“Once upon a time, there lived a lonely man that had a great head if hair.”
That’s the first line from Aaron Csepregi’s Match.com profile, and it just gets more ridiculous from there.
He spends several hundred words rambling about princes and damsels in distress and shirtless blumberbros. It goes against all conventional wisdom about how to make a first impression on the Internet: It’s way too long, and it doesn’t actually tell you anything meaningful about Csepregi. If dating app profiles are the pickup lines of 2016, then this seems like the romantic introduction of a man trying very hard to die alone.
But as it turns out, Csepregi has done okay. Better than okay.
According to Match, he was the most “winked” at man in Chicago last year—winks being the highest form of romantic currency on Match, the first sign of interest in the digital dating pool. On a national level, the Match record keepers claim he’s in the top 0.000035% of eligible men on the dating service, which has an estimated 3.2 million paid subscribers in North America.
That’s a lot of attention for a guy who says he often gets mistaken for Ed Helms (the bespectacled nerd from The Office and The Hangover films). He’s perfectly attractive and in decent enough shape—5’10”, 180 pounds—but he comes across more like the harmless guy at your office with a lot of platonic female friends than a modern-day Casanova. He drives a 2008 Ford Fusion that’s seen better days, his cell ringtone is the “Three’s Company” theme song, and he doesn’t have cable TV because he’d “rather spend the money on experiences.”
Although he makes a six figure salary—he’s a management consultant for a software company—he lives in a cramped studio apartment on Chicago’s north side. His bed is the first thing you see when you open his front door. “I could afford something better, but I like the freedom of not being weighed down by stuff,” he explains. “I could pack everything and be out of here in an hour.”
There’s nothing about him, from his physical appearance to his personality to his lifestyle choices, which would make you think, ‘I bet that dude never stops getting laid.’ So how has this altogether average man cracked the code of Internet dating? What’s his secret sauce?
Csepregi is as surprised as anyone by the attention. He only goes on three or so dates a week, but if he answered all of his email, he’d never sit down to another meal without female companionship. “Women stop me on the street,” he says. “They tell me, ‘I know you from somewhere.’ I’ll say, ‘Match.com?’ ‘Yes, that’s it!’ It’s very odd.”
He may seem like a nice guy who just got lucky, but his success has hardly been a crapshoot. Csepregi’s been on Match since 2010, and he hasn’t stopped revising his profile, sometimes overhauling it completely a few times a week. Although he’s had countless dates because of Match, and two significant relationships—one lasting nine months and the other three months—he’s still trying to find the perfect woman, and the perfect formula for finding her.
“I haven’t figured out the Match algorithm yet,” Csepregi says, as he scrolls through the photo gallery on his dating profile. The 35-year-old Michigan native is sitting on his bed, conveniently located just a few feet from his desk. “I’ve got a feeling,” he continues, “that if you constantly change your photos and headline, even if it’s in the slightest way, it pushes you back to the top. People are like, ‘Hey look, new entertainment.’ They’ll come back and give you another chance.”
His profile gallery has 26 photos, the maximum number allowed on Match. He changes them frequently, reshuffling the order or subbing in new photos. Every photo tells a story, he says, and nothing is random. It’s all got a purpose.
“This one shows that I’m outdoorsy,” he says, taking us on a tour of his gallery. “This one is just there so she knows I own my own tuxedo. This one is to show I wear glasses, which I think you need to be honest about. This is one of me skiing, and I don’t even like to ski, but everyone has a skiing photo, so I’m making a joke about it.”
If it seems like Csepregi treats online dating like a second job, you’d be entirely correct. “You have to sell yourself,” he says. “You have to. You’re competing with thousands of other guys. Tens of thousands. You have to take it seriously or you’ll get lost in the crowd. I put in at least two, three hours a day to this, maybe more. And you don’t get weekends off. You can end up with a 21-hour work week. It’s not easy.”
He’s far from the only one who tries this hard. Christian Rudder, founder of OkCupid, wrote in his 2014 book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) about the immense effort some online daters take to appear effortless, what he calls “labor-intensive brevity.” He described one such OkCupid user who took 387 keystrokes to finally arrive at the perfect way to introduce himself to a woman: “Hey.”
