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Book Summary: The 48 Laws of Power – The secret methods to getting what you want

The 48 Laws of Power (1998) takes an irreverent look at the fundamental characteristics of power – how to understand it, defend against it, and use it to your advantage. This summary offers compelling insights, backed by historical examples, into the dynamics of competition and control.

[Book Summary] The 48 Laws of Power: The secret methods to getting what you want

Content Summary

Introduction: What’s in it for me? Discover the history, secrets, and inner workings of power.
Primary Power Law #1: Say as little as possible (let your actions speak for you)
Primary Power Law #2: Be audacious
Primary Power Law #3: Be formless
Don’t outdo the master.
Take credit for other people’s work and be sure to protect your own.
Gaining power over somebody means getting to know them – and posing as their friend.
Act unpredictably to confuse the competition.
Surrendering to a stronger opponent will help you gather power later.
If you want to be treated like a superior, you’ve got to act like one.
Seduction works better than coercion to gain power over others.
In your quest for power, avoid your friends and collaborate with your enemies.
Convince people through artful action rather than argumentation.
When seeking another person’s help, rely on their self-interest, not their good will.
Being overly available will turn people off; holding back is the key to desirability.
Instead of isolating yourself out of fear, surround yourself with those on whom you depend.
Final Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


Management, Leadership, Career Success, Psychology, Business, Self Help, Philosophy, History, Politics, Personal Development, Government

Introduction: Discover the history, secrets, and inner workings of power.

Whether we like it or not, we humans are born into an ongoing game: the game of power.

The game has been underway since the dawn of history, and, whether wittingly or unwittingly, every one of us is a player. Sometimes the game is bloody and overt. But more often it is indirect, subtle, played in the shadows.

The question is: Do you know the rules – and are you playing to win?

Some people choose to ignore it, deceiving themselves into thinking that the game of power is something we can opt out of. Or they might protest that the game is evil and asocial, a relic of less moral and democratic times. These players are easily dominated by those who embrace the game.

Others, like domineering playground bullies or charismatic business titans, seem to be natural adepts, dominating without even trying. But the game is not rigged in their favor. Their skills can be learned and mastered by anyone who studies the game and plays it well.

In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene maps out the rules of the game, using historical examples from civilizations across the globe, drawing on three thousand years of history. He distills the lessons from master manipulators that will teach you how to outmaneuver your opponents and become a master player, a modern-day Machiavelli.

In this summary, we’ll give you a glimpse – a first taste – of power by distilling 12 of the book’s 48 laws. After all, we wouldn’t want to give away all the secrets, now would we?

In this summary, you’ll find out

  • how a beginner’s mistake can help you win big;
  • why a finance minister was cast into a dungeon for preparing a glorious party for his king; and
  • how sometimes your best chance to win a battle is by surrendering.

If you leverage the Laws of Power, people will believe you’re worthy of a powerful position and listen to what you have to say. If you obey the Laws of Power, you’ll prolong your time in powerful positions because opponents will refuse to challenge you.

I’ve distilled many of the 48 Laws of Power into three easy‐to‐remember Laws. If you use these three Primary Power Laws, you’ll significantly elevate your power in meetings, negotiations, and the organization you work in.

Primary Power Law #1: Say as little as possible (let your actions speak for you)

“When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control…Powerful people impress by saying less.” – Robert Greene

When you limit your words, your words become like a scarce resource that people value immensely. Be comfortable with conversational pauses and let people nervously fill the silence and reveal valuable information you can use. Perfect your timing (Power Law #35) to amplify the impact of your words. Be like a hawk silently circling above a conversation, watching and listening, as you wait for the right moment to dive in and deliver a few well‐thought‐out words to receptive ears.

Saying little and concealing your intentions (Power Law #3) will consistently wow your audience and prevent your competition from getting the upper hand. Apple, arguably the most powerful company on the planet, goes to great lengths to conceal their intentions by saying very little about their next product. They make their competition guess what they’re up to and garner massive attention when they
announce a new product.

If you say little about your work process, you give people the impression your achievements are effortless (Power Law #30). The Great Houdini captivated audiences because he never revealed his tricks and never let people know how hard he practiced each escape. Saying little about his process led people to believe that he had superior psychic abilities.

Primary Power Law #2: Be audacious

  • Muhammad Ali called himself the greatest.
  • Babe Ruth pointed at the outfield wall before going to bat.
  • Richard Branson drove a tank down Times Square and flew a hot air balloon around the world.

These bold individuals created compelling spectacles (Power Law #37) that garnered attention (Power Law #6) and elevated their status in their sport or business market.

Leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, I wondered why there were so many people running for office that had no chance of winning. Later I realized that merely setting and pursuing the audacious goal of becoming President allowed the governors and senators to elevate their status in their home state.

Shaun White and Simone Biles were powerhouses in their respective sports because they routinely showed up to events with audacious new moves, which captivated the audience and made their opponents feel like they couldn’t compete.

Be audacious by concentrating all your forces (Power Law #23) on one bold objective that will get people talking. Before pursuing such a goal, mentally prepare for all possible obstacles and twists of fortune you may encounter (Power Law #29), so you can enter an audacious endeavor with boldness (Power Law #28). As Greene says, “Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.”

Primary Power Law #3: Be formless

Be formless by constantly recreating yourself (Power Law #25). Greene says, “Do not accept the roles that society foists on you…Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define it for you.”

If you don’t solidify yourself to one position, group, or identity, and constantly evolve your thinking, you create a powerful air of unpredictability (Power Law #17). A United States senator who goes between party lines, voting for conservative and liberal bills, has immense negotiating power. People from both sides of the aisle make generous offers to secure their vote.

Bruce Lee said, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water.”

Your formlessness will be fueled by one truth: everything changes; everything ends. Since you know everything changes, you remain calm and emotionally stable when everyone else is flustered by change. People will see your emotional stability as a superpower.

“The ability to master your emotions (is critical to building a foundation of power). An emotional response to a situation is the single greatest barrier to power…” – Robert Greene

Don’t outdo the master.

Have you ever tried to impress your boss, only to have your efforts backfire on you? Well, you may have accidentally violated the first law of the game of power, which is, in Greene’s words, to never outshine the master.

The first law of power dictates that we should appear humble to our superiors, the people who have more power than we do.

After all, powerful people want to be the center of attention; trying too hard to impress them can shift attention away from them and onto you, hurting their pride in the process.

But what’s even worse is acting superior to them, a move that could lead your boss to think of you as a threat to their position. If this happens, they may – they probably will – attempt to remove you from your position entirely.

Take the relationship between King Louis XIV of France and Nicolas Fouquet, the king’s finance minister. A smart and loyal advisor, Fouquet became indispensable, but this didn’t guarantee him the position of prime minister when the incumbent minister died. To gain the king’s favor, Fouquet threw a lavish party at his extravagantly furnished chateau to show the king how well-connected and influential he was.

The next day, Fouquet was arrested by order of the king. Louis XIV felt overshadowed, and he accused the minister of stealing to amass such extravagant wealth. The veracity of the accusation was beside the point. Fouquet lived out his remaining days in a prison cell.

So now you know: acts of extravagance and demonstrations of personal brilliance might not impress your boss. Quite the contrary. So how can you gain favor? Well, a better strategy is to always make the person in charge look better than everyone else, including yourself.

Take Galileo Galilei as an example. He desperately needed funding for his research and found an ingenious way to get it. He had spent years begging various patrons for funding, but would usually receive gifts instead of the necessary cash. So he decided to focus on one family – the Medicis – when, in 1610, he discovered the four moons of Jupiter.

Shortly before, Cosimo II de’ Medici had established Jupiter as the symbol for the Medici dynasty. When Galileo discovered Jupiter’s four moons, he linked his discovery to the enthronement of Cosimo II de’ Medici, proclaiming it a cosmic event that heralded the family’s ascendancy. He said that the four moons represented Cosimo II and his three brothers, while Jupiter itself was Cosimo I, the father of the four Medici brothers. This tickled his patron’s ego, who interpreted the discovery as a heavenly omen confirming the family’s greatness.

By making the Medici family appear glorious and aligning their name with the cosmos, Galileo secured himself a salaried position as the official philosopher and mathematician of Cosimo II. He never had to beg for funding again.

Take credit for other people’s work and be sure to protect your own.

Would you ever consider claiming parts of another person’s work as your own by plagiarizing a few clever snippets? Did you ever slyly steal answers from a classmate during a math test? Maybe you did or maybe you didn’t, but the truth is that attaining power often means using the work of others to your advantage.

Why waste your energy doing things if somebody else can do them for you? Did you know that the Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla worked for the famous inventor Thomas Edison? And it was actually Tesla, not Edison, who played the crucial role in creating Edison’s famed dynamo by improving Edison’s rather primitive design?

To make this discovery, Tesla worked tirelessly for an entire year, often clocking 18-hour days in the lab. But today, the dynamo is attributed to Edison.

Little has changed. Just think how few politicians write their own speeches, and how famous novelists “borrow” from other writers.

But reaping the benefits of work done by others isn’t enough – you’ll also need to take credit for it. Edison and his company claimed all the credit for Tesla’s work on the dynamo. Edison didn’t so much as share a cent of his profits with Tesla, even though Edison had promised Tesla $50,000!

So, keeping Tesla’s experience in mind, remember that the credit given for an invention or creation of any kind is just as essential as the invention itself. If you don’t claim credit, someone else will jump in, steal your idea, and take all the kudos that comes with it.

Gaining power over somebody means getting to know them – and posing as their friend.

Maybe you’ve encountered this problem before: you’re striving to outmaneuver the competition but can’t quite manage to accurately predict your competitors’ strategies. How can you get around this?

Well, another trick to gaining power is to gather important information about the people you want to control. And to get something from someone, you need to know about them. After all, knowing a person’s plans, weaknesses, and desires will help you both win their favor and guide their actions.

Take the art dealer Joseph Duveen, who, in 1920, resolved to win industrialist Andrew Mellon as a client. But Mellon was not easily convinced, so Duveen decided to bribe Mellon’s staff to pass him secret information about their employer.

When Mellon traveled to London, Duveen made sure to follow him. Duveen showed up at the same art gallery Mellon was visiting, supposedly by chance, and engaged him in a vibrant conversation.

Since Duveen knew so much about what Mellon liked, he easily gained his favor by making him believe that they shared common tastes in art, among other things. As a result, the encounter ended on a happy note, and Mellon soon became Duveen’s best client.

So how can you pull off Duveen’s trick?

You can hire informants or, even better, act as a spy yourself by posing as a person’s friend. While most people opt for hired spies, this strategy is risky. After all, how can you be sure that your spies are being honest with you?

To be sure your information is accurate, it’s best to do the spying yourself. This is no easy task, as people generally hesitate to share private information with strangers.

However, they’re not as secretive when in the company of someone they consider a friend, which makes posing as a companion a highly effective strategy.

Act unpredictably to confuse the competition.

You probably know that most people don’t like sudden changes, but did you know that you can use unpredictability to your competitive advantage? Acting unpredictably can keep your competition off balance. Here’s how.

In competitive scenarios, your opponents will likely try hard to figure you out by monitoring your habits and decision-making, and they won’t hesitate to use this information against you. In this situation, your best move is to act erratically. Being unpredictable will protect you from being understood by your opponents, which will intimidate and unnerve them.

Take the famous 1972 chess match between Bobby Fischer and the Russian champion Boris Spassky. Fischer knew that Spassky’s technique was to target the routines and predictability of his opponent, and Fischer used this information to his advantage by playing as unpredictably as possible.

Even in the days leading up to the match, Fischer made it seem unclear whether or not he would make it to Reykjavik, where the pair was set to play. And when he did arrive, it was moments before the match was set to be canceled due to his absence. After this stunt, Fischer proceeded to complain about everything from the lighting to the chairs and noise in the room.

When they finally began the first match, Fischer made careless mistakes before giving up, an odd move since he was known for his persistence. Spassky couldn’t tell if he was actually making mistakes or just bluffing.

At this point, Fischer had Spassky just where he wanted him. When your competitor is sufficiently confused, you’re in a perfect position to win.


Doing things that perplex your opponent will cause him to try to explain your behavior and distract him from the task at hand, giving you the chance to strike.

So, after two games of chess, Fischer began winning game after game with bold moves. Spassky conceded, and Fischer was named world champion.

Surrendering to a stronger opponent will help you gather power later.

Have you ever taken on an opponent knowing that you’ll never win? While it’s common for people to fight for glory against all odds, it’s not the route to power. So what should you do when faced with a more powerful opponent?

