Apollo Robbins, pickpocket -- mindbending live performance

Last month, I linked to a great Atlantic New Yorker profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket who pulls off the most audacious fingersmithing you've ever seen, manipulating attention with such a fine touch that he leaves even jaded magicians slack-jawed.

Here's a great example of Robbins's schtick, from an NBC news show. I've been reading Sleights of Mind, a book on the neuroscience of vision, attention, optical illusion and magic, for which Robbins was extensively interviewed, and this video really helped me understand what the writers are talking about.

Supernatural pickpocketing skills!! Awesome to watch! - by Apollo Robbins (via Kottke)

Start the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net


  1. Other than stealing goods from unsuspecting people and other than appearing on TV shows, is there another vocational aspect of pickpocketing that I’m missing or unaware of? – for instance, would the grand talent of pickpocketing come in handy if one were trapped helplessly in a car in the snow (etc)? – the whole idea of pickpocketing seems like it belongs with fantasies of Jack the Ripper and Oliver Twist! In fact, if this gent tried to pickpocket me, I’d give him forty lashes with crook of my walking stick and swiftly summon the constable!

    1. What’s the utility of collecting comic books, painting a picture, or mastering card tricks?  Not all of our hobbies need to be practical to capture our passion or to have intrinsic value.  We don’t study the humanities, for instance, to further our ability to survive in the wilderness.

        1. But he would have to curb his habit of holding the stolen item up behind victim’s head while making a surprised face for the camera.

      1. Yes, but in these tough economic times it’s wise to exploit one’s hobbies for as much money as possible.

        1. > Yes, but in these tough economic times it’s wise to exploit one’s hobbies for as much money as possible.

          Not to state the obvious, but that’s probably why he’s doing TV appearances, which, even if he’s doing them for free, he’s certainly using that publicity to increase his rate for other events. This guy’s treading close to Penn & Teller territory in terms of entertainment value and personality, and with the amount of exposure he’s getting he’s probably making serious bank in Vegas, where he lives. Nightly if he wants. And I see in him a pretty good example of how working really hard on something, no matter how absurd or impractical, can eventually pay off in practical ways.

          1. Very true. I agree. I think he does have a true talent which folks must find entertaining – however, I think audience members also enjoy watching this guy steal stuff from other people and like to see him make fools of people. So it’s part skill and part court jester.

    2. The New Yorker published a long article on Apollo last month that was really good:  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/07/130107fa_fact_green

      tl;dr – He has used his skills in the “magic” circuit in Vegas, but he’s trying to move on to doing training with law enforcement and other government agencies. Being able to lift items from a room with someone in it would seem like a valuable skill to an intelligence agents, IMO.

      1. My relative gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for Christmas and that was the first thing I read. It gave me a great first impression but now I wonder if it was beginners luck.

    3. What he delivers is a lot of very interesting insights into interacting with people, gaining trust, distracting, fooling, and more.  It’s not that he has the fingers to take that watch for example, but that he has the ability to do it in ways where the “victim” doesn’t realize he’s doing it. 

      If you haven’t read the Atlantic article in full, do so.  This guy really thinks about what he does, which is not take stuff, but subtly but powerfully manipulate perception.

      And that, at least in my book, is very powerful and something one can use in many ways beyond just lifting a wallet.

  2. Not everyone in the magic community supports the theories advanced by the authors of Sleights of Mind, including British psychologist and magician Professor Richard Wiseman.

    The following is provided for your reference.

    Genii Magazine
    Vol. 74 No. 7
    July 2011

    Page 10

    Genii Speaks
    Editor Richard Kaufman

    When attending Magic-Con in San Diego, and listening to the authors of Sleights of Mind— Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde— give their talk on the new subject they’ve christened “neuromagic,” I thought their position was unconvincing. In fact, it seems like two people who are very smart, but know little about magic, getting carried away by ideas that most people who actually understand our field could have told them didn’t matter much even if true. So, this issue we give a loud raspberry to so-called “neuromagic” with Professor Richard Wiseman and David Britland starting on p.70 