Why are men putting so much more time and hand-wringing into online dating? “Our culture has tended to think of dating as more like work for women and more like recreation for men,” says Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University and author of Labor of Love, a book that investigates the history of dating in America.
But online dating, she says, may have leveled the playing field. Suddenly guys can’t be as blasé about finding a partner. They can’t just walk up to a good-looking woman at a bar or nightclub and offer to buy her a drink. They’re required to participate in “the same sort of self-presentation that have long been required of women,” says Weigel.
It’s not enough to be attractive and charming. You need an online dating profile that proves you’re attractive and charming. “How different is creating and maintaining an OkCupid profile from creating a LinkedIn one?” asks Weigel. The traits may vary, she says, but the end goal is essentially the same. “We’re presenting a resume of what makes us desirable.”
But what makes somebody more or less desirable online? There’ve been dozens of studies investigating why some dating profiles get more attention than others, and—wait for it—not a single one of them explains Csepregi’s success. A 2015 study from the University of Texas found that the best online dating screen names begin with a letter from the top half of the alphabet. And 2010 research suggests that women are looking for screen names that present an image of culture and intellectualism.
Csepregi’s Match name is princeac1980, a combination of prince, his initials, and his birthday. “Every girl wants her prince charming,” he explains. “I know, it’s terrible, right? I went with the stupid, cheesy choice and never changed it.”
For photo galleries, several studies indicate you should include group shots in which women are smiling at you, or you’re touching someone on the arm—a sign of high social status. “I don’t have any of that,” Csepregi says. “I have some photos with women, but they’re smiling at the camera. Should I be touching more women for no reason? This is the first I’m hearing about this.”
Science has calculated that the perfect breakdown of a dating profile is 70% about yourself, and 30% about what you want in a partner. Csepregi says his profile “Is maybe 5% about me. Actually, there’s nothing really in there about me. It just mocks other profiles, or it’s clearly fiction.”
What about studies suggesting that a profile should always be honest and contain no obvious fabrications? “Whoops,” Csepregi says.
He doesn’t defy every bit of academic research. He is smiling in his profile photo, with a slight tilt of the head, which separate studies insist will get you noticed above glowering, straight-ahead shots.
Also, he’s funny. Numerous studies have proven—repeatedly and definitively—that women love a sense of humor, especially when searching for a partner online. Even when Csepregi’s jokes fall flat, he’s just self-deprecating and “aw shucks” enough to make it easy to root for him.
Csepregi has tried several different profiles over the years—he never throws away a draft, and they’re all in a special folder on his computer—but the one that hit the Internet with a big, forgettable thud, attracting exactly zero interest from any women who found him even passably attractive, was the one where he put all his cards on the table.
“I said, ‘I’m looking for someone who wants to be serious about this. Let’s get together and see what happens,’” Csepregi says. “It was awful. Nobody cared. I might as well have put up that REM video ‘Everybody Hurts’ as my profile.”
He knows what he’s doing now. And the proof is not just in the women who keep emailing him, asking for his time. He also tutors online daters looking to increase their odds. For a mere $35 ($5 less than Match’s own “Profile Pro” consulting service), he’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong. “I’ve seen more shirtless bathroom photos than any straight guy should ever have to,” he says.
“There was one guy, he had thirteen shirtless bathroom photos. Thirteen! It was all the same pose, but with different colored boxer briefs. He was doing the Captain Morgan, where you’re bending at the knee so you can see his package.”
It might be a teeny bit ironic that Csepregi is lambasting shirtless selfies at the exact moment he’s shirtless himself, posing provocatively in front of his closet mirror (which, for reasons he never gets around to explaining, has a painting of the Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon album cover hanging over it).
But this display of shirtlessness isn’t for public consumption. It’s his pre-first date ritual, which also involves blasting hardcore hip-hop and dancing around his tiny apartment like Mick Jagger having an epileptic fit.