Give up.

This may seem an odd strategy, especially since humans instinctively fight their enemies to protect themselves. But when a competitor acts with aggression, he will expect you to respond in the same way. In cases where you know that the competition has you beat, your best move is to surrender.


If you give up or at least convince your enemy that you’ve done so, you can ensure that he won’t deliver substantial damage. Not only that, but your opponent, thinking he has won, will also let down his guard. When he does, you’ll have a golden opportunity to regain your strength and plan your next move.

Take the case of Bertolt Brecht, a writer of revolutionary communist ideas, who immigrated to the United States in 1941 to join other intellectuals exiled from Europe. After World War II, Brecht and his peers were summoned before the US Congress, which was investigating a supposed communist infiltration of Hollywood.

While his fellow radicals caused a commotion and challenged the authority of Congress by yelling and being uncooperative, Brecht was calm and politely answered the questions he was asked.

Because of his good behavior, Brecht was released by the government, which even offered to help him with his immigration procedure. In the end, their offer was irrelevant because he left the country and continued writing about his firm communist beliefs.

And his stubborn friends?

They were blacklisted, unable to publish for years!

So, do as Brecht did and make surrender a tool of self-empowerment. Build up long-term strength rather than making major sacrifices for a short-lived moment of glory.

If you want to be treated like a superior, you’ve got to act like one.

Are you higher up the ladder than someone else? If so, it’s essential to act the part – unless, of course, you prefer to be seen as their equal. But a word of warning: acting as if you’re equal to others while holding a superior position will only inspire contempt.

Take Louis-Philippe, King of France during the 1830s and 1840s. He despised royal ceremonies and all the symbols associated with the throne. In defiance of the formalities required of his position, he was infamous for wearing a gray hat and holding an umbrella in place of his crown and scepter. He didn’t even keep the company of royalty, mostly befriending bankers instead.

But the king’s behavior didn’t do him any good – he was soon hated by both rich and poor. Wealthy people disapproved of the unlikely king, while the poor disliked a monarch who acted like the lower classes but didn’t look out for them. Even his banker friends turned on him when they found they could insult him without being reprimanded.

All this hatred mounted until the people rose up against him and he was forced to abdicate the throne.

In general, people are suspicious of higher-ups who act like their equals; doing so leads others to think you’re dishonest, as they’ll assume your modest ways are a sly trick to cloud your privileges.

So what’s a better tactic?

You should instead use the strategy of the crown to make people treat you like royalty. Simply put, if you believe you’re above others and act accordingly, other people will begin to believe you’re superior, too. They’ll assume there is good reason for you to act in such a way.

Christopher Columbus behaved like royalty and, consequently, most people viewed him as such. In fact, it was his confident socializing with the Spanish royal family that eventually convinced the Spanish throne to finance his voyages.

Seduction works better than coercion to gain power over others.

Picture yourself as Chuko Liang, head strategist for the ancient Chinese state of Shu. War has just been declared on China from the south by King Menghuo, and it’s up to you to stop him and save the country.

But before learning what you should do, it’s essential to know what you shouldn’t.

First of all, using force and coercive tactics is never wise, even when they’re the easiest choice. If you do exercise your strength, people will secretly resent you, because force breeds resistance. Liang knew this and didn’t attack, even though he probably would have defeated the invading army.

However, if he had, Menghuo would have resented both China and Liang, and the country would have to continuously protect itself. This would have exhausted everyone involved and bred paranoia.

Seduction is a better strategy. People tend to be controlled by their emotions, and by playing on their feelings, you can make them do what you want – of their own free will.

You can do this by threatening your opponent so that they expect pain and then suddenly treating them kindly. When Menghuo attacked China, Liang captured him and his entire army. Menghuo was separated from his soldiers. He expected the worst. But to his great surprise, he was offered delicious food and wine instead.

While Liang released his enemy’s soldiers, he said he would only let Menghuo go when the enemy king promised that if he was ever captured again, he would bow to the Chinese king.

And while Liang captured Menghuo several more times, he always let him go. Then, on the seventh capture, Menghuo dropped to Liang’s feet, surrendering himself and his kingdom.

Even though Liang could have killed Menghuo, a fact that his enemy knew well, he gave him plenty of chances and treated him handsomely each time. As a result, Menghuo grew increasingly grateful and indebted to the Chinese king, until he finally surrendered of his own volition.

In your quest for power, avoid your friends and collaborate with your enemies.

When you find yourself in a tricky professional situation, it’s only natural to want to recruit your friends. After all, who better to soften the pain of a business ordeal than a supportive friend? Well, actually, anybody.

Counting on your friends is a major misstep. The reason is simple: your friends are most likely to compare themselves to you and therefore be envious of what you have. That’s why the smartest move is to create distance between you and them.

Chinese emperors were regularly assassinated by their closest friends, many of whom they had appointed as generals. Aware of this treacherous potential, Emperor Sung took a different tack; in 959, he cleverly invited his generals – all friends of his – to a banquet. Once there, he offered them estates and riches, leading all of them to retire to palaces. As a result, Sung reigned for another 16 years, a feat that was unheard of at the time.

But if you push your friends away, with whom are you supposed to work?

It may seem odd, but the best idea is to collaborate with your enemies, thereby broadening your influence. In 1807, the foreign minister of France, Talleyrand, realized that Napoleon was losing his influence over the empire. With this in mind, Talleyrand attempted to overthrow him. But to carry out such a dangerous plan, he needed a serious accomplice.

In the end, he unexpectedly found the perfect person in the chief of the secret police, Joseph Fouché, who had long been Talleyrand’s political adversary and the primary rival for Napoleon’s favor. Nevertheless, the collaboration worked because both men believed that Napoleon was going down and that France needed a new leader.

So, while Talleyrand undercut Napoleon’s diplomatic work with Russia, Fouché worked with the English to further undermine the Emperor’s position. Eventually, Napoleon was overthrown, and while Fouché also lost influence, Talleyrand rose to be an important minister in the government that took power.

Convince people through artful action rather than argumentation.

Have you ever gotten into a heated debate that went late into the night, eventually resulting in the other person begrudgingly conceding? It’s easy for the most stubborn among us to count such events as victories, but beware: the truth is quite different.

In reality, working to convince others by debate is a total waste of time, and can even be dangerous, especially if they’re powerful.

In 131 BC, Roman consul Mucianus was on a campaign to conquer the Greek town of Pergamus. To break down the city walls, he needed a massive ship mast to be turned into a battering ram. However, the engineer who had been assigned the task knew that a smaller mast would work better. He argued his point to the soldiers, insisting that they bring the consul the smaller of the two. He was right; the smaller mast would have worked better. But that didn’t matter. The engineer was disrobed and whipped to death for the trouble he had caused.

In other words, it isn’t enough to be right and tell people so. A better approach is to convince people through cunning action. Often, with a little bit of thought, you can come up with a way to ensure that your idea prevails, while making your opponent believe that you agree with them.

Sir Christopher Wren, the famous seventeenth-century British architect, was once commissioned to design a town hall for Westminster. But he wasn’t left to his own devices. The mayor of Westminster, fearing that the building might fall down and destroy his office on the first floor, demanded that two extra supporting columns be added.

Wren knew that the mayor’s fears were baseless. But instead of saying so, he simply built the two columns. Many years later, builders working on a high scaffold found that the columns ended just before meeting the ceiling. In reality, they were doing nothing at all to hold the building up. The rather cunning Wren had avoided a useless discussion while still making sure that his point was proved. The pillars were eventually removed.

When seeking another person’s help, rely on their self-interest, not their good will.

Assuming power is no easy task and, if you want to succeed, you’ll need to ask others for help. But how you ask is important. After all, you could ask people to aid you simply out of the goodness of their hearts. But that would be a mistake.

In the 1400s, there was an Italian prince in the town of Lucca. This prince was famous thanks to the support of a powerful family, the Poggios. However, after rising to power, he forgot all about the family, solely pursuing his own interests.

Annoyed by this, the Poggios began conspiring with other families to overthrow the prince. But before they did, one member of the Poggio family, Stefano, argued that diplomatic methods should be used instead. Stefano went to the prince, describing the coming rebellion and asking him to consider what the Poggios had done for him.

Upon hearing this, the prince invited the Poggios to his palace, where, rather than changing his ways and rewarding the family justly, he had them imprisoned and executed, including Stefano.

Simply put: asking people to do the right thing often doesn’t work out. Appeal to their self-interest instead. But this can be tricky, for the simple reason that most people are incapable of seeing beyond their own self-interest in order to consider other people’s self-interest!

In the sixteenth century, Portuguese emissaries to Japan worked desperately to establish relationships with the Japanese and convert them to Christianity. The plan failed. Not because the Portuguese were unwilling to appeal to the self-interest of the Japanese, but because the Portuguese were too focused on their own religious agenda to identify the true interests of the Japanese.

By contrast, when the Dutch arrived in Japan a century later, they were clever enough to recognize these interests. They found that the Japanese desired trade agreements that would grant them access to the European market, something the Dutch could deliver. As a result, the Japanese emperor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ditched the Portuguese and developed relationships with the Dutch instead.

Being overly available will turn people off; holding back is the key to desirability.

Practically every person who has tried dating has been frustrated by human nature to one degree or another. After all, there’s a basic formula when it comes to love: if your lover returns your calls, you immediately lose interest; if they ignore you, you go mad with desire. But this doesn’t just apply to love. It’s another basic law of power.

It might sound simple, but the truth is that being too accessible will make people lose interest in you. In the eighth century BC, Medea, a city in what is now Iran, was inhabited by people who were against monarchs and any individual who held too much power. However, without a ruler, chaos was almost inevitable.

In this cacophony, a man named Deioces offered to mediate between rival parties and resolve their disputes. He was skilled at this, and his work gained him widespread admiration and love. However, after a while, as he continued to mediate and resolve, people began to take his work for granted. And since they were still opposed to the idea of a powerful ruler, they had no intention of giving him more power.

Deioces was failing to instrumentalize a key law of power: unavailability is essential to being desirable.

After all, it’s only when you disappear that people remember how valuable you are. Deioces eventually realized this and knew that the only way he would receive the recognition he deserved was by retiring. So he moved to the countryside and let Medea return to its former chaos.

Pretty soon, the Medeans arrived at his door, desperately begging him to return and rule over them. He agreed, on one condition: a huge palace should be constructed for him, armed to the teeth with bodyguards. Once the people agreed, he ruled the area for 53 years.

Instead of isolating yourself out of fear, surround yourself with those on whom you depend.

When people find themselves surrounded by others, some of whom are obvious enemies, it’s only natural to seek out protection. During times like these, building a fortress to hide in can feel like the perfect solution. But, actually, isolating yourself in this way is counterproductive because it also cuts you off from power and influence.

You can’t attain any significant power without a sense of what’s happening around you. Just take an example from China in 220 BC. Ch’i Shih Huang Ti was not only emperor of China but also the most powerful person in the world. However, toward the end of his life, he became paranoid that people were out to harm him. So he retired to a lavish palace, protected by a maze of secret passageways that let him move from room to room without ever being seen.

Anyone who so much as set eyes on the emperor would be executed immediately. As a final precaution, the emperor only traveled alone, elaborately disguising himself when he did to avoid recognition. It was on one such outing that he died, estranged from his family, isolated from his friends, and forgotten by his court.

Isolation isn’t the answer. Instead, you’ve got to surround yourself with the people on whom your power depends. There’s perhaps no starker contrast to Ch’i Shih Huang Ti than Louis XIV, who filled his Versailles palace with courtiers who were bound to attend daily social events in his room.

The aristocracy had been rebelling against the growing power of the king since they had lost the right to govern and exploit large territories independently of the monarch. The aristocrats were naturally not pleased about these changes.

By keeping the very same noblemen in his chambers under his watchful eye where he could use his powers of manipulation and careful endowment of privileges, Louis stopped the rebellion. In fact, his courtiers vied for his favor and attention.

Final Summary

The game of power is alway being played – and it always has been. You can try to ignore the game, but you can’t opt out. So your best bet is to learn the rules and play as best you can. Historically, the world has been ruled by power and conquest. Of course, much has changed in the modern era, but the importance of control and dominance has remained. By learning from the failures and victories of historical power struggles, you too can become a force with which to be reckoned – a strong contender in the game of power.

About the author

Robert Greene, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, The Art of Seduction, Mastery, and The Laws of Human Nature, is an internationally renowned expert on power strategies. He lives in Los Angeles.