    Page 71

    The Seductive Power of Neuromagic
    Professor Richard Wiseman

    Psychology is the scientific study of the way in which people think and behave. In contrast, neuropsychology aims to understand the mechanisms in the brain that underpin such thinking and behavior. So, whereas a psychologist studying magic might examine why tricks are effective by, for example, looking at how magicians manipulate attention and memory, a neuropsychologist would focus more on trying to understand the brain mechanisms that underpin these concepts. Although the notion of “neuromagic” has recently become very popular, to my knowledge there has only been one study actually looking at magic tricks and the brain. This experiment was conducted by Benjamin Parris from the University of Exeter and his colleagues, and involved placing participants into a brain scanner and asking them to watch short film clips containing magic tricks. The results revealed that particular regions of the brain were especially active when the expectations set up in the first part of the trick failed to predict the surprise endings. This might interest those who wish to discover which parts of the brain do what, however I struggle to see why it would interest or benefit magicians. Let’s forget the limitations imposed by the artificial situation of showing people film clips in brain scanners, and imagine that we knew exactly which bits of the brain were involved in processing each part of every magic trick that has ever been invented. So what? I can understand how psychologists studying magic tricks might uncover previously unknown quirks of the human mind, or how magicians might improve their performance by developing a better understanding of the psychology behind their trickery, but it isn’t clear to me how knowing which parts of the brain are especially active when someone watches a magic trick would be of interest to either group.

    Why then has the notion of “neuromagic” become so popular? Perhaps the answer lies in research conducted by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and colleagues from Yale University. Weisberg presented a group of volunteers with explanations for various psychological phenomena. Some of the time the researchers peppered the explanations with the language of neuroscience, including irrelevant phrases such as “brain scans indicate” and “the frontal lobe brain circuitry indicates,” etc. The volunteers were then asked to rate how satisfying they found each of the explanations. Remarkably, people gave far higher ratings to the explanations containing the irrelevant neuro-babble, causing the researchers to conclude that “… extraneous neuroscience information makes explanations look more satisfying than they actually are, or at least more satisfying than they otherwise would be judged to be.” In short, beware the seductive allure of neuromagic!

    Page 73

    A Look at Two New Books on Magic and the Mind
    David Britand

    Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde are a husband and wife team of neuroscientists. They created the excellent Best Illusion of the Year contest on the web. Now they are the founders of “neuromagic,” a term they coined after a “yearlong world-wide exploration of magic and how its principles apply to our behavior.” Their work generated a lot of media interest and spawned lots of news stories about what magicians can teach us about the workings of the brain. Their book Sleight of Mind, co-written with science writer Sandra Blakeslee, aims to take the reader backstage and offer a neuroscientist’s view of magic and trickery, explaining the “secrets behind classic tricks” long with “cutting edge research.” You can probably tell by the quotes that I remain skeptical, mostly about how much you can learn about magic in a year and what magic has to offer, compared to anything else, in helping to understand how the brain works. So let me state up front that there is a debate about whether magic really is special in any way when it comes to neuroscience. Dr. Peter Lamont, a magician as well as a social historian, co-authored a psychology paper in 2009 called Where Science and Magic Meet: The Illusion of a Science of Magic,” a version of which was published here in Genii. The paper, co-authored with two psychologist colleagues, argued that studying the neural response of spectators was not the best way to study or explain the performance of magic. I have heard similar views from other psychologists.

    Vol. 74 No. 11
    Nov 2011

    Page 40

    Vision and VElocity Vectors
    by Tom Stone

    Earlier this year I came across the work of Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde through a television episode of Nova ScienceNOW titled “Magic and the Brain” (which I watched as I wrongly assumed it would be related to “Pinky and the Brain” from the cartoon Animaniacs). I then found their article of the same name in the December 2008 issue of Scientific American. In both instances I came across intriguing information that was in opposition to my own observations from real-life performances. Now, I fully admit that I am far from a neuroscientist, but I pride myself on knowing a thing or two about misdirection (which, of course, can be a case of self-deception—an area in which I also have considerable expertise). Since Macknik and Martinez-Conde have also written a book on the same theme, Sleights of Mind (2010), it is fair to say that their theories have received wide-spread distribution. If these theories are flawed, or wrong, I feel that it is important to refute them, and that is what I will attempt here. In particular, I will focus on the hypothesis of “curved hand motions.” In their work, Macknik and Martinez-Conde, together with their research collaborator Apollo Robbins, bring forth the hypothesis that a hand that moves along a curved trajectory will attract significantly more attention than a hand that moves along a straight path. Well, that sounds simple enough so let’s try it and see.

    1.  So, all of those refutations did nothing more than say, “I think it is wrong” without either offering a specific reason why it is wrong, or citing any references to conflicting research.  Do I need to dig into the sources of each excerpt to find the actual meat behind the refutation?  If so, why not lead with the meat?

