The New Math of the Male Mind: One, Zero

Moreover, he claimed, “I think the One, Zero works in theory—but not in reality.”

Ted recalled that a few years back he tried to introduce the game to his stepdad during an early stepdad-stepson bonding night at a bar in San Francisco. “He said that he had spent 30 years training as a Zen Buddhist to not have judgments like that,” said Ted. “So he couldn’t play.”

Ted noted that he can get an accurate read on his pal Jason’s mood—which is often hard to decipher—depending on how generous Jason was being with his ones. Also: “Sometimes people really surprise you. You don’t really know a guy too much, and he’s throwing out ones to a bunch of girls you might not expect him to, and you kind of get a little glimpse into his mind.”

Guy Mellitz concurs: “It’s kind of fun when you’re walking down the street with your buddy and you pass a girl or two and all you have to say is ‘one’ or ‘zero.’ A lot of times, one guy says, ‘One,’ and the other guy will say, ‘Yep,’ or hold up a finger,” said Mr. Mellitz. “It’s also eye-opening in terms of how you see your friends, because you sort of learn something about your friends when you have differing opinions. A guy will throw out a one and you’re like, ‘Really? Huh. She was a zero for me.’ It’s like, O.K., I understand you a little bit more now.’”

Indeed, only a few years after the friends adopted it, the game would provide a window into the deep turmoil going on in the mind of Mr. Mellitz.

“Guy was in a really bad relationship with a terribly unattractive girl,” said Ted. “And when he started throwing out zeros to girls who were much more attractive than his girlfriend, I got the sense that he was just mad at boy-girl relationships in general and had absolutely no context for anything.”

Despite its purported innocence, Ted, Jason and Guy know better than to play One, Zero in front of women. Especially after witnessing what happened with their friend Paul Lovelace and his girlfriend at a Brooklyn bar.

“Lovelace’s girlfriend started playing it for a while, and that really fucked things up,” Ted said. “The two of them were playing some mind games with each other. It was a sort of rough patch in their relationship. So Paul would pretend it wasn’t a big deal to play One, Zero around his girlfriend. And so she rebutted with starting to play it herself at bars. She’d be like, ‘Yeah, he’s a one.’”

I called up Mr. Lovelace, who is a documentary filmmaker living on the Upper West Side. He said that One, Zero was never the cause of any friction between himself and the girlfriend, now his wife. He added they continue to play the game in social situations.

Anna Holmes, editor of the women’s blog Jezebel, said that she did not know of any codified rating systems used by women on men. Nor had she ever witnessed a group of adult women sitting around ranking the men that pass by, adding that the episode of Sex and the City in which the sassy gals are seated at a cafe playing “would you, wouldn’t you” was bogus.

I apprised Mrs. Holmes of the many scales I had discovered in just a few phone calls.

“The only people it really hurts are the people who are engaging in it themselves,” she said. “They’re just slow growers. … New York allows for a prolonged adolescence in which people are allowed to behave like 16-year-olds into their early 30s.”

“I think [rating women] is always going to be present in males,” said Mr. Van Veen. “I’m 28 and I don’t see it slowing down. I think females are also going to rate males. I can’t see women doing the binary scale as much as guys. Maybe I’m giving too much credit toward females, but I just can’t imagine girls sitting around going, ‘Zero!’ ‘One!’”

I needed some help; I called the great Tom Wolfe.

“Binary is pretty masculine,” Mr. Wolfe told me. “Because men are not terribly bright in this area; their entire intelligence is below the belt buckle. Whereas women seem to be actually interested in what a man does, how much money he has, where he went to school. The binary system’s not primitive, but men are primitive. Man sees the mission. Women see the whole picture.”

Last Sunday morning, Mr. Mellitz was in his kitchen washing dishes, while his present girlfriend, Myrna, was lounging on the couch.

“Yep,” he called out over the faucet, indicating he was still a proud One, Zero practitioner. Myrna said she didn’t mind. The couple met on match.com last year. From the couch Myrna gushed that Mr. Mellitz had on pajama bottoms, a tight-fitting Pixies shirt and a nice, thick stubble, just the way she likes it. “He’s a solid nine,” she said. 

But surely, one has to suspect, he’d prefer being a one.

smorgan@observer.com