Robert Greene | Website
Robert Greene | Twitter @RobertGreene
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Joost Elffers is the packaging genius behind Viking Studio’s Secret Language series, Play with Your Food, and How Are You Peeling?. He lives in New York City.

Robert Greene

Table of Contents



Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this multi-million-copy New York Times bestseller is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control – from the author of The Laws of Human Nature.

In the book that People magazine proclaimed “beguiling” and “fascinating,” Robert Greene and Joost Elffers have distilled three thousand years of the history of power into 48 essential laws by drawing from the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz and also from the lives of figures ranging from Henry Kissinger to P.T. Barnum.

Some laws teach the need for prudence (“Law 1: Never Outshine the Master”), others teach the value of confidence (“Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness”), and many recommend absolute self-preservation (“Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally”). Every law, though, has one thing in common: an interest in total domination. In a bold and arresting two-color package, The 48 Laws of Power is ideal whether your aim is conquest, self-defense, or simply to understand the rules of the game.


A moral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this piercing work distills three thousand years of the history of power into forty-eight well-explicated laws. As attention-grabbing in its design as it is in its content, this bold volume outlines the laws of power in their unvarnished essence, synthesizing the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun-tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and other great thinkers. Some laws require prudence (“Law 1: Never Outshine the Master”), some stealth (“Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions”), and some the total absence of mercy (“Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally”) but like it or not, all have applications in real-life situations. Illustrated through the tactics of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry Kissinger, P. T. Barnum, and other famous figures who have wielded — or been victimized by — power, these laws will fascinate any reader interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control.


“Machiavelli has a new rival. And Sun Tzu had better watch his back. Greene . . . has put together a checklist of ambitious behavior. Just reading the table of contents is enough to stir a little corner-office lust.”—New York magazine

“Beguiling . . . literate . . . fascinating. A wry primer for people who desperately want to be on top.”—People magazine

“An heir to Machiavelli’s Prince . . . gentler souls will find this book frightening, those whose moral compass is oriented solely to power will have a perfect vade mecum.” —Publishers Weekly

“Satisfyingly dense and . . . literary, with fantastic examples of genius power-game players. It’s The Rules meets In Pursuit of Wow! with a degree in comparative literature.”—Allure

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Book Summary: The 48 Laws of Power

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The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us—when we feel helpless we feel miserable. No one wants less power; everyone wants more. In the world today, however, it is dangerous to seem too power hungry, to be overt with your power moves. We have to seem fair and decent. So we need to be subtle—congenial yet cunning, democratic yet devious.

This game of constant duplicity most resembles the power dynamic that existed in the scheming world of the old aristocratic court. Throughout history, a court has always formed itself around the person in power—king, queen, emperor, leader. The courtiers who filled this court were in an especially delicate position: They had to serve their masters, but if they seemed to fawn, if they curried favor too obviously, the other courtiers around them would notice and would act against them. Attempts to win the master’s favor, then, had to be subtle. And even skilled courtiers capable of such subtlety still had to protect themselves from their fellow courtiers, who at all moments were scheming to push them aside.

Meanwhile the court was supposed to represent the height of civilization and refinement. Violent or overt power moves were frowned upon; courtiers would work silently and secretly against any among them who used force. This was the courtier’s dilemma: While appearing the very paragon of elegance, they had to outwit and thwart their own opponents in the subtlest of ways. The successful courtier learned over time to make all of his moves indirect; if he stabbed an opponent in the back, it was with a velvet glove on his hand and the sweetest of smiles on his face. Instead of using coercion or outright treachery, the perfect courtier got his way through seduction, charm, deception, and subtle strategy, always planning several moves ahead. Life in the court was a never-ending game that required constant vigilance and tactical thinking. It was civilized war.

Today we face a peculiarly similar paradox to that of the courtier: Everything must appear civilized, decent, democratic, and fair. But if we play by those rules too strictly, if we take them too literally, we are crushed by those around us who are not so foolish. As the great Renaissance diplomat and courtier Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, “Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.” The court imagined itself the pinnacle of refinement, but underneath its glittering surface a cauldron of dark emotions—greed, envy, lust, hatred—boiled and simmered. Our world today similarly imagines itself the pinnacle of fairness, yet the same ugly emotions still stir within us, as they have forever. The game is the same. Outwardly, you must seem to respect the niceties, but inwardly, unless you are a fool, you learn quickly to be prudent, and to do as Napoleon advised: Place your iron hand inside a velvet glove. If, like the courtier of times gone by, you can master the arts of indirection, learning to seduce, charm, deceive, and subtly outmaneuver your opponents, you will attain the heights of power. You will be able to make people bend to your will without their realizing what you have done. And if they do not realize what you have done, they will neither resent nor resist you.

Courts are, unquestionably, the seats of politeness and good breeding; were they not so, they would be the seats of slaughter and desolation. Those who now smile upon and embrace, would affront and stab, each other, if manners did not interpose….


To some people the notion of consciously playing power games—no matter how indirect—seems evil, asocial, a relic of the past. They believe they can opt out of the game by behaving in ways that have nothing to do with power. You must beware of such people, for while they express such opinions outwardly, they are often among the most adept players at power. They utilize strategies that cleverly disguise the nature of the manipulation involved. These types, for example, will often display their weakness and lack of power as a kind of moral virtue. But true powerlessness, without any motive of self-interest, would not publicize its weakness to gain sympathy or respect. Making a show of one’s weakness is actually a very effective strategy, subtle and deceptive, in the game of power (see Law 22, the Surrender Tactic).

There is nothing very odd about lambs disliking birds of prey, but this is no reason for holding it against large birds of prey that they carry off lambs. And when the lambs whisper among themselves, “These birds of prey are evil, and does this not give us a right to say that whatever is the opposite of a bird of prey must be good?” there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an argument—though the birds of prey will look somewhat quizzically and say, “We have nothing against these good lambs; in fact, we love them; nothing tastes better than a tender lamb.”


Another strategy of the supposed nonplayer is to demand equality in every area of life. Everyone must be treated alike, whatever their status and strength. But if, to avoid the taint of power, you attempt to treat everyone equally and fairly, you will confront the problem that some people do certain things better than others. Treating everyone equally means ignoring their differences, elevating the less skillful and suppressing those who excel. Again, many of those who behave this way are actually deploying another power strategy, redistributing people’s rewards in a way that they determine.

Yet another way of avoiding the game would be perfect honesty and straightforwardness, since one of the main techniques of those who seek power is deceit and secrecy. But being perfectly honest will inevitably hurt and insult a great many people, some of whom will choose to injure you in return. No one will see your honest statement as completely objective and free of some personal motivation. And they will be right: In truth, the use of honesty is indeed a power strategy, intended to convince people of one’s noble, good-hearted, selfless character. It is a form of persuasion, even a subtle form of coercion.

Finally, those who claim to be nonplayers may affect an air of naïveté, to protect them from the accusation that they are after power. Beware again, however, for the appearance of naivete can be an effective means of deceit (see Law 21, Seem Dumber Than Your Mark). And even genuine naivete is not free of the snares of power. Children may be naive in many ways, but they often act from an elemental need to gain control over those around them. Children suffer greatly from feeling powerless in the adult world, and they use any means available to get their way. Genuinely innocent people may still be playing for power, and are often horribly effective at the game, since they are not hindered by reflection. Once again, those who make a show or display of innocence are the least innocent of all.

The only means to gain one’s ends with people are force and cunning. Love also, they say; but that is to wait for sunshine, and life needs every moment.


You can recognize these supposed nonplayers by the way they flaunt their moral qualities, their piety, their exquisite sense of justice. But since all of us hunger for power, and almost all of our actions are aimed at gaining it, the nonplayers are merely throwing dust in our eyes, distracting us from their power plays with their air of moral superiority. If you observe them closely, you will see in fact that they are often the ones most skillful at indirect manipulation, even if some of them practice it unconsciously. And they greatly resent any publicizing of the tactics they use every day.

The arrow shot by the archer may or may not kill a single person. But stratagems devised by a wise man can kill even babes in the womb.


If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power. In fact, the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become. By following the route of the perfect courtier (see Law 24) you learn to make others feel better about themselves, becoming a source of pleasure to them. They will grow dependent on your abilities and desirous of your presence. By mastering the 48 laws in this book, you spare others the pain that comes from bungling with power—by playing with fire without knowing its properties. If the game of power is inescapable, better to be an artist than a denier or a bungler.

Learning the game of power requires a certain way of looking at the world, a shifting of perspective. It takes effort and years of practice, for much of the game may not come naturally. Certain basic skills are required, and once you master these skills you will be able to apply the laws of power more easily.

The most important of these skills, and power’s crucial foundation, is the ability to master your emotions. An emotional response to a situation is the single greatest barrier to power, a mistake that will cost you a lot more than any temporary satisfaction you might gain by expressing your feelings. Emotions cloud reason, and if you cannot see the situation clearly, you cannot prepare for and respond to it with any degree of control.

Anger is the most destructive of emotional responses, for it clouds your vision the most. It also has a ripple effect that invariably makes situations less controllable and heightens your enemy’s resolve. If you are trying to destroy an enemy who has hurt you, far better to keep him off-guard by feigning friendliness than showing your anger.

Love and affection are also potentially destructive, in that they blind you to the often self-serving interests of those whom you least suspect of playing a power game. You cannot repress anger or love, or avoid feeling them, and you should not try. But you should be careful about how you express them, and most important, they should never influence your plans and strategies in any way.

Related to mastering your emotions is the ability to distance yourself from the present moment and think objectively about the past and future. Like Janus, the double-faced Roman deity and guardian of all gates and doorways, you must be able to look in both directions at once, the better to handle danger from wherever it comes. Such is the face you must create for yourself-one face looking continuously to the future and the other to the past.

I thought to myself with what means, with what deceptions, with how many varied arts, with what industry a man sharpens his wits to deceive another, and through these variations the world is made more beautiful.


For the future, the motto is, “No days unalert.” Nothing should catch you by surprise because you are constantly imagining problems before they arise. Instead of spending your time dreaming of your plan’s happy ending, you must work on calculating every possible permutation and pitfall that might emerge in it. The further you see, the more steps ahead you plan, the more powerful you become.

The other face of Janus looks constantly to the past—though not to remember past hurts or bear grudges. That would only curb your power. Half of the game is learning how to forget those events in the past that eat away at you and cloud your reason. The real purpose of the backward-glancing eye is to educate yourself constantly—you look at the past to learn from those who came before you. (The many historical examples in this book will greatly help that process.) Then, having looked to the past, you look closer at hand, to your own actions and those of your friends. This is the most vital school you can learn from, because it comes from personal experience.

There are no principles; there are only events. There is no good and bad, there are only circumstances. The superior man espouses events and circumstances in order to guide them. If there were principles and fixed laws, nations would not change them as we change our shirts and a man can not be expected to be wiser than an entire nation.


You begin by examining the mistakes you have made in the past, the ones that have most grievously held you back. You analyze them in terms of the 48 laws of power, and you extract from them a lesson and an oath: “I shall never repeat such a mistake; I shall never fall into such a trap again.” If you can evaluate and observe yourself in this way, you can learn to break the patterns of the past—an immensely valuable skill.

Power requires the ability to play with appearances. To this end you must learn to wear many masks and keep a bag full of deceptive tricks. Deception and masquerade should not be seen as ugly or immoral. All human interaction requires deception on many levels, and in some ways what separates humans from animals is our ability to lie and deceive. In Greek myths, in India’s Mahabharata cycle, in the Middle Eastern epic of Gilga mesh, it is the privilege of the gods to use deceptive arts; a great man, Odysseus for instance, was judged by his ability to rival the craftiness of the gods, stealing some of their divine power by matching them in wits and deception. Deception is a developed art of civilization and the most potent weapon in the game of power.

You cannot succeed at deception unless you take a somewhat distanced approach to yourself—unless you can be many different people, wearing the mask that the day and the moment require. With such a flexible approach to all appearances, including your own, you lose a lot of the inward heaviness that holds people down. Make your face as malleable as the actor’s, work to conceal your intentions from others, practice luring people into traps. Playing with appearances and mastering arts of deception are among the aesthetic pleasures of life. They are also key components in the acquisition of power.

If deception is the most potent weapon in your arsenal, then patience in all things is your crucial shield. Patience will protect you from making moronic blunders. Like mastering your emotions, patience is a skill—it does not come naturally. But nothing about power is natural; power is more godlike than anything in the natural world. And patience is the supreme virtue of the gods, who have nothing but time. Everything good will happen—the grass will grow again, if you give it time and see several steps into the future. Impatience, on the other hand, only makes you look weak. It is a principal impediment to power.

