From primates to bees, social status regulates reproduction. In the cichlid fish Astatotilapia (Haplochromis) burtoni, subordinate males have reduced fertility and must become dominant to reproduce. This increase in sexual capacity is orchestrated by neurons in the preoptic area, which enlarge in response to dominance and increase expression of gonadotropin-releasing hormone 1 (GnRH1), a peptide critical for reproduction. Using a novel behavioral paradigm, we show for the first time that subordinate males can become dominant within minutes of an opportunity to do so, displaying dramatic changes in body coloration and behavior. We also found that social opportunity induced expression of the immediate-early gene egr-1 in the anterior preoptic area, peaking in regions with high densities of GnRH1 neurons, and not in brain regions that express the related peptides GnRH2 and GnRH3. This genomic response did not occur in stable subordinate or stable dominant males even though stable dominants, like ascending males, displayed dominance behaviors. Moreover, egr-1 in the optic tectum and the cerebellum was similarly induced in all experimental groups, showing that egr-1 induction in the anterior preoptic area of ascending males was specific to this brain region. Because egr-1 codes for a transcription factor important in neural plasticity, induction of egr-1 in the anterior preoptic area by social opportunity could be an early trigger in the molecular cascade that culminates in enhanced fertility and other long-term physiological changes associated with dominance.