In just a few hours, he’ll meet Lindsay, a woman he’s been flirting with online for the last few months. She made the first move, winking at him. Then he winked back. Then they exchanged dozens of emails, until finally (just this morning) he suggested a phone call.
“She’s terrific,” he tells us. “She’s from Jersey, and I love her attitude. She even put in her profile, ‘No bullshit.’ I love that.”
He can’t show us Lindsay’s Match profile because she’s already taken it down. “I don’t know what that means,” he says, forcing a smile. “I’m hoping it’s a good sign.”
He scrolls through the messages in his inbox—there are at least two dozen new women who want him to know he’s hilarious—and does a quick scan of the latest profiles, if only out of habit. “I have an addictive personality,” he admits. “Online dating feeds into that. It gives you a ‘grass is always greener’ thing.”
Csepregi knows what he wants, and he doesn’t waste a lot of time on anybody who doesn’t grab his attention immediately. “If she’s not smiling, I’ll pass on her automatically,” he says, the faces whizzing past on his computer screen. “The profile has got to be clear and crisp.”
He pauses to read one. “’I love spending time with my family and friends.’ What a shocker!”
He reads another. “She wants to ‘meet a great guy who I connect with on all levels.’ As opposed to what? ‘I’d like to find somebody who hates everything I love?’ Oh, oh, here’s my favorite. Everyone says they’re ‘adventurous’. I’ve read that word in so many profiles, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Who’s not adventurous? That’s like saying, ‘I like food! I need sleep to survive! I work for money to buy things!’”
He’s noticeably nervous about tonight’s date. He makes himself a martini, and then a vodka-tonic, and sips on them both. “I still get pre-date jitters,” he says. “It’s not like I’m a serial dater. Well, not anymore.” He tells us about one ambitious outing, when he managed to squeeze in three dates in one day. “I staggered a half hour in between each one,” Csepregi admits. “Even if I was having a good time, I had to slip away. I felt bad for doing that. I was kind of a scumbag.”
He’s finally looking for somebody serious. He wants to settle down. Well, not tomorrow, but in the nearish future. “At 35, I’m in that age range where I’m in the lower acceptable age limit of women in their mid-40s,” he says. “And women in their early 20s are like, ‘Stop creeping me out, old man.’ That makes you think.”
Could Lindsay be the one? He’s hopeful, but experienced enough with online dating to be cynical. “My success rate has been one in five,” he says. “Match should make that their new logo. ‘20% of your dates won’t suck!’”
He’s got stories about dates that ended badly—like the woman in Atlanta who drank an entire bottle of wine in the time it took him to sip a beer—and dates that ended before he realized they were over—like the woman who excused herself during dinner, then crawled out the restaurant’s bathroom window.
Csepregi even experienced the rarest phenomenon in online dating; the mutual breakup. “We both sat down, looked at each, took one drink and said, ‘Nope.’ It was perfect. We had a laugh, paid for our drinks and left.”
Csepregi pulls on his shirt and gives his reflection a final once-over, just as Ice Cube is rapping about how it’s a good day because he didn’t have to use his AK. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s do this.”
He meets Lindsay outside Ada Street, a local restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean tapas, and they shake hands awkwardly. She’s a pretty brunette, 35 years old (just like him) and working at a job that she’s barely interested in discussing (something about business development for corporate wellness.)
They find a table and order drinks—white wine for her, red wine for him—and right off the bat, Csepregi is playing the part of a lovable goofball. He tries jokes that don’t quite land—when explaining the Bob Dylan tribute concert they’ll be attending later, he says, “You know what they say, what happens at the Bob Dylan show stays at the Bob Dylan show. I have no idea what that means.”
When he stumbles over his words, he tells her, without a trace of sarcasm, “I lose my train of thought when I’m in the company of such beauty.”
But she’s entirely charmed by him. She laughs at his jokes, and blushes at his clumsy attempts at romanticism. They’re a perfect match, in ways Match.com wasn’t able to predict.
They share the same interests— they both don’t own TVs, they both work from home in their underwear, and they both speak foreign languages. Okay, maybe not so much with that last one. She speaks fluent French in ways that make Csepregi blush, and he’s learning Spanish but at the moment only knows how to say “he drinks” and “she eats.”