Power is essentially amoral and one of the most important skills to acquire is the ability to see circumstances rather than good or evil. Power is a game—this cannot be repeated too often—and in games you do not judge your opponents by their intentions but by the effect of their actions. You measure their strategy and their power by what you can see and feel. How often are someone’s intentions made the issue only to cloud and deceive! What does it matter if another player, your friend or rival, intended good things and had only your interests at heart, if the effects of his action lead to so much ruin and confusion? It is only natural for people to cover up their actions with all kinds of justifications, always assuming that they have acted out of goodness. You must learn to inwardly laugh each time you hear this and never get caught up in gauging someone’s intentions and actions through a set of moral judgments that are really an excuse for the accumulation of power.

It is a game. Your opponent sits opposite you. Both of you behave as gentlemen or ladies, observing the rules of the game and taking nothing personally. You play with a strategy and you observe your opponent’s moves with as much calmness as you can muster. In the end, you will appreciate the politeness of those you are playing with more than their good and sweet intentions. Train your eye to follow the results of their moves, the outward circumstances, and do not be distracted by anything else.

Half of your mastery of power comes from what you do not do, what you do not allow yourself to get dragged into. For this skill you must learn to judge all things by what they cost you. As Nietzsche wrote, “The value of a thing sometimes lies not in what one attains with it, but in what one pays for it—what it costs us.” Perhaps you will attain your goal, and a worthy goal at that, but at what price? Apply this standard to everything, including whether to collaborate with other people or come to their aid. In the end, life is short, opportunities are few, and you have only so much energy to draw on. And in this sense time is as important a consideration as any other. Never waste valuable time, or mental peace of mind, on the affairs of others—that is too high a price to pay.

Power is a social game. To learn and master it, you must develop the ability to study and understand people. As the great seventeenth-century thinker and courtier Baltasar Gracián wrote: “Many people spend time studying the properties of animals or herbs; how much more important it would be to study those of people, with whom we must live or die!” To be a master player you must also be a master psychologist. You must recognize motivations and see through the cloud of dust with which people surround their actions. An understanding of people’s hidden motives is the single greatest piece of knowledge you can have in acquiring power. It opens up endless possibilities of deception, seduction, and manipulation.

People are of infinite complexity and you can spend a lifetime watching them without ever fully understanding them. So it is all the more important, then, to begin your education now. In doing so you must also keep one principle in mind: Never discriminate as to whom you study and whom you trust. Never trust anyone completely and study everyone, including friends and loved ones.

Finally, you must learn always to take the indirect route to power. Disguise your cunning. Like a billiard ball that caroms several times before it hits its target, your moves must be planned and developed in the least obvious way. By training yourself to be indirect, you can thrive in the modern court, appearing the paragon of decency while being the consummate manipulator.

Consider The 48 Laws of Power a kind of handbook on the arts of indirection. The laws are based on the writings of men and women who have studied and mastered the game of power. These writings span a period of more than three thousand years and were created in civilizations as disparate as ancient China and Renaissance Italy; yet they share common threads and themes, together hinting at an essence of power that has yet to be fully articulated. The 48 laws of power are the distillation of this accumulated wisdom, gathered from the writings of the most illustrious strategists (Sun-tzu, Clausewitz), statesmen (Bismarck, Talleyrand), courtiers (Castiglione, Gracián), seducers (Ninon de Lenclos, Casanova), and con artists (“Yellow Kid” Weil) in history.

The laws have a simple premise: Certain actions almost always increase one’s power (the observance of the law), while others decrease it and even ruin us (the transgression of the law). These transgressions and observances are illustrated by historical examples. The laws are timeless and definitive.

The 48 Laws of Power can be used in several ways. By reading the book straight through you can learn about power in general. Although several of the laws may seem not to pertain directly to your life, in time you will probably find that all of them have some application, and that in fact they are interrelated. By getting an overview of the entire subject you will best be able to evaluate your own past actions and gain a greater degree of control over your immediate affairs. A thorough reading of the book will inspire thinking and reevaluation long after you finish it.

The book has also been designed for browsing and for examining the law that seems at that particular moment most pertinent to you. Say you are experiencing problems with a superior and cannot understand why your efforts have not lead to more gratitude or a promotion. Several laws specifically address the master-underling relationship, and you are almost certainly transgressing one of them. By browsing the initial paragraphs for the 48 laws in the table of contents, you can identify the pertinent law.

Finally, the book can be browsed through and picked apart for entertainment, for an enjoyable ride through the foibles and great deeds of our predecessors in power. A warning, however, to those who use the book for this purpose: It might be better to turn back. Power is endlessly seductive and deceptive in its own way. It is a labyrinth—your mind becomes consumed with solving its infinite problems, and you soon realize how pleasantly lost you have become. In other words, it becomes most amusing by taking it seriously. Do not be frivolous with such a critical matter. The gods of power frown on the frivolous; they give ultimate satisfaction only to those who study and reflect, and punish those who skim the surfaces looking for a good time.

Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.

THE PRINCE, Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527




Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite—inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.


Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s finance minister in the first years of his reign, was a generous man who loved lavish parties, pretty women, and poetry. He also loved money, for he led an extravagant lifestyle. Fouquet was clever and very much indispensable to the king, so when the prime minister, Jules Mazarin, died, in 1661, the finance minister expected to be named the successor. Instead, the king decided to abolish the position. This and other signs made Fouquet suspect that he was falling out of favor, and so he decided to ingratiate himself with the king by staging the most spectacular party the world had ever seen. The party’s ostensible purpose would be to commemorate the completion of Fouquet’s château, Vaux-le-Vicomte, but its real function was to pay tribute to the king, the guest of honor.

The most brilliant nobility of Europe and some of the greatest minds of the time—La Fontaine, La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Sévigné attended the party. Molière wrote a play for the occasion, in which he himself was to perform at the evening’s conclusion. The party began with a lavish seven-course dinner, featuring foods from the Orient never before tasted in France, as well as new dishes created especially for the night. The meal was accompanied with music commissioned by Fouquet to honor the king.

After dinner there was a promenade through the château’s gardens. The grounds and fountains of Vaux-le-Vicomte were to be the inspiration for Versailles.

Fouquet personally accompanied the young king through the geometrically aligned arrangements of shrubbery and flower beds. Arriving at the gardens’ canals, they witnessed a fireworks display, which was followed by the performance of Molière’s play. The party ran well into the night and everyone agreed it was the most amazing affair they had ever attended.

The next day, Fouquet was arrested by the king’s head musketeer, D’Artagnan. Three months later he went on trial for stealing from the country’s treasury. (Actually, most of the stealing he was accused of he had done on the king’s behalf and with the king’s permission.) Fouquet was found guilty and sent to the most isolated prison in France, high in the Pyrenees Mountains, where he spent the last twenty years of his life in solitary confinement.


Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a proud and arrogant man who wanted to be the center of attention at all times; he could not countenance being outdone in lavishness by anyone, and certainly not his finance minister. To succeed Fouquet, Louis chose Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a man famous for his parsimony and for giving the dullest parties in Paris. Colbert made sure that any money liberated from the treasury went straight into Louis’s hands. With the money, Louis built a palace even more magnificent than Fouquet’s—the glorious palace of Versailles. He used the same architects, decorators, and garden designer. And at Versailles, Louis hosted parties even more extravagant than the one that cost Fouquet his freedom.

Let us examine the situation. The evening of the party, as Fouquet presented spectacle on spectacle to Louis, each more magnificent than the one before, he imagined the affair as demonstrating his loyalty and devotion to the king. Not only did he think the party would put him back in the king’s favor, he thought it would show his good taste, his connections, and his popularity, making him indispensable to the king and demonstrating that he would make an excellent prime minister. Instead, however, each new spectacle, each appreciative smile bestowed by the guests on Fouquet, made it seem to Louis that his own friends and subjects were more charmed by the finance minister than by the king himself, and that Fouquet was actually flaunting his wealth and power. Rather than flattering Louis XIV, Fouquet’s elaborate party offended the king’s vanity. Louis would not admit this to anyone, of course—instead, he found a convenient excuse to rid himself of a man who had inadvertently made him feel insecure.

Such is the fate, in some form or other, of all those who unbalance the master’s sense of self, poke holes in his vanity, or make him doubt his pre-eminence.

When the evening began, Fouquet was at the top of the world.
By the time it had ended, he was at the bottom.
Voltaire, 1694-1778


In the early 1600s, the Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo found himself in a precarious position. He depended on the generosity of great rulers to support his research, and so, like all Renaissance scientists, he would sometimes make gifts of his inventions and discoveries to the leading patrons of the time. Once, for instance, he presented a military compass he had invented to the Duke of Gonzaga. Then he dedicated a book explaining the use of the compass to the Medicis. Both rulers were grateful, and through them Galileo was able to find more students to teach. No matter how great the discovery, however, his patrons usually paid him with gifts, not cash. This made for a life of constant insecurity and dependence. There must be an easier way, he thought.

Galileo hit on a new strategy in 1610, when he discovered the moons of Jupiter. Instead of dividing the discovery among his patrons—giving one the telescope he had used, dedicating a book to another, and so on—as he had done in the past, he decided to focus exclusively on the Medicis. He chose the Medicis for one reason: Shortly after Cosimo I had established the Medici dynasty, in 1540, he had made Jupiter, the mightiest of the gods, the Medici symbol—a symbol of a power that went beyond politics and banking, one linked to ancient Rome and its divinities.

Galileo turned his discovery of Jupiter’s moons into a cosmic event honoring the Medicis’ greatness. Shortly after the discovery, he announced that “the bright stars [the moons of Jupiter] offered themselves in the heavens” to his telescope at the same time as Cosimo II’s enthronement. He said that the number of the moons—four—harmonized with the number of the Medicis (Cosimo II had three brothers) and that the moons orbited Jupiter as these four sons revolved around Cosimo I, the dynasty’s founder. More than coincidence, this showed that the heavens themselves reflected the ascendancy of the Medici family. After he dedicated the discovery to the Medicis, Galileo commissioned an emblem representing Jupiter sitting on a cloud with the four stars circling about him, and presented this to Cosimo II as a symbol of his link to the stars.

In 1610 Cosimo II made Galileo his official court philosopher and mathematician, with a full salary. For a scientist this was the coup of a lifetime. The days of begging for patronage were over.


In one stroke, Galileo gained more with his new strategy than he had in years of begging. The reason is simple: All masters want to appear more brilliant than other people.

They do not care about science or empirical truth or the latest invention ; they care about their name and their glory. Galileo gave the Medicis infinitely more glory by linking their name with cosmic forces than he had by making them the patrons of some new scientific gadget or discovery.

Scientists are not spared the vagaries of court life and patronage. They too must serve masters who hold the purse strings. And their great intellectual powers can make the master feel insecure, as if he were only there to supply the funds—an ugly, ignoble job. The producer of a great work wants to feel he is more than just the provider of the financing. He wants to appear creative and powerful, and also more important than the work produced in his name. Instead of insecurity you must give him glory. Galileo did not challenge the intellectual authority of the Medicis with his discovery, or make them feel inferior in any way; by literally aligning them with the stars, he made them shine brilliantly among the courts of Italy. He did not outshine the master, he made the master outshine all others.


Everyone has insecurities. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents, you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity. This is to be expected. You cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others. With those above you, however, you must take a different approach: When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that life has changed much since the days of Louis XIV and the Medicis. Those who attain high standing in life are like kings and queens: They want to feel secure in their positions, and superior to those around them in intelligence, wit, and charm. It is a deadly but common misperception to believe that by displaying and vaunting your gifts and talents, you are winning the master’s affection. He may feign appreciation, but at his first opportunity he will replace you with someone less intelligent, less attractive, less threatening, just as Louis XIV replaced the sparkling Fouquet with the bland Colbert. And as with Louis, he will not admit the truth, but will find an excuse to rid himself of your presence.

This Law involves two rules that you must realize. First, you can inadvertently outshine a master simply by being yourself. There are masters who are more insecure than others, monstrously insecure; you may naturally outshine them by your charm and grace.

No one had more natural talents than Astorre Manfredi, prince of Faenza. The most handsome of all the young princes of Italy, he captivated his subjects with his generosity and open spirit.

In the year 1500, Cesare Borgia laid siege to Faenza. When the city surrendered, the citizens expected the worst from the cruel Borgia, who, however, decided to spare the town: He simply occupied its fortress, executed none of its citizens, and allowed Prince Manfredi, eighteen at the time, to remain with his court, in complete freedom.

