Game of Cults: The Critical Role of Feelings in Elevating Your Author Business

Two weeks ago, I spent a lot of time going through the wire con run by the Yellow Kid. He used people’s greed and belief that they deserved something for nothing to influence their behavior.

A case study on the power of feeling

I ended the last season by sharing a story about another hustler, Amarillo Slim.

Slim was a bit different in that he played to people’s certainty and ego. His focus wasn’t on the greed of the commoner but on the arrogance of top performers.

His story started in the pool halls of Texas. While still in high school, he began playing pool. He was naturally talented and could beat most players based on his skill alone.

He began hanging out with pool hustlers who would earn a living by getting good players overconfident and then getting them to commit to bets that benefited the hustler.

Eventually, good hustlers would get a reputation and need to move from town to town, looking for players who didn’t know they were so good.

Slim took it to a new level. He would actively search out top regional and national hustlers to hustle.

In his words, “I liked breakin’ ’em.”

In essence, he wanted his mark to think he was hustling Slim while the whole time Slim was setting his mark up for the take.

This is a much harder game than the Yellow Kid’s because he purposely focused on good players who expected to win and ought to. They would also be wary of a new player they didn’t know.

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Slim shared how he would go to a state where he knew a big-time pool hustler was and start playing at a pool hall a few towns over.

He would pretend to be a salesperson or a bookmaker on vacation, just playing for money recreationally.

He knew his honey trap eventually would attract the local talent. Weeks of losing in small amounts to mediocre players would attract the bigger fish to come feed.

Usually, there would be a point where the local hustler Slim was looking to school would show up. Slim would pull him in and then begin winning.

Once the local hustler realized he was getting hustled, the prudent thing would be to stop, but ego and reputation were now in play.

Sometimes, the local hustler was astute enough to identify Slim. Again, the smart thing would be to step away from the pool table.

That rarely happened.

More often, the hustler saw this as the time to build his reputation by being the guy who beat Amarillo Slim.

Ego was their undoing.

Slim had the gift of excellent pool-playing skills, but what made him money was his ability to assess and work people’s feelings. He could get into people’s heads and trigger them to do irrational things.

Instead of saying, “Hey fellas, this here is Amarillo Slim, one of the greatest pool hustlers in the world, and he thinks enough of me to come up here and try to hustle me, and the only way I can leave here with any money is to stop now.”

They had too much at stake. Instead, they would fall for his emotional trap and try to beat a better player.


Their sense of self would let Slim in, and he would take control.

Now, we dip our toe into some psychology.

This is what Slim used against his marks—their self-map. He would influence their perception and remind them of what they had at stake—it wasn’t money; it was him tromping his dirty cowboy boots all over their precious map of self.

When Slim hustled Elmo Sands in Utah, he spent three days losing and waiting for him to show up. Every day, he came to the pool hall and played until 8:45 p.m.

Elmo showed up and asked to play him on the fourth day.

“Say, mister, you don’t realize, but I’m more than two hundred dollars in the hole playing pool here,” said Slim.

“What’re you trying to say?” Elmo asked.

“I’m not looking to play no twenty-dollar pool. Do you know someone around these here parts that can give me a real game?”

“Wait a minute. I’m not a twenty-dollar player, either. What do you want to play for?” said Elmo.

“I’m not on a budget. Make me feel it,” Slim replied.

He loved that line.

“What about $200 a game?”

“Depends on the conditions,” said Slim.

Now, he was in a position to negotiate points. Remember, he lost for days, and Elmo thought he had a mark. Slim could beat him straight up, but this was a long game.

Slim lost the whole day, then quit at 8:45 p.m.

On the second day, Elmo showed up and doubled the bet. Slim took him for $4,800, then quit at exactly 8:45 p.m.

The following day, Elmo said, “I’ll spot you two fewer points, but you can play higher than you ever played in your life.”

“A thousand?” Slim asked. “I’m playing with your money, anyway.”

He knew he had him.

The whole time, Elmo was the one raising the stakes, and when it was time for the kill, Slim threw more fuel on the fire, reminding Elmo that Slim had beaten him the day before. He wanted Elmo to be playing for the sake of his ego, not money.

Slim beat him for $10,000 that day, then more on the next.

The pressure was on Elmo now because the word was spreading, and more and more people were showing up to watch these two play for higher and higher stakes.

This was Elmo’s game, territory, and reputation at stake, not just the money.

Elmo was in an emotional tailspin because his experience was out of sync with what he expected to happen. What he valued more than money was his local reputation, and with that at risk, he was triggered.

Your brand

We’re not looking to hustle your reader like Slim hustled Elmo.

We are trying to get them to have a stake in your brand. In later articles, I’ll unpack some more learning, but let’s stay focused on how we can begin to get into our readers’ heads and get them to see your brand as valuable to them.

The idea is to get your readers to have feelings for your brand. To do that, they need to see your stories, characters, and brand as part of their identity.

They need to see your books on their own personal self-map.

Later, we’ll look at research that shows that when this is done right, a consumer of a brand will associate their self-worth with that brand.

When readers feel your books are part of them, there is no longer a need to sell. They will buy them because they need them to validate their self-image.

One more thing…

Make a list of the brands you love. Rank the list according to how strongly they influence your perception of yourself.

​​​​​​Think about the length of time you’ve spent with your dearest characters. Have you had longer relationships with them than your spouse or children?

Observe what feelings you have for that brand. Both good and bad. After listing three to five emotional experiences you’ve had with the brand, dig deeper into how that ties to your expectations or perception of how you are seen in the world.

Read: The Powerful Nexus of Perception, Expectation, and Identity Formation