Apollo Robbins: profile of a pickpocket

The New Yorker's profile of Apollo Robbins is one of the most interesting things I've read all year (ha). Robbins is a self-trained virtuoso pickpocket who once managed to lift a pen out of Penn Jillette's pocket, steal the ink cartridge, and return the pen, all while he was demurely insisting to Jillette that he wasn't really comfortable performing in front of magicians.

Josh grew increasingly befuddled, as Robbins continued to make the coin vanish and reappear—on his shoulder, in his pocket, under his watchband. In the middle of this, Robbins started stealing Josh’s stuff. Josh’s watch seemed to melt off his wrist, and Robbins held it up behind his back for everyone to see. Then he took Josh’s wallet, his sunglasses, and his phone. Robbins dances around his victims, gently guiding them into place, floating in and out of their personal space. By the time they comprehend what has happened, Robbins is waiting with a look that says, “I understand what you must be feeling.” Robbins’s simplest improvisations have the dreamlike quality of a casual encounter gone subtly awry. He struck up a conversation with a young man, who told him, “We’re going to Penn and Teller after this.”

“Oh, then you’ll probably want these,” Robbins said, handing over a pair of tickets that had recently been in the young man’s wallet.

When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse.

After the performance, Robbins and I had dinner at the bar. “A lot of magic is designed to appeal to people visually, but what I’m trying to affect is their minds, their moods, their perceptions,” he told me. “My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.”

My fascination with the profile doesn't just come from the recounting of Robbins's many impressive deeds (though they are impressive, and if I ever had cause to book a magician for a gig, he'd be it), but also the struggle that Robbins has had in coming up with ways to maximize his prodigious talent.

Reading further down, I noticed that Apollo Robbins collaborated with neuroscientists on a book called Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, which I've ordered. I was also unsurprised to learn that Robbins had consulted on the late, lamented caper-show Leverage, which explains quite a lot about why that show was so good.

A Pickpocket’s Tale [Adam Green/The New Yorker] (via Making Light)

Start the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net


  1. I’d like to see his work, but the video you provided just shows a bunch of news twinkies saying that he’s good.

      1. The video adds nothing to the post. It shows nothing other than he has been On “wonderfull” shows like Montell Williams et al
        the video really seems like unpaid advertising unless Corey is taking a vig ;)

  2. Just read that this morning, and indeed what a wonderfully intriguing article about a fascinating mutant!

  3. Watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pIU1uZlH-o

    There’s a great spot at about 3:05 where he takes the watch off a lady’s wrist while doing a coin trick.

  4. I’m sure this guy is great—and the clips of him working are cool—but lordy does this beg to be parodied.

    1. What’s in your hand? Back at me. I have it. They’re your watches. Back again. Your watches are now diamonds. I’m on a horse.

  5. I’m interested in the way the mind works when it comes to the techniques. One thing I watched for was a technique I had read about that involved removing someones watch. You will notice that before he does anything he touches her in multiple ways. He grabs here by the wrist, he touches her shoulder, he puts his arm under her arm. He asks here to squeeze tight. All of these are cues to the body to then notice (or ignore) another cue. In the article I read they talked about how the body “forgets” the pressure of the watch since it is constant. But if it changes suddenly you notice. So in the video he grabs her BY THE WATCH first so that she we feel the presence of the hand and know what it means. he does the first trick and the watch is still there. He then does two other tricks by the third time he had distracted the woman and fooled the body so he can remove the watch. All because of how he both prepped the body and the mind to ignore it. 

    When I used to do improv we played something called, The Hat Game which involved taking the hat off of someones head while they tried to take your hat off. All the while you were supposed to also be doing a scene. and talking to each other. One of the tricks we learned was to ask a question that required them to remember something or do some calculation. “So how many weeks until your birthday?” They will lose focus and you could steal the hat. The hand needed to be fast, but fooling the mind was what allowed it to happen.

    1. Lesson: get away from touchy-feely strangers!

      Maybe it’s a living-in-a-big-city thing, but when strangers start touching you and getting in your space, you KNOW you’re getting robbed!

      1. Lesson: get away from touchy-feely strangers!

        I’ve had that one covered since I was about two years old. If you don’t live in a place where it’s normal for people to touch each other all the time, doing it is a red flag.

  6. Is there nothing we can do to save good TV shows anymore? Seems the best shows get cancelled, and the crappiest fomulaic crap gets renewed again and again. Did we really need to reanimate Larry Hagman for a Dallas reboot, for example? Is there really any merit to yet another whos-fucking-who-literally-or-otherwise show? Don’t they have about a dozen of those that run every weekday already?

  7. according to the New Yorker article Robbins was born as an underpriviledged invalid and wore leg braces in his early years.  He has transformed into a master showman and entertainer.  From the little bit I’ve read about him I’m impressed.

  8. If I could do that I’d get in line for airport security, steal the badges off TSA agents, and then be like ‘oh how did those get in my pants?’ if the metal detector/pornoscanner went off.

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