A few weeks later, though, soldiers hauled Astorre Manfredi away to a Roman prison. A year after that, his body was fished out of the River Tiber, a stone tied around his neck. Borgia justified the horrible deed with some sort of trumped-up charge of treason and conspiracy, but the real problem was that he was notoriously vain and insecure. The young man was outshining him without even trying. Given Manfredi’s natural talents, the prince’s mere presence made Borgia seem less attractive and charismatic. The lesson is simple: If you cannot help being charming and superior, you must learn to avoid such monsters of vanity. Either that, or find a way to mute your good qualities when in the company of a Cesare Borgia.

Second, never imagine that because the master loves you, you can do anything you want. Entire books could be written about favorites who fell out of favor by taking their status for granted, for daring to outshine. In late-sixteenth-century Japan, the favorite of Emperor Hideyoshi was a man called Sen no Rikyu. The premier artist of the tea ceremony, which had become an obsession with the nobility, he was one of Hideyoshi’s most trusted advisers, had his own apartment in the palace, and was honored throughout Japan. Yet in 1591, Hideyoshi had him arrested and sentenced to death. Rikyu took his own life, instead. The cause for his sudden change of fortune was discovered later: It seems that Rikyu, former peasant and later court favorite, had had a wooden statue made of himself wearing sandals (a sign of nobility) and posing loftily. He had had this statue placed in the most important temple inside the palace gates, in clear sight of the royalty who often would pass by. To Hideyoshi this signified that Rikyu had no sense of limits. Presuming that he had the same rights as those of the highest nobility, he had forgotten that his position depended on the emperor, and had come to believe that he had earned it on his own. This was an unforgivable miscalculation of his own importance and he paid for it with his life. Remember the following: Never take your position for granted and never let any favors you receive go to your head.

Knowing the dangers of outshining your master, you can turn this Law to your advantage. First you must flatter and puff up your master. Overt flattery can be effective but has its limits; it is too direct and obvious, and looks bad to other courtiers. Discreet flattery is much more powerful. If you are more intelligent than your master, for example, seem the opposite: Make him appear more intelligent than you. Act naive. Make it seem that you need his expertise. Commit harmless mistakes that will not hurt you in the long run but will give you the chance to ask for his help. Masters adore such requests. A master who cannot bestow on you the gifts of his experience may direct rancor and ill will at you instead.

If your ideas are more creative than your master’s, ascribe them to him, in as public a manner as possible. Make it clear that your advice is merely an echo of his advice.

If you surpass your master in wit, it is okay to play the role of the court jester, but do not make him appear cold and surly by comparison. Tone down your humor if necessary, and find ways to make him seem the dispenser of amusement and good cheer. If you are naturally more sociable and generous than your master, be careful not to be the cloud that blocks his radiance from others. He must appear as the sun around which everyone revolves, radiating power and brilliance, the center of attention. If you are thrust into the position of entertaining him, a display of your limited means may win you his sympathy. Any attempt to impress him with your grace and generosity can prove fatal: Learn from Fouquet or pay the price.

In all of these cases it is not a weakness to disguise your strengths if in the end they lead to power. By letting others outshine you, you remain in control, instead of being a victim of their insecurity. This will all come in handy the day you decide to rise above your inferior status. If, like Galileo, you can make your master shine even more in the eyes of others, then you are a godsend and you will be instantly promoted.

The Stars in the
Sky. There can be only
one sun at a time. Never
obscure the sunlight, or
rival the sun’s brilliance;
rather, fade into the sky and
find ways to heighten
the master star’s

Authority: Avoid outshining the master. All superiority is odious, but the superiority of a subject over his prince is not only stupid, it is fatal. This is a lesson that the stars in the sky teach us—they may be related to the sun, and just as brilliant, but they never appear in her company. (Baltasar Gracián, 1601-1658)


You cannot worry about upsetting every person you come across, but you must be selectively cruel. If your superior is a falling star, there is nothing to fear from outshining him. Do not be merciful—your master had no such scruples in his own cold-blooded climb to the top. Gauge his strength. If he is weak, discreetly hasten his downfall: Outdo, outcharm, outsmart him at key moments. If he is very weak and ready to fall, let nature take its course. Do not risk outshining a feeble superior—it might appear cruel or spiteful. But if your master is firm in his position, yet you know yourself to be the more capable, bide your time and be patient. It is the natural course of things that power eventually fades and weakens. Your master will fall someday, and if you play it right, you will outlive and someday outshine him.




Be wary of friends—they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies. If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.


In the mid-ninth century A.D., a young man named Michael III assumed the throne of the Byzantine Empire. His mother, the Empress Theodora, had been banished to a nunnery, and her lover, Theoctistus, had been murdered ; at the head of the conspiracy to depose Theodora and enthrone Michael had been Michael’s uncle, Bardas, a man of intelligence and ambition. Michael was now a young, inexperienced ruler, surrounded by intriguers, murderers, and profligates. In this time of peril he needed someone he could trust as his councillor, and his thoughts turned to Basilius, his best friend. Basilius had no experience whatsoever in government and politics—in fact, he was the head of the royal stables—but he had proven his love and gratitude time and again.

To have a good enemy, choose a friend: He knows where to strike.


They had met a few years before, when Michael had been visiting the stables just as a wild horse got loose. Basilius, a young groom from peasant Macedonian stock, had saved Michael’s life. The groom’s strength and courage had impressed Michael, who immediately raised Basilius from the obscurity of being a horse trainer to the position of head of the stables. He loaded his friend with gifts and favors and they became inseparable. Basilius was sent to the finest school in Byzantium, and the crude peasant became a cultured and sophisticated courtier.

Every time I bestow a vacant office I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.

Louis XIV, 1638-1715

Now Michael was emperor, and in need of someone loyal. Who could he better trust with the post of chamberlain and chief councillor than a young man who owed him everything?

Basilius could be trained for the job and Michael loved him like a brother. Ignoring the advice of those who recommended the much more qualified Bardas, Michael chose his friend.

Thus for my own part I have more than once been deceived by the person I loved most and of whose love, above everyone else’s, I have been most confident. So that I believe that it may be right to love and serve one person above all others, according to merit and worth, but never to trust so much in this tempting trap of friendship as to have cause to repent of it later on.


Basilius learned well and was soon advising the emperor on all matters of state. The only problem seemed to be money—Basiiius never had enough. Exposure to the splendor of Byzantine court life made him avaricious for the perks of power. Michael doubled, then tripled his salary, ennobled him, and married him off to his own mistress, Eudoxiaingerina. Keeping such a trusted friend and adviser satisfied was worth any price. But more trouble was to come. Bardas was now head of the army, and Basilius convinced Michael that the man was hopelessly ambitious. Under the illusion that he could control his nephew, Bardas had conspired to put him on the throne, and he could conspire again, this time to get rid of Michael and assume the crown himself. Basilius poured poison into Michael’s ear until the emperor agreed to have his uncle murdered. During a great horse race, Basilius closed in on Bardas in the crowd and stabbed him to death. Soon after, Basilius asked that he replace Bardas as head of the army, where he could keep control of the realm and quell rebellion. This was granted.

Now Basilius’s power and wealth only grew, and a few years later Michael, in financial straits from his own extravagance, asked him to pay back some of the money he had borrowed over the years. To Michael’s shock and astonishment, Basilius refused, with a look of such impudence that the emperor suddenly realized his predicament: The former stable boy had more money, more allies in the army and senate, and in the end more power than the emperor himself. A few weeks later, after a night of heavy drinking, Michael awoke to find himself surrounded by soldiers. Basilius watched as they stabbed the emperor to death. Then, after proclaiming himself emperor, he rode his horse through the streets of Byzantium, brandishing the head of his former benefactor and best friend at the end of a long pike.


A snake chased by hunters asked a farmer to save its life. To hide it from its pursuers, the farmer squatted and let the snake crawl into his belly. But when the danger had passed and the farmer asked the snake to come out, the snake refused. It was warm and safe inside. On his way home, the man saw a heron and went up to him and whispered what had happened. The heron told him to squat and strain to eject the snake. When the snake snuck its head out, the heron caught it, pulled it out, and killed it. The farmer was worried that the snake’s poison might still be inside him, and the heron told him that the cure for snake poison was to cook and eat six white fowl. “You’re a white fowl,” said the farmer. “You’ll do for a start.” He grabbed the heron, put it in a bag, and carried it home, where he hung it up while he told his wife what had happened. “I’m surprised at you, ” said the wife. “The bird does you a kindness, rids you of the evil in your belly, saves your life in fact, yet you catch it and talk of killing it. She immediately released the heron, and it flew away. But on its way, it gouged out her eyes.

Moral: When you see water flowing uphill, it means that someone is repaying a kindness.



Michael III staked his future on the sense of gratitude he thought Basilius must feel for him. Surely Basilius would serve him best; he owed the emperor his wealth, his education, and his position. Then, once Basilius was in power, anything he needed it was best to give to him, strengthening the bonds between the two men. It was only on the fateful day when the emperor saw that impudent smile on Basilius’s face that he realized his deadly mistake.

He had created a monster. He had allowed a man to see power up close—a man who then wanted more, who asked for anything and got it, who felt encumbered by the charity he had received and simply did what many people do in such a situation: They forget the favors they have received and imagine they have earned their success by their own merits.

At Michael’s moment of realization, he could still have saved his own life, but friendship and love blind every man to their interests. Nobody believes a friend can betray. And Michael went on disbelieving until the day his head ended up on a pike.

Lord, protect me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies.

Voltaire, 1694-1778


For several centuries after the fall of the Han Dynasty (A.D. 222), Chinese history followed the same pattern of violent and bloody coups, one after the other. Army men would plot to kill a weak emperor, then would replace him on the Dragon Throne with a strong general. The general would start a new dynasty and crown himself emperor; to ensure his own survival he would kill off his fellow generals. A few years later, however, the pattern would resume: New generals would rise up and assassinate him or his sons in their turn. To be emperor of China was to be alone, surrounded by a pack of enemies—it was the least powerful, least secure position in the realm.

In A.D. 959, General Chao K’uang-yin became Emperor Sung. He knew the odds, the probability that within a year or two he would be murdered ; how could he break the pattern? Soon after becoming emperor, Sung ordered a banquet to celebrate the new dynasty, and invited the most powerful commanders in the army. After they had drunk much wine, he dismissed the guards and everybody else except the generals, who now feared he would murder them in one fell swoop. Instead, he addressed them: “The whole day is spent in fear, and I am unhappy both at the table and in my bed. For which one of you does not dream of ascending the throne? I do not doubt your allegiance, but if by some chance your subordinates, seeking wealth and position, were to force the emperor’s yellow robe upon you in turn, how could you refuse it?” Drunk and fearing for their lives, the generals proclaimed their innocence and their loyalty. But Sung had other ideas: “The best way to pass one’s days is in peaceful enjoyment of riches and honor. If you are willing to give up your commands, I am ready to provide you with fine estates and beautiful dwellings where you may take your pleasure with singers and girls as your companions.”

The astonished generals realized that instead of a life of anxiety and struggle Sung was offering them riches and security. The next day, all of the generals tendered their resignations, and they retired as nobles to the estates that Sung bestowed on them.

There are many who think therefore that a wise prince ought, when he has the chance, to foment astutely some enmity, so that by suppressing it he will augment his greatness. Princes, and especially new ones, have found more faith and more usefulness in those men, whom at the beginning of their power they regarded with suspicion, than in those they at first confided in. Pandolfo Petrucci, prince of Siena, governed his state more by those whom he suspected than by others.


In one stroke, Sung turned a pack of “friendly” wolves, who would likely have betrayed him, into a group of docile lambs, far from all power.

Over the next few years Sung continued his campaign to secure his rule. In A.D. 971, King Liu of the Southern Han finally surrendered to him after years of rebellion. To Liu’s astonishment, Sung gave him a rank in the imperial court and invited him to the palace to seal their newfound friendship with wine. As King Liu took the glass that Sung offered him, he hesitated, fearing it contained poison. “Your subject’s crimes certainly merit death,” he cried out, “but I beg Your Majesty to spare your subject’s life. Indeed I dare not drink this wine.” Emperor Sung laughed, took the glass from Liu, and swallowed it himself. There was no poison. From then on Liu became his most trusted and loyal friend.

