An article originally published on MentalFloss.com on July 31st, 2009...
Apollo Robbins is good at stealing stuff. For years, this renown pickpocket entertained Vegas audiences by stealing their hearts– generally by stealing their wristwatches and money clips. But everything changed for Apollo after he picked the pocket of one of Jimmy Carter’s secret service agents during one of his shows. I sat with Robbins to talk about the art of pickpocketing, life after Vegas, and why he lets gypsies steal stuff from him.
How’d you get into pickpocketing business?
My half brothers were involved with crime. But I was too young to participate. I also had certain disabilities that prevented me [from joining in]: like braces on my legs. When I became a teen, I ran into a friend at a magic shop who took me under his wing. I started reading up on magical theory and immediately blended that with what my brothers had shown me.
Your style of pickpocketing is based in magic?
I applied my magic in ways that were invasive, where it happened on people. There are two kinds of magic. If you think of it like martial arts, there’s sparring where you are doing it with a partner and the other is kata where you’re doing an exposition for the audience. Many times, illusions or magic sets are designed as an exposition for the audience to watch, but the the style I do with the pickpocketing is directly interactive. So I used that idea to build my pickpocket act in Vegas. You mentioned a story about Jimmy Carter’s secret service man.
How did stealing from an president’s bodyguard turn into your big break?
My show was part-variety, part-magic, so I brought people on stage. Then I’d steal all their stuff and give it back to them. But 7 or 8 years ago, I pick-pocketed one of Jimmy Carter’s secret service agents. After that, I got approached [to consult] police departments and security individuals. I got to visit prisons and I started learning the thinking and skill set of real thieves.
So, there’s a difference in how thieves and magicians pick pockets?
The thinking is the same. But you’re in a different context and coming from a different place. For a street thief, the priority–more than dexterity or nimble fingers– is being able to monitor where someone’s attention is. It’s fascinating. They don’t so much manipulate attention [like a magician does], because they don’t want to be memorable. But they do want to know where someone’s attention is. If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.
And what about a magician?
You have to monitor the responses you’re getting from the person you’re working with and adjust your performance. In the same way that a film director would use a film lens to blur out a certain item or use a spotlight, I use certain movements that draw the eye instinctually.
So, what are some of the tricks a successful pockpocket will use?
If you keep eye contact as you approach someone and go to their side, the person will stay very focused on on your face and upper body because it’s alarming to them that you’re keeping eye contact. But if you break eye contact as you approach from the front and then you step to their side, you can use this. If you don’t want them to focus on something you’re doing with your hands, just by tilting your head into their personal space, it’ll draw their attention, and they’ll want to look at you. I use that when I’m stealing. That’s crazy!
Is it safe to meet you in person?
Generally, yes. [Laughing] It depends on whether I’m on or off the clock!
Any other tricks of the trade you don’t mind sharing?
My business is basically a business of false assumptions — I create assumptions that look like reality and take advantage of those. I’ll tell someone I’m going to try and steal from them and then challenge them to catch me. Then I’ll use hand movements to create false assumptions. I’ll put my hand in their pocket, and when it comes out, they’re expecting that I would have stolen something. Then I create a ruse, by moving my hand in a half-circle. Their eyes will instinctively chase the movement, almost like a cat chases a string– it’s fascinating.
So, the ruse is in the half-circle?
Exactly. If you keep your hand movement in a straight line, the person won’t follow it. They’ll snap to the end location and they’ll snap back to the pocket, and they’ll catch your other hand if it’s doing something. But that’s not the only trick. If I’m going to steal from someone, I’ll lock onto what I’m about to steal, but I wait. I’ll use statements and situations that create an inner dialogue so they’ll second guess themselves. They may say “I think he’s up to this.” And you can detect that. You develop a sense to detect that.
And when they’re caught in this inner dialogue, then what?
When they have that inner dialogue, it suppresses their outside senses, so they can’t feel when you’re pulling something and they can’t see it, even their glasses are getting pulled right off their face. There’s a pickpocket who specializes in this named Bora. He removes glasses without people ever noticing, even though their field of vision has changed. That sounds incredible.
So, is pickpocketing still an art that people are practicing on the streets?
Definitely. I found it interesting... you have organized teams that have become very prevalent in the US, especially around large sporting events — The Super-Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. I set myself up to be pickpocketed in Spain. I just wanted to feel the sensation.
How did it feel?
Fascinating. Two Gypsy ladies outside of Alhambra locked up a frame on me. One lady was reaching inside a bag to pull out some fern leaves and the other was locking up my elbow and trying to steal from behind. I saw them doing it to other people, so I positioned myself so I’d be in the queue for it.
So, what’s next for you?
I’m working with a show called Leverage on TNT as an advisor, teaching them how to do these types of techniques on television. I also work with the actors and the writers. And I’ll be on an episode this fall.