When asked why she picked Csepregi over the army of chiseled jawlines online, her reasons aren’t especially illuminating. “I liked his pictures,” she says. “He showed that he had a sense of humor, which is really important to me. He’s a good looking guy. He had something to say besides ‘I know how to lift a beer to my lips and be a douche in the gym.’”
She orders the chicken wings as an appetizer, and he seems gobsmacked that she would do this on a first date.
“What’s the big deal?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s just amazing. You’re amazing.”
“Who doesn’t love chicken wings?”
“Communists,” Csepregi says.
He asks the big relationship question: Does she prefer drumsticks or wings? “I think the wings have the best flavor,” she says. He nods. “I’m a drumstick guy.”
He reaches for her hand under the table. He doesn’t think we notice, but we absolutely notice. We also notice that it happened when she said she prefers chicken wings over drumsticks, and it feels weirdly significant.
They have an obvious connection—the whole meal, they’re on the verge of pushing their food and wine glasses to the floor and dry-humping on the table—but did online dating have anything to do with it? They have everything in common, and almost none of it they learned in advance because of their meticulously curated dating profiles. So did their digital matchmaker even matter?
Over the next several hours, over numerous tapa dishes, they talk like friends who’ve known each other for years. They debate the best honkytonk bars in Texas, why men taking baths are hilarious, Christopher Guest movies, her mom’s recipe for pumpkin pie, and how amazing she smells. They also talk about how much they both hate guys on Match who post shirtless photos.
“It’s terrible,” Lindsay says. “It’s legitimately terrible.”
“See? That’s what I’ve been saying!” Csepregi concurs.
“I don’t understand why I need to see that. And a guy will always do something stupid with his face when he’s shirtless. He’ll make duck lips or something equally stupid. Nobody wants to see that.”
She leaves for the bathroom, and Csepregi becomes a different person. His self-confidence disappears. He’s not the most winked at guy on Match.com anymore. He’s just another guy wondering if he’s good enough.
“What do you think? Does she like me? I don’t know. Am I talking too much? I feel like I’m talking too much.”
It’s adorable, because it’s exactly what everybody feels on a first date with somebody when they suddenly realize they really like this person and they don’t want to mess it up. It’s the most vulnerable, human reaction you can have, and it’s an emotion that’s all too easy to forget if you spend too much time thinking that the Internet is an accurate reflection of real life.
It’s kind of reassuring, if you think about it. It’s proof that none of what happens in the surreal courtship dance of online dating matters. At best, it’s foreplay. It’s not where the real stuff happens.
Even if you think you have everything figured out—you’ve studied the algorithms, and you’ve done market testing on your profile pic and description—it still ends the same way, with a guy in a room with a girl, nervously fidgeting with his hands and wondering what to say next.
That’s the moment when you lose all control, where it doesn’t matter if you’re smiling enough in your profile, or if you have enough photos of women smiling and touching you, or if your screen name is low enough in the alphabet. She’s either going to like you or she doesn’t, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference how many women have winked at you.
When they leave the restaurant, they’re already holding hands. As they walk to the concert venue, they sneak kisses. By the time they make it to the Hideout club, for the Bob Dylan tribute, they’re not even bothering to sneak anymore. They’re kissing like teenagers in a prom limo.
At the show, they manage to make it through one song—”Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”—before they get tired of being the handsy couple at the rock concert who everybody behind them knows would rather be somewhere else.
“We’re getting out of here,” Csepregi tells us. He and Lindsay stumble out of the club, towards his Ford Fusion. He opens the passenger side door for her, saying something about it being her “chariot.”
She giggles approvingly and leaps inside. As they drive away, we wonder if this might be the final chapter for the most eligible bachelor on the Internet, if the “lonely man with a great head of hair” has finally found his princess.
Like a true gentleman, he won’t give us a definitive answer. But the next morning, his Match profile hasn’t been taken down. A month later, it’s still there.
The search continues. Or at least the addiction. They might just be the same thing.
(This story appeared, in a slightly different form, in the September 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)