At the time, China had splintered into many smaller kingdoms. When Ch‘ien Shu, the king of one of these, was defeated, Sung’s ministers advised the emperor to lock this rebel up. They presented documents proving that he was still conspiring to kill Sung. When Ch’ien Shu came to visit the emperor, however, instead of locking him up, Sung honored him. He also gave him a package, which he told the former king to open when he was halfway home. Ch’ien Shu opened the bundle on his return journey and saw that it contained all the papers documenting his conspiracy. He realized that Sung knew of his murderous plans, yet had spared him nonetheless. This generosity won him over, and he too became one of Sung’s most loyal vassals.

A brahman, a great expert in Veda who has become a great archer as well, offers his services to his good friend, who is now the king. The brahman cries out when he sees the king, “Recognize me, your friend!” The king answers him with contempt and then explains: “Yes, we were friends before, but our friendship was based on what power we had…. I was friends with you, good brahman, because it served my purpose. No pauper is friend to the rich, no fool to the wise, no coward to the brave. An old friend—who needs him? It is two men of equal wealth and equal birth who contract friendship and marriage, not a rich man and a pauper…. An old friend—who needs him?



A Chinese proverb compares friends to the jaws and teeth of a dangerous animal: If you are not careful, you will find them chewing you up. Emperor Sung knew the jaws he was passing between when he assumed the throne: His “friends” in the army would chew him up like meat, and if he somehow survived, his “friends” in the government would have him for supper. Emperor Sung would have no truck with “friends”—he bribed his fellow generals with splendid estates and kept them far away. This was a much better way to emasculate them than killing them, which would only have led other generals to seek vengeance. And Sung would have nothing to do with “friendly” ministers. More often than not, they would end up drinking his famous cup of poisoned wine.

Instead of relying on friends, Sung used his enemies, one after the other, transforming them into far more reliable subjects. While a friend expects more and more favors, and seethes with jealousy, these former enemies expected nothing and got everything. A man suddenly spared the guillotine is a grateful man indeed, and will go to the ends of the earth for the man who has pardoned him. In time, these former enemies became Sung’s most trusted friends.

Pick up a bee from kindness, and learn the limitations of kindness.


And Sung was finally able to break the pattern of coups, violence, and civil war—the Sung Dynasty ruled China for more than three hundred years.

In a speech Abraham Lincoln delivered at the height of the Civil War,
he referred to the Southerners as fellow human beings who were in
error. An elderly lady chastised him for not calling them irreconcilable
enemies who must be destroyed. “Why, madam,” Lincoln replied,
“do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”


It is natural to want to employ your friends when you find yourself in times of need. The world is a harsh place, and your friends soften the harshness. Besides, you know them. Why depend on a stranger when you have a friend at hand?

Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.

TACITUS, c. A.D. 55-120

The problem is that you often do not know your friends as well as you imagine. Friends often agree on things in order to avoid an argument. They cover up their unpleasant qualities so as to not offend each other. They laugh extra hard at each other’s jokes. Since honesty rarely strengthens friendship, you may never know how a friend truly feels. Friends will say that they love your poetry, adore your music, envy your taste in clothes—maybe they mean it, often they do not.

When you decide to hire a friend, you gradually discover the qualities he or she has kept hidden. Strangely enough, it is your act of kindness that unbalances everything. People want to feel they deserve their good fortune. The receipt of a favor can become oppressive: It means you have been chosen because you are a friend, not necessarily because you are deserving. There is almost a touch of condescension in the act of hiring friends that secretly afflicts them. The injury will come out slowly: A little more honesty, flashes of resentment and envy here and there, and before you know it your friendship fades. The more favors and gifts you supply to revive the friendship, the less gratitude you receive.

Ingratitude has a long and deep history. It has demonstrated its powers for so many centuries, that it is truly amazing that people continue to underestimate them. Better to be wary. If you never expect gratitude from a friend, you will be pleasantly surprised when they do prove grateful.

The problem with using or hiring friends is that it will inevitably limit your power. The friend is rarely the one who is most able to help you; and in the end, skill and competence are far more important than friendly feelings. (Michael III had a man right under his nose who would have steered him right and kept him alive: That man was Bardas.)


King Hiero chanced upon a time, speaking with one of his enemies, to be told in a reproachful manner that he had stinking breath. Whereupon the good king, being somewhat dismayed in himself, as soon as he returned home chided his wife, “How does it happen that you never told me of this problem?” The woman, being a simple, chaste. and harmless dame, said, “Sir, I had thought all men breath had smelled so.” Thus it is plain that faults that are evident to the senses, gross and corporal, or otherwise notorious to the world, we know by our enemies sooner than by our friends and familiars.

PLUTARCH, C. A.D. 46-120

All working situations require a kind of distance between people. You are trying to work, not make friends; friendliness (real or false) only obscures that fact. The key to power, then, is the ability to judge who is best able to further your interests in all situations. Keep friends for friendship, but work with the skilled and competent.

Your enemies, on the other hand, are an untapped gold mine that you must learn to exploit. When Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, decided in 1807 that his boss was leading France to ruin, and the time had come to turn against him, he understood the dangers of conspiring against the emperor; he needed a partner, a confederate—what friend could he trust in such a project? He chose Joseph Fouché, head of the secret police, his most hated enemy, a man who had even tried to have him assassinated. He knew that their former hatred would create an opportunity for an emotional reconciliation. He knew that Fouché would expect nothing from him, and in fact would work to prove that he was worthy of Talleyrand’s choice; a person who has something to prove will move mountains for you. Finally, he knew that his relationship with Fouché would be based on mutual self-interest, and would not be contaminated by personal feeling. The selection proved perfect; although the conspirators did not succeed in toppling Napoleon, the union of such powerful but unlikely partners generated much interest in the cause; opposition to the emperor slowly began to spread. And from then on, Talleyrand and Fouché had a fruitful working relationship. Whenever you can, bury the hatchet with an enemy, and make a point of putting him in your service.

As Lincoln said, you destroy an enemy when you make a friend of him. In 1971, during the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger was the target of an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt, a conspiracy involving, among others, the renowned antiwar activist priests the Berrigan brothers, four more Catholic priests, and four nuns. In private, without informing the Secret Service or the Justice Department, Kissinger arranged a Saturday-morning meeting with three of the alleged kidnappers. Explaining to his guests that he would have most American soldiers out of Vietnam by mid-1972, he completely charmed them. They gave him some “Kidnap Kissinger” buttons and one of them remained a friend of his for years, visiting him on several occasions. This was not just a onetime ploy: Kissinger made a policy of working with those who disagreed with him. Colleagues commented that he seemed to get along better with his enemies than with his friends.

Without enemies around us, we grow lazy. An enemy at our heels sharpens our wits, keeping us focused and alert. It is sometimes better, then, to use enemies as enemies rather than transforming them into friends or allies.

Mao Tse-tung saw conflict as key in his approach to power. In 1937 the Japanese invaded China, interrupting the civil war between Mao’s Communists and their enemy, the Nationalists.

Fearing that the Japanese would wipe them out, some Communist leaders advocated leaving the Nationalists to fight the Japanese, and using the time to recuperate. Mao disagreed: The Japanese could not possibly defeat and occupy a vast country like China for long. Once they left, the Communists would have grown rusty if they had been out of combat for several years, and would be ill prepared to reopen their struggle with the Nationalists. To fight a formidable foe like the Japanese, in fact, would be the perfect training for the Communists’ ragtag army. Mao’s plan was adopted, and it worked: By the time the Japanese finally retreated, the Communists had gained the fighting experience that helped them defeat the Nationalists.

Years later, a Japanese visitor tried to apologize to Mao for his country’s invasion of China. Mao interrupted, “Should I not thank you instead?” Without a worthy opponent, he explained, a man or group cannot grow stronger.

Mao’s strategy of constant conflict has several key components. First, be certain that in the long run you will emerge victorious. Never pick a fight with someone you are not sure you can defeat, as Mao knew the Japanese would be defeated in time. Second, if you have no apparent enemies, you must sometimes set up a convenient target, even turning a friend into an enemy. Mao used this tactic time and again in politics. Third, use such enemies to define your cause more clearly to the public, even framing it as a struggle of good against evil. Mao actually encouraged China’s disagreements with the Soviet Union and the United States; without clear-cut enemies, he believed, his people would lose any sense of what Chinese Communism meant. A sharply defined enemy is a far stronger argument for your side than all the words you could possibly put together.

Never let the presence of enemies upset or distress you—you are far better off with a declared opponent or two than not knowing where your real enemies lie. The man of power welcomes conflict, using enemies to enhance his reputation as a surefooted fighter who can be relied upon in times of uncertainty.

Image: The Jaws of ingratitude. Knowing what would happen if you put a finger in the mouth of a lion, you would stay clear of it. With friends you will have no such caution, and if you hire them, they will eat you alive with ingratitude.

Authority: Know how to use enemies for your own profit. You must learn to grab a sword not by its blade, which would cut you, but by the handle, which allows you to defend yourself. The wise man profits more from his enemies, than a fool from his friends. (Baltasar Gracián, 1601-1658)


Although it is generally best not to mix work with friendship, there are times when a friend can be used to greater effect than an enemy. A man of power, for example, often has dirty work that has to be done, but for the sake of appearances it is generally preferable to have other people do it for him; friends often do this the best, since their affection for him makes them willing to take chances. Also, if your plans go awry for some reason, you can use a friend as a convenient scapegoat. This “fall of the favorite” was a trick often used by kings and sovereigns: They would let their closest friend at court take the fall for a mistake, since the public would not believe that they would deliberately sacrifice a friend for such a purpose. Of course, after you play that card, you have lost your friend forever. It is best, then, to reserve the scapegoat role for someone who is close to you but not too close.

Finally, the problem about working with friends is that it confuses the boundaries and distances that working requires. But if both partners in the arrangement understand the dangers involved, a friend often can be employed to great effect. You must never let your guard down in such a venture, however; always be on the lookout for any signs of emotional disturbance such as envy and ingratitude. Nothing is stable in the realm of power, and even the closest of friends can be transformed into the worst of enemies.




Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelop them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.


If at any point in the deception you practice people have the slightest suspicion as to your intentions, all is lost. Do not give them the chance to sense what you are up to: Throw them off the scent by dragging red herrings across the path. Use false sincerity, send ambiguous signals, set up misleading objects of desire. Unable to distinguish the genuine from the false, they cannot pick out your real goal.


Over several weeks, Ninon de Lenclos, the most infamous courtesan of seventeenth-century France, listened patiently as the Marquis de Sevigné explained his struggles in pursuing a beautiful but difficult young countess. Ninon was sixty-two at the time, and more than experienced in matters of love; the marquis was a lad of twenty-two, handsome, dashing, but hopelessly inexperienced in romance. At first Ninon was amused to hear the marquis talk about his mistakes, but finally she had had enough. Unable to bear ineptitude in any realm, least of all in seducing a woman, she decided to take the young man under her wing. First, he had to understand that this was war, and that the beautiful countess was a citadel to which he had to lay siege as carefully as any general. Every step had to be planned and executed with the utmost attention to detail and nuance.

Instructing the marquis to start over, Ninon told him to approach the countess with a bit of distance, an air of nonchalance. The next time the two were alone together, she said, he would confide in the countess as would a friend but not a potential lover. This was to throw her off the scent. The countess was no longer to take his interest in her for granted—perhaps he was only interested in friendship.

Ninon planned ahead. Once the countess was confused, it would be time to make her jealous. At the next encounter, at a major fête in Paris, the marquis would show up with a beautiful young woman at his side. This beautiful young woman had equally beautiful friends, so that wherever the countess would now see the marquis, he would be surrounded by the most stunning young women in Paris. Not only would the countess be seething with jealousy, she would come to see the marquis as someone who was desired by others. It was hard for Ninon to make the marquis understand, but she patiently explained that a woman who is interested in a man wants to see that other women are interested in him, too. Not only does that give him instant value, it makes it all the more satisfying to snatch him from their clutches.

Once the countess was jealous but intrigued, it would be time to beguile her. On Ninon’s instructions, the marquis would fail to show up at affairs where the countess expected to see him. Then, suddenly, he would appear at salons he had never frequented before, but that the countess attended often. She would be unable to predict his moves. All of this would push her into the state of emotional confusion that is a prerequisite for successful seduction.

These moves were executed, and took several weeks. Ninon monitored the marquis’s progress: Through her network of spies, she heard how the countess would laugh a little harder at his witticisms, listen more closely to his stories. She heard that the countess was suddenly asking questions about him. Her friends told her that at social affairs the countess would often look up at the marquis, following his steps. Ninon felt certain that the young woman was falling under his spell. It was a matter of weeks now, maybe a month or two, but if all went smoothly, the citadel would fall.

