three-way relationship consisting of himself and two beautiful women.

When I asked some women among my friends what they thought of this, most had no idea how much work men put into getting lucky. I also called Danielle Rose, a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, who had exchanged numbers with Mystery after meeting him this month at the Standard. Informed of Mystery’s sideline, she said, “It doesn’t change my impression of him, because some guys need the help.”

Juggler’s girlfriend of a year and a half, a 21-year-old student, said his involvement with the community actually caused problems in the relationship. “The second or third time we saw each other, he said he had this job and taught guys how to pick up girls,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So I got on the Web and found the community on my own. My initial reaction was disbelief. But the more I read, the more I felt that there was a huge objectification of women. And I started having pretty big problems with the entire community and his involvement in it.”

In the months after I met Mystery, I went to seminars by David D’Angelo, who aims to teach men to stop being needy and start acting “cocky and funny,” and sat in on workshops by Juggler, who demonstrated how to interact with women without a scripted routine. I also spent many evenings with Ross Jeffries, the father of the community (and, along with Mr. D’Angelo, one of the few who devote themselves to it full time), even meeting his parents. “He’s a genius,” said his mother, who helped edit his first book, though she still insists that “he’d make a great lawyer.”

I traveled with these men, lived with them and eventually taught. In fact, one of my former students, Papa, even started running his own seminars with a top PUA. known as Tyler D.

Then one night my journey came full circle. I was leading a workshop with Mystery, as his unpaid “wing.” We had taken six students to the V.I.P. room of the Crobar in Miami. Two well-tanned women with matching platinum hair and white figure-revealing tank tops walked in, turning every head. Mystery looked at me and said it was my turn. Despite all my training, I was petrified.

The women were talking to a transvestite in a black tutu. In keeping with Mystery’s technique, I walked toward the group without even glancing at the women, focusing on the transvestite instead. I greeted him as if I knew him. Now that I was in range, I tried to break the ice. Nervously, I said the first thing that came to my head. “You know what?” I told them. “You both look like strange little snowflakes.”

It was nonsense, but I had their attention. I continued with what I knew all along would be my true opener, the neg: “Is your hair real?”

The shorter girl looked shocked, but then recovered her composure. “Yes,” she said. “Feel it.”

I tugged it gently. “Hey, it moved. It’s not real.”

“Pull harder.”

I complied. “O.K.,” I said. “I believe you. But how about your friend there?”

The taller woman’s face reddened. She leaned over the bar, and looked me hard in the eye. “That is really rude,” she said. “What if I’m actually bald? That could really hurt someone’s feelings. It’s disrespectful. How would you feel if someone said that to you?”

I had provoked a negative reaction, but now at least we had a relationship. I just had to turn her anger around to make it a good relationship.

“I’ll tell you something,” I said. “I live in Los Angeles. It’s where the most beautiful women in the country come to try and make it. And do you know what I’ve learned? Beauty is common. It’s something you’re born with, or you pay for. What counts is what you make of yourself.”

Her face relaxed. They both stood there silently. Now I was in. I had, as Ross Jeffries once put it, entered their world and demonstrated authority over it. “And you know what?” I added, as an afterthought. “You have a great smile. I can tell that underneath all that, you’re probably a good person.”

The shorter girl sidled up to me and said, “We’re sisters.” I looked very slowly at both of them, evaluating her comment, and took a chance. “I don’t buy it,” I said, smiling. “I bet a lot of guys believe you, but I’m a very intuitive person. When I look at you both, I can tell that you’re both very different. Too different.”

She broke into a guilty smile. “We never tell anyone this,” she said, “but you’re right. We’re just friends.”

Now the hard part was over.

“You’re interesting,” the shorter woman gushed at one point, pressing against me. “We have to hang out with you in L.A.”

You may have noticed that I haven’t used the women’s names. This is because Mystery told me never to introduce myself. That’s for AFC’s. Wait for the woman to introduce herself: that way you know if she’s interested. It’s what Mystery calls an Indicator of Interest, or IOI., and when one gets three or four IOI’s, the option to see the woman again is on the table.

The taller one asked what my sign was — another IOI. She suggested spending time together in Miami, and gave me cell phone numbers for both of them. But what elated me even more was that she bought me a drink. I was excited not because I needed the free cocktail, but because she confessed that she and her friend had made a pact before the trip to sucker guys into paying for all their drinks. My days as an AFC, it seemed, were finally over.

Excerpted from The New York Times.