To Raise Your Game You Must Think Like a Hustler and See All the Angles—In Pool, In Life
Insights into angles, hustlers and suckers
I forgot something important that you must remember until you go six feet under…There are only two kinds of people in the whole wide world, grifters and suckers…[With suckers,] let their stupid brains stay asleep in their chump world. Keep your own brain honed to razor sharpness in the secret world of con. — Iceberg Slim
A few years ago, to help my mind get over the grind of writing The 33 Strategies of War, I bought a pool table. After a hard day’s work, I would settle into the game of pool and make myself completely focus on the green felt, the cue stick, the stripes and solids. It ended up being the perfect choice of a diversion. Pool, it became clear to me, is all about angles. First, there are simple angles, as you must hit the cue ball to either side when you are not straight on. This is often not as easy as it seems. Then, there are the angles you take when you bank the targeted ball off the sides, an entirely new game in and of itself. This goes further with the double bank shot.
There are the angles of the combination shots, and even more slippery combinations, when you use a solid to slide off of a stripe and knock in a solid. Then there is the whole language of angles that comes into play when you are thinking ahead and trying to keep the cue ball in solid position, working with the open spaces of the table.
Finally, there are the abstract angles in psychological space and time: playing with your opponent’s mind, letting him get ahead, but putting himself in a corner in relation to the final balls on the table, or snookering him into impossible positions (the trick bag), or seeing the entire table and how you will run it in short order. In other words, there are layers of angles, all more subtle and artistic as you go up the ladder and improve your game. I am no longer a rank beginner, but I am certainly no hustler, not yet.
To play well, to raise your game, your focus must be total.
As in pool, so in life. Suckers and beginners are locked into the single-ball-at-a-time mentality, and get all excited when they knock one in on a clever shot, but leave themselves nowhere to go. They never learn the angles above the angles above the angles.
Then there are people who raise their game a little, who give the appearance of knowing how to hustle, who can actually knock in a few shots in a row. In Hollywood, I worked for some people like that. They would let others do the work and take all the credit. One writer/director I knew would constantly play the game of hiring someone else to direct the pet script he had written, someone young and eager and inexperienced. This person would inevitably fail rather early on in the process; the writer/director would have to come in and rescue the situation. Better to set it up that way, than for him to be seen as always wanting to direct his own projects. Similar to how Pat Riley engineered his whole return to coaching.
But these types did not really see the whole table, or have a good endgame mapped out. They had some angles, but not of a high order. They never really got that far. They are low to mid-level hustlers.
An acquaintance of mine who runs his own media business came to me a few years ago with a problem: a high-level female employee had leaked something embarrassing about him to other employees. Her angle in leaking this was to get his attention and warn him about what else she might do. She was disgruntled, worried he might fire her, and this was her shot across his bow.
My advice was to be aware first of this game of hers and on this level to not indicate any kind of negative reaction on his part. He was to continue seeming friendly, as if nothing had happened. This was a front, a distraction. She would have to focus on this and figure out what it meant. Was he being coy? Did he not care? Was he trying to win her back over? Was he intimidated? This would buy him time.
As we then investigated the situation, we saw more of what was going on and a solution came to us. First, he fired two other employees who were friends of hers and troublemakers. A third he got transferred to an office in a distant location. All of this was ostensibly done as a reaction to their lack of performance, and had no apparent links to the leaking woman in question. The purpose was twofold: to isolate the target, make it harder for her to conspire and stir things up; and to send an indirect warning to her that the boss was not someone to mess with in this way.
His moves were not simple to figure out; they got her attention and iced her. As we considered her possible reactions to this and how she might ratchet it all up if she felt threatened, we worked on a higher angle to this reaction, so that we had as many bases possible covered. We had mapped out a way to even checkmate her if she maneuvered to go public with her information.
Lately I have been rereading Iceberg Slim, one of my favorites. To Iceberg, the world is divided between hustler and sucker. You are either one or the other. The sucker has no angles on life, no sense of the art of indirection, can only make one stupid play at a time. The hustler always aims for the angles, learns how to play them, becomes an artist in the game. The following are the main distinctions he makes between the two types:
- “Chumps prefer a beautiful lie to an ugly truth.” The sucker wants to believe certain things about life and so projects these wishes on to the real world, seeing what he wants to see, not what is. A hustler thrives on reality, ugly or unpleasant–finds his poetry in the real. He sees the whole table and plays it as it lays.
- “No point in getting upset about the unknown. Only suckers do that.” A hustler has to deal with danger and risk. It’s part of the game. You cannot control it all, nor would you want to. Chaos, unknown factors are not something to be anxious about. They represent opportunities for new angles, new hustles. The sucker cannot stand the unknown and so either fouls up by getting impatient and over anxious, or retreats to a false world of security and the known.
- “Stop letting your mind leapfrog like a screwy sucker.” A sucker’s mind moves all over the place, forgetting the order of things and making chaos where there is none. Hustlers have to stay cool and focused on the chain of events as they unfold, the various angles that are being played, with the possible reactions. A hustler never forgets where the 8 ball lies and how to get to it methodically.
- “You can’t learn con by memorizing words. Every mark and every play of any con game is different. You have to memorize the elements of con.” A sucker wants formulas he can memorize and plug into situations. He has no flow because he is so rigid in his mind. The hustler has flow because he plays for the overall game, knows the elements, can improvise and make angles where no one else sees them.
- “I don’t lag my bills like a sucker.” Suckers have the wrong relationship to money. They try to save pennies here and there, or grasp for the big kill that has all the odds stacked against it. Money brings out all of their neuroses. A hustler understands money. It is a tool for power, for con, and a resource for pleasure. And he always knows the odds.
- “Don’t get foxed out of your bankroll. The con is made for everyone, you know.” Anyone is susceptible to being conned. The wisest hustler can suddenly fall for the worst tramp and lose all of his money on her. The hustler is aware of his own weaknesses and openings to con. This awareness is his edge. A sucker thinks he knows it all and cannot be fooled. That is his fatal flaw.
- “Never forget that a grifter’s word has to be like a gold bond to his associates.” Honor among thieves, in other words. Lower-level hustlers forget this and the importance of reputation. They get lost in the moment and screw the wrong person. Greed should never trump consideration for your credibility. If you don’t understand the subtleties of this, you are a sucker.
- “I went to the phone to call the Goddess. I walked away from it. It was a sucker play to call her so soon.” Impatience is the hallmark of the sucker, and it is never clearer than in matters of seduction. He can’t wait to call, spilling out his guts with a confession of love, or trying to reveal how eager he is to impress and please. Emotion trumps strategy. Patience and time is the hustler’s creed. “I play for time and see what happens,” says Elizabeth I, the great hustler Queen of England.
- “…since you blew your top like a mark. You should have stayed cool and figured some con with me to separate that sonuvabitch from a few grand.” Anger is deadly and stupid. In a competitive and dangerous world, anger is a great temptation. But only a sucker gives into natural anger at the state of things by reacting with rants and outbursts. The hustler plays the bigger angle and gets revenge on the target by hitting him in his pocketbook, or his reputation. Anger is not repressed but properly channeled.
You must keep raising this game to higher and higher levels, as on the pool table–mastering eventually the psychological angles. Your playing is a pleasure, all the way to the end, to death, when the game is over.
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Robert Greene is an author and speaker known for his books on strategy, power and seduction. He has written five international bestsellers: The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, The 50th Law and Mastery.