A few days later the marquis was at the countess’s home. They were alone. Suddenly he was a different man: This time acting on his own impulse, rather than following Ninon’s instructions, he took the countess’s hands and told her he was in love with her. The young woman seemed confused, a reaction he did not expect. She became polite, then excused herself. For the rest of the evening she avoided his eyes, was not there to say good-night to him. The next few times he visited he was told she was not at home. When she finally admitted him again, the two felt awkward and uncomfortable with each other. The spell was broken.


Ninon de Lenclos knew everything about the art of love. The greatest writers, thinkers, and politicians of the time had been her lovers—men like La Rochefoucauld, Molière, and Richelieu. Seduction was a game to her, to be practiced with skill. As she got older, and her reputation grew, the most important families in France would send their sons to her to be instructed in matters of love.

Ninon knew that men and women are very different, but when it comes to seduction they feel the same: Deep down inside, they often sense when they are being seduced, but they give in because they enjoy the feeling of being led along. It is a pleasure to let go, and to allow the other person to detour you into a strange country. Everything in seduction, however, depends on suggestion. You cannot announce your intentions or reveal them directly in words. Instead you must throw your targets off the scent. To surrender to your guidance they must be appropriately confused. You have to scramble your signals—appear interested in another man or woman (the decoy), then hint at being interested in the target, then feign indifference, on and on. Such patterns not only confuse, they excite.

Imagine this story from the countess’s perspective: After a few of the marquis’s moves, she sensed the marquis was playing some sort of game, but the game delighted her. She did not know where he was leading her, but so much the better. His moves intrigued her, each of them keeping her waiting for the next one—she even enjoyed her jealousy and confusion, for sometimes any emotion is better than the boredom of security. Perhaps the marquis had ulterior motives; most men do. But she was willing to wait and see, and probably if she had been made to wait long enough, what he was up to would not have mattered.

The moment the marquis uttered that fatal word “love,” however, all was changed. This was no longer a game with moves, it was an artless show of passion. His intention was revealed: He was seducing her. This put everything he had done in a new light. All that before had been charming now seemed ugly and conniving; the countess felt embarrassed and used. A door closed that would never open again.

Do not be held a cheat, even though it is impossible to live today without being one.
Let your greatest cunning lie in covering up what looks like cunning.
Baltasar Gracián, 1601-1658


In 1850 the young Otto von Bismarck, then a thirty-five-year-old deputy in the Prussian parliament, was at a turning point in his career. The issues of the day were the unification of the many states (including Prussia) into which Germany was then divided, and a war against Austria, the powerful neighbor to the south that hoped to keep the Germans weak and at odds, even threatening to intervene if they tried to unite. Prince William, next in line to be Prussia’s king, was in favor of going to war, and the parliament rallied to the cause, prepared to back any mobilization of troops. The only ones to oppose war were the present king, Frederick William IV, and his ministers, who preferred to appease the powerful Austrians.

Throughout his career, Bismarck had been a loyal, even passionate supporter of Prussian might and power. He dreamed of German unification, of going to war against Austria and humiliating the country that for so long had kept Germany divided. A former soldier, he saw warfare as a glorious business.

This, after all, was the man who years later would say, “The great questions of the time will be decided, not by speeches and resolutions, but by iron and blood.”

Passionate patriot and lover of military glory, Bismarck nevertheless gave a speech in parliament at the height of the war fever that astonished all who heard it. “Woe unto the statesman,” he said, “who makes war without a reason that will still be valid when the war is over! After the war, you will all look differently at these questions. Will you then have the courage to turn to the peasant contemplating the ashes of his farm, to the man who has been crippled, to the father who has lost his children?” Not only did Bismarck go on to talk of the madness of this war, but, strangest of all, he praised Austria and defended her actions. This went against everything he had stood for. The consequences were immediate. Bismarck was against the war—what could this possibly mean? Other deputies were confused, and several of them changed their votes. Eventually the king and his ministers won out, and war was averted.

A few weeks after Bismarck’s infamous speech, the king, grateful that he had spoken for peace, made him a cabinet minister. A few years later he became the Prussian premier. In this role he eventually led his country and a peace-loving king into a war against Austria, crushing the former empire and establishing a mighty German state, with Prussia at its head.


At the time of his speech in 1850, Bismarck made several calculations. First, he sensed that the Prussian military, which had not kept pace with other European armies, was unready for war—that Austria, in fact, might very well win, a disastrous result for the future. Second, if the war were lost and Bismarck had supported it, his career would be gravely jeopardized. The king and his conservative ministers wanted peace; Bismarck wanted power. The answer was to throw people off the scent by supporting a cause he detested, saying things he would laugh at if said by another. A whole country was fooled. It was because of Bismarck’s speech that the king made him a minister, a position from which he quickly rose to be prime minister, attaining the power to strengthen the Prussian military and accomplish what he had wanted all along: the humiliation of Austria and the unification of Germany under Prussia’s leadership.

Bismarck was certainly one of the cleverest statesman who ever lived, a master of strategy and deception. No one suspected what he was up to in this case. Had he announced his real intentions, arguing that it was better to wait now and fight later, he would not have won the argument, since most Prussians wanted war at that moment and mistakenly believed that their army was superior to the Austrians. Had he played up to the king, asking to be made a minister in exchange for supporting peace, he would not have succeeded either: The king would have distrusted his ambition and doubted his sincerity.

By being completely insincere and sending misleading signals, however, he deceived everyone, concealed his purpose, and attained everything he wanted. Such is the power of hiding your intentions.


Most people are open books. They say what they feel, blurt out their opinions at every opportunity, and constantly reveal their plans and intentions. They do this for several reasons. First, it is easy and natural to always want to talk about one’s feelings and plans for the future. It takes effort to control your tongue and monitor what you reveal. Second, many believe that by being honest and open they are winning people’s hearts and showing their good nature. They are greatly deluded. Honesty is actually a blunt instrument, which bloodies more than it cuts. Your honesty is likely to offend people; it is much more prudent to tailor your words, telling people what they want to hear rather than the coarse and ugly truth of what you feel or think. More important, by being unabashedly open you make yourself so predictable and familiar that it is almost impossible to respect or fear you, and power will not accrue to a person who cannot inspire such emotions.

If you yearn for power, quickly lay honesty aside, and train yourself in the art of concealing your intentions. Master the art and you will always have the upper hand. Basic to an ability to conceal one’s intentions is a simple truth about human nature: Our first instinct is to always trust appearances. We cannot go around doubting the reality of what we see and hear—constantly imagining that appearances concealed something else would exhaust and terrify us. This fact makes it relatively easy to conceal one’s intentions. Simply dangle an object you seem to desire, a goal you seem to aim for, in front of people’s eyes and they will take the appearance for reality. Once their eyes focus on the decoy, they will fail to notice what you are really up to. In seduction, set up conflicting signals, such as desire and indifference, and you not only throw them off the scent, you inflame their desire to possess you.

A tactic that is often effective in setting up a red herring is to appear to support an idea or cause that is actually contrary to your own sentiments. (Bismarck used this to great effect in his speech in 1850.) Most people will believe you have experienced a change of heart, since it is so unusual to play so lightly with something as emotional as one’s opinions and values. The same applies for any decoyed object of desire: Seem to want something in which you are actually not at all interested and your enemies will be thrown off the scent, making all kinds of errors in their calculations.

During the War of the Spanish Succession in 1711, the Duke of Marlborough, head of the English army, wanted to destroy a key French fort, because it protected a vital thoroughfare into France. Yet he knew that if he destroyed it, the French would realize what he wanted—to advance down that road. Instead, then, he merely captured the fort, and garrisoned it with some of his troops, making it appear as if he wanted it for some purpose of his own. The French attacked the fort and the duke let them recapture it. Once they had it back, though, they destroyed it, figuring that the duke had wanted it for some important reason. Now that the fort was gone, the road was unprotected, and Marlborough could easily march into France.

Use this tactic in the following manner: Hide your intentions not by closing up (with the risk of appearing secretive, and making people suspicious) but by talking endlessly about your desires and goals—just not your real ones. You will kill three birds with one stone: You appear friendly, open, and trusting; you conceal your intentions; and you send your rivals on time-consuming wild-goose chases.

Another powerful tool in throwing people off the scent is false sincerity. People easily mistake sincerity for honesty. Remember—their first instinct is to trust appearances, and since they value honesty and want to believe in the honesty of those around them, they will rarely doubt you or see through your act. Seeming to believe what you say gives your words great weight. This is how Iago deceived and destroyed Othello: Given the depth of his emotions, the apparent sincerity of his concerns about Desde mona’s supposed infidelity, how could Othello distrust him? This is also how the great con artist Yellow Kid Weil pulled the wool over suckers’ eyes: Seeming to believe so deeply in the decoyed object he was dangling in front of them (a phony stock, a touted racehorse), he made its reality hard to doubt. It is important, of course, not to go too far in this area. Sincerity is a tricky tool: Appear overpassionate and you raise suspicions. Be measured and believable or your ruse will seem the put-on that it is.

To make your false sincerity an effective weapon in concealing your intentions, espouse a belief in honesty and forthrightness as important social values. Do this as publicly as possible. Emphasize your position on this subject by occasionally divulging some heartfelt thought—though only one that is actually meaningless or irrelevant, of course. Napoleon’s minister Talleyrand was a master at taking people into his confidence by revealing some apparent secret. This feigned confidence—a decoy—would then elicit a real confidence on the other person’s part.

Remember: The best deceivers do everything they can to cloak their roguish qualities. They cultivate an air of honesty in one area to disguise their dishonesty in others. Honesty is merely another decoy in their arsenal of weapons.


Deception is always the best strategy, but the best deceptions require a screen of smoke to distract people attention from your real purpose. The bland exterior—like the unreadable poker face—is often the perfect smoke screen, hiding your intentions behind the comfortable and familiar. If you lead the sucker down a familiar path, he won’t catch on when you lead him into a trap.


In 1910, a Mr. Sam Geezil of Chicago sold his warehouse business for close to $1 million. He settled down to semiretirement and the managing of his many properties, but deep inside he itched for the old days of deal-making. One day a young man named Joseph Weil visited his office, wanting to buy an apartment he had up for sale. Geezil explained the terms: The price was $8,000, but he only required a down payment of $2,000. Weil said he would sleep on it, but he came back the following day and offered to pay the full $8,000 in cash, if Geezil could wait a couple of days, until a deal Weil was working on came through. Even in semiretirement, a clever businessman like Geezil was curious as to how Weil would be able to come up with so much cash (roughly $150,000 today) so quickly. Weil seemed reluctant to say, and quickly changed the subject, but Geezil was persistent. Finally, after assurances of confidentiality, Weil told Geezil the following story.


Then Jehu assembled all the people, and said to them, “Ahab served Ba‘al a little; but Jehu will serve him much more. Now therefore call to me all the prophets of Ba’al, all his worshippers and all his priests; let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Ba‘al; whoever is missing shall not live.” But Jehu did it with cunning in order to destroy the worshippers of Ba’al. And Jehu ordered, “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Ba‘al. “So they proclaimed it. And Jehu sent throughout all Israel; and all the worshippers of Ba’al came, so that there was not a man left who did not come. And they entered the house of Ba‘al, and the house of Ba’al was filled from one end to the other…. Then Jehu went into the house of Ba‘al … and he said to the worshippers of Ba’al, “Search, and see that there is no servant of the LORD here among you, but only the worshippers of Ba‘al.“Then he went in to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Now Jehu had stationed eighty men outside, and said, “The man who allows any of those whom I give into your hands to escape shall forfeit his life.” So as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guard and to the officers, “Go in and slay them; let not a man escape.” So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Ba’al and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Ba‘al and burned it. And they demolished the pillar of Ba’al and demolished the house of Ba‘al, and made it a latrine to this day. Thus Jehu wiped out Ba’al from Israel.


Weil’s uncle was the secretary to a coterie of multimillionaire financiers. These wealthy gentlemen had purchased a hunting lodge in Michigan ten years ago, at a cheap price. They had not used the lodge for a few years, so they had decided to sell it and had asked Weil’s uncle to get whatever he could for it. For reasons—good reasons—of his own, the uncle had been nursing a grudge against the millionaires for years; this was his chance to get back at them. He would sell the property for $35,000 to a set up man (whom it was Weil’s job to find). The financiers were too wealthy to worry about this low price. The set-up man would then turn around and sell the property again for its real price, around $155,000. The uncle, Weil, and the third man would split the profits from this second sale. It was all legal and for a good cause—the uncle’s just retribution.

Geezil had heard enough: He wanted to be the set-up buyer. Weil was reluctant to involve him, but Geezil would not back down: The idea of a large profit, plus a little adventure, had him champing at the bit. Weil explained that Geezil would have to put up the $35,000 in cash to bring the deal off. Geezil, a millionaire, said he could get the money with a snap of his fingers. Weil finally relented and agreed to arrange a meeting between the uncle, Geezil, and the financiers, in the town of Galesburg, Illinois.

On the train ride to Galesburg, Geezil met the uncle—an impressive man, with whom he avidly discussed business. Weil also brought along a companion, a somewhat paunchy man named George Gross. Weil explained to Geezil that he himself was a boxing trainer, that Gross was one of the promising prizefighters he trained, and that he had asked Gross to come along to make sure the fighter stayed in shape. For a promising fighter, Gross was unimpressive looking—he had gray hair and a beer belly—but Geezil was so excited about the deal that he didn’t really think about the man’s flabby appearance.

Once in Galesburg, Weil and his uncle went to fetch the financiers while Geezil waited in a hotel room with Gross, who promptly put on his boxing trunks. As Geezil half watched, Gross began to shadowbox. Distracted as he was, Geezil ignored how badly the boxer wheezed after a few minutes of exercise, although his style seemed real enough. An hour later, Weil and his uncle reappeared with the financiers, an impressive, intimidating group of men, all wearing fancy suits. The meeting went well and the financiers agreed to sell the lodge to Geezil, who had already had the $35,000 wired to a local bank.

This minor business now settled, the financiers sat back in their chairs and began to banter about high finance, throwing out the name “J. P. Morgan” as if they knew the man. Finally one of them noticed the boxer in the corner of the room. Weil explained what he was doing there. The financier countered that he too had a boxer in his entourage, whom he named. Weil laughed brazenly and exclaimed that his man could easily knock out their man. Conversation escalated into argument. In the heat of passion, Weil challenged the men to a bet. The financiers eagerly agreed and left to get their man ready for a fight the next day.

As soon as they had left, the uncle yelled at Weil, right in front of Geezil; They did not have enough money to bet with, and once the financiers discovered this, the uncle would be fired. Weil apologized for getting him in this mess, but he had a plan: He knew the other boxer well, and with a little bribe, they could fix the fight. But where would the money come from for the bet? the uncle replied. Without it they were as good as dead. Finally Geezil had heard enough. Unwilling to jeopardize his deal with any ill will, he offered his own $35,000 cash for part of the bet. Even if he lost that, he would wire for more money and still make a profit on the sale of the lodge. The uncle and nephew thanked him. With their own $15,000 and Geezil’s $35,000 they would manage to have enough for the bet. That evening, as Geezil watched the two boxers rehearse the fix in the hotel room, his mind reeled at the killing he was going to make from both the boxing match and the sale of the lodge.

The fight took place in a gym the next day. Weil handled the cash, which was placed for security in a locked box. Everything was proceeding as planned in the hotel room. The financiers were looking glum at how badly their fighter was doing, and Geezil was dreaming about the easy money he was about to make. Then, suddenly, a wild swing by the financier’s fighter hit Gross hard in the face, knocking him down. When he hit the canvas, blood spurted from his mouth. He coughed, then lay still. One of the financiers, a former doctor, checked his pulse; he was dead. The millionaires panicked: Everyone had to get out before the police arrived-they could all be charged with murder.

Terrified, Geezil hightailed it out of the gym and back to Chicago, leaving behind his $35,000 which he was only too glad to forget, for it seemed a small price to pay to avoid being implicated in a crime. He never wanted to see Weil or any of the others again.

After Geezil scurried out, Gross stood up, under his own steam. The blood that had spurted from his mouth came from a ball filled with chicken blood and hot water that he had hidden in his cheek. The whole affair had been masterminded by Weil, better known as “the Yellow Kid,” one of the most creative con artists in history. Weil split the $35,000 with the financiers and the boxers (all fellow con artists)—a nice little profit for a few days’ work.


This means to create a front that eventually becomes imbued with an atmosphere or impression of familiarity, within which the strategist may maneuver unseen while all eyes are trained to see obvious familiarities. “THE THIRTY-SIX STRATEGIES.” QUOTED IN THE JAPANESE ART OF WAR.



The Yellow Kid had staked out Geezil as the perfect sucker long before he set up the con. He knew the boxing-match scam would be the perfect ruse to separate Geezil from his money quickly and definitively. But he also knew that if he had begun by trying to interest Geezil in the boxing match, he would have failed miserably. He had to conceal his intentions and switch attention, create a smoke screen—in this case the sale of the lodge.

On the train ride and in the hotel room Geezil’s mind had been completely occupied with the pending deal, the easy money, the chance to hobnob with wealthy men. He had failed to notice that Gross was out of shape and middle-aged at best. Such is the distracting power of a smoke screen. Engrossed in the business deal, Geezil’s attention was easily diverted to the boxing match, but only at a point when it was already too late for him to notice the details that would have given Gross away. The match, after all, now depended on a bribe rather than on the boxer’s physical condition. And Geezil was so distracted at the end by the illusion of the boxer’s death that he completely forgot about his money.

Learn from the Yellow Kid: The familiar, inconspicuous front is the perfect smoke screen. Approach your mark with an idea that seems ordinary enough—a business deal, financial intrigue. The sucker’s mind is distracted, his suspicions allayed. That is when you gently guide him onto the second path, the slippery slope down which he slides helplessly into your trap.


In the mid-1920s, the powerful warlords of Ethiopia were coming to the realization that a young man of the nobility named Haile Selassie, also known as Ras Tafari, was outcompeting them all and nearing the point where he could proclaim himself their leader, unifying the country for the first time in decades. Most of his rivals could not understand how this wispy, quiet, mild-mannered man had been able to take control. Yet in 1927, Selassie was able to summon the warlords, one at a time, to come to Addis Ababa to declare their loyalty and recognize him as leader.

Some hurried, some hesitated, but only one, Dejazmach Balcha of Sidamo, dared defy Selassie totally. A blustery man, Balcha was a great warrior, and he considered the new leader weak and unworthy. He pointedly stayed away from the capital. Finally Selassie, in his gentle but stem way, commanded Balcha to come. The warlord decided to obey, but in doing so he would turn the tables on this pretender to the Ethiopian throne: He would come to Addis Ababa at his own speed, and with an army of 10,000 men, a force large enough to defend himself, perhaps even start a civil war. Stationing this formidable force in a valley three miles from the capital, he waited, as a king would. Selassie would have to come to him.

Selassie did indeed send emissaries, asking Balcha to attend an afternoon banquet in his honor. But Balcha, no fool, knew history—he knew that previous kings and lords of Ethiopia had used banquets as a trap. Once he was there and full of drink, Selassie would have him arrested or murdered. To signal his understanding of the situation, he agreed to come to the banquet, but only if he could bring his personal bodyguard—600 of his best soldiers, all armed and ready to defend him and themselves. To Balcha’s surprise, Selassie answered with the utmost politeness that he would be honored to play host to such warriors.

On the way to the banquet, Balcha warned his soldiers not to get drunk and to be on their guard. When they arrived at the palace, Selassie was his charming best. He deferred to Balcha, treated him as if he desperately needed his approval and cooperation. But Balcha refused to be charmed, and he warned Selassie that if he did not return to his camp by nightfall, his army had orders to attack the capital. Selassie reacted as if hurt by his mistrust. Over the meal, when it came time for the traditional singing of songs in honor of Ethiopia’s leaders, he made a point of allowing only songs honoring the warlord of Sidamo. It seemed to Balcha that Selassie was scared, intimidated by this great warrior who could not be outwitted. Sensing the change, Balcha believed that he would be the one to call the shots in the days to come.

At the end of the afternoon, Balcha and his soldiers began their march back to camp amidst cheers and gun salutes. Looking back to the capital over his shoulder, he planned his strategy—how his own soldiers would march through the capital in triumph within weeks, and Selassie would be put in his place, his place being either prison or death. When Balcha came in sight of his camp, however, he saw that something was terribly wrong. Where before there had been colorful tents stretching as far as the eye could see, now there was nothing, only smoke from doused fires. What devil’s magic was this?

A witness told Balcha what had happened. During the banquet, a large army, commanded by an ally of Selassie’s, had stolen up on Balcha’s encampment by a side route he had not seen. This army had not come to fight, however: Knowing that Balcha would have heard a noisy battle and hurried back with his 600-man bodyguard, Selassie had armed his own troops with baskets of gold and cash. They had surrounded Balcha’s army and proceeded to purchase every last one of their weapons. Those who refused were easily intimidated. Within a few hours, Balcha’s entire force had been disarmed and scattered in all directions.

Realizing his danger, Balcha decided to march south with his 600 soldiers to regroup, but the same army that had disarmed his soldiers blocked his way. The other way out was to march on the capital, but Selassie had set a large army to defend it. Like a chess player, he had predicted Balcha’s moves, and had checkmated him. For the first time in his life, Balcha surrendered. To repent his sins of pride and ambition, he agreed to enter a monastery.


Throughout Selassie’s long reign, no one could quite figure him out. Ethiopians like their leaders fierce, but Selassie, who wore the front of a gentle, peace-loving man, lasted longer than any of them. Never angry or impatient, he lured his victims with sweet smiles, lulling them with charm and obsequiousness before he attacked. In the case of Balcha, Selassie played on the man’s wariness, his suspicion that the banquet was a trap—which in fact it was, but not the one he expected. Selassie’s way of allaying Balcha’s fears—letting him bring his bodyguard to the banquet, giving him top billing there, making him feel in control—created a thick smoke screen, concealing the real action three miles away.

Remember: The paranoid and wary are often the easiest to deceive. Win their trust in one area and you have a smoke screen that blinds their view in another, letting you creep up and level them with a devastating blow. A helpful or apparently honest gesture, or one that implies the other person’s superiority—these are perfect diversionary devices.

Properly set up, the smoke screen is a weapon of great power. It enabled the gentle Selassie to totally destroy his enemy, without firing a single bullet.

Do not underestimate the power of Tafari. He creeps
like a mouse but he has jaws like a lion.
Bacha of Sidamo’s last words before entering the monastery


If you believe that deceivers are colorful folk who mislead with elaborate lies and tall tales, you are greatly mistaken. The best deceivers utilize a bland and inconspicuous front that calls no attention to themselves. They know that extravagant words and gestures immediately raise suspicion. Instead, they envelop their mark in the familiar, the banal, the harmless. In Yellow Kid Weil’s dealings with Sam Geezil, the familiar was a business deal. In the Ethiopian case, it was Selassie’s misleading obsequiousness—exactly what Balcha would have expected from a weaker warlord.

Once you have lulled your suckers’ attention with the familiar, they will not notice the deception being perpetrated behind their backs. This derives from a simple truth: people can only focus on one thing at a time. It is really too difficult for them to imagine that the bland and harmless person they are dealing with is simultaneously setting up something else. The grayer and more uniform the smoke in your smoke screen, the better it conceals your intentions. In the decoy and red herring devices discussed in Part I, you actively distract people; in the smoke screen, you lull your victims, drawing them into your web. Because it is so hypnotic, this is often the best way of concealing your intentions.

The simplest form of smoke screen is facial expression. Behind a bland, unreadable exterior, all sorts of mayhem can be planned, without detection. This is a weapon that the most powerful men in history have learned to perfect. It was said that no one could read Franklin D. Roosevelt’s face. Baron James Rothschild made a lifelong practice of disguising his real thoughts behind bland smiles and nondescript looks. Stendhal wrote of Talleyrand, “Never was a face less of a barometer.” Henry Kissinger would bore his opponents around the negotiating table to tears with his monotonous voice, his blank look, his endless recitations of details; then, as their eyes glazed over, he would suddenly hit them with a list of bold terms. Caught off-guard, they would be easily intimidated. As one poker manual explains it, “While playing his hand, the good player is seldom an actor. Instead he practices a bland behavior that minimizes readable patterns, frustrates and confuses opponents, permits greater concentration.”

An adaptable concept, the smoke screen can be practiced on a number of levels, all playing on the psychological principles of distraction and misdirection. One of the most effective smoke screens is the noble gesture. People want to believe apparently noble gestures are genuine, for the belief is pleasant. They rarely notice how deceptive these gestures can be.