      1. I think the actual take-away is not, “It is wrong”, but, “There’s no reason to think it’s right.”

  3. I’ve watched this about eight times and I’m stumped. I keep watching as he takes the pen from Seacrest and pockets it, and I’m trying to figure out when he slips into the other guy’s wallet. I’m going to say there are two pens, and that he puts the second pen with the newly retrieved torn hundred in the wallet at an earlier point shortly after he stole the bill back. There’s just no point where he gets close enough after stealing the pen to put anything on the other guy.

    Anybody who’s figured that part out, please post.

    1. i’ve hit a wall on that one too. I’m guessing it was in there all along too, and he just took the bill he previously gave the other guy and kept it in his pocket. 

    2. That part, I’m convinced, is “just” a magic trick. The pen was pulled from the wallet, so yeah: no reason a duplicate pen previously stuffed with a different hundred couldn’t have been put into the wallet before going in the first anchor’s pocket. Apollo was probably prepared to have the bill and the edge matched up against each other. He is the one who ripped the bill, so it could have been scored earlier to rip in a particular way; or, more likely, he could have substituted a previously ripped edge for the edge he ripped in front of everybody. Nobody ever actually examined the bill he stole back, so that one didn’t have to match the edge the second anchor put in his pocket. ( It definitely looks like there’s some palming action going on around 1:25. ) 

      What’s *really* awesome is the sense that he has a *huge* bag of tricks and skills. He likely would have done something completely different if the anchors had wallets or phones.

      1. I’ve watched it several more times and I agree. The wallet always had a pen with a bill stuffed in it. There is no point in time he even gets very close to the first guy (why can’t I remember any of their names?). I can understand me not being able to see what his hands are doing because he steps in front of the camera or just moves too smoothly/fast. But he doesn’t even get within 18 inches of the guy for most of this video. We know he’s not using telekinesis so it must be a planted pen.

    3. I’d think it was just a magic trick, if the New Yorker piece that profiled him earlier didn’t mention him doing a similar (but better) thing to Penn Jillette – Penn was asking Apollo for a demonstration, and Apollo “demurred” (great word), and when he finally relented, he told Penn to take his pen out and trace his ring on a piece of paper. Penn pulled his pen out, went to trace the ring, and realized that Apollo had stolen the cartridge from the pen. So I totally believe it, and have no clue how he did it.

  4. Harpo and I think Chico Marx used to do this, partly as part of their schtick, but Harpo would do it as a party trick too. It’s not impossible that they did it to supplement income during their early years.

  5. The key to his flamboyant trick is that he’s in a situation where the marks willingly let him get inside their personal space and get his hands all over them.  I have no doubt he could do some of the same stuff on a rush-hour subway, but anyone who gets all handsy with strangers the way he does in this video is going to be getting more knees to the nuts than wallets. Further, any experienced city dweller will automatically pat-check his valuables immediately after being bumped into in public, before the bumper disappears.

    1. You might pat your pockets if someone just plain bumps into you, but if it happens during something else that catches your attention, like shouting or a fight, you might not think of it right at the moment.

      1. Personally, I’d be even more attuned to it, but I was raised in a city and era notorious for crime so YMMV.

    2. “any experienced city dweller will automatically pat-check his valuables immediately after being bumped into in public, before the bumper disappears.”

      Which some pickpocket teams use to their advantage.  The first guy really does just bump into you; someone else is watching to see where you pat.  When that second guy brushes past you a few minutes later, he knows exactly where to target.

      1. Which is why, whenever I’m bumped in public, I pat SOMEONE ELSE’S pockets. Throws the fingersmiths off the scent.

      2. Might work, but you don’t pat just specifically the pockets you expect stuff to be in.  Two-handed sweep down the breast to the hips to the ass.  EDIT: That sounded inappropriate, sorry.

        I don’t know what women do with their purses and what not.  Quit dangling HERE IS ALL MY VALUABLE SHIT from a 1″ pleather strap.  What’s even in there anyway?  You carry around assorted ancient breath mints and a crocheted Pokemon but no multitool?

        1. Yes to the multitool.  No to anything crocheted.

          Women’s clothing comes with virtually no pockets.  And when there are pockets, they are tiny and not constructed to actually hold anything other than possibly one key (without keychain).

          You can’t imagine the number of times I’ve grabbed a small wallet, keys, lipstick, and my phone….looked down at my hands….and realized I needed to grab a purse to carry it all whether I wanted to or not.  Winter coats make it possible to go without a purse, but that’s for only a few months.

      3. Since I tend to wear yoga-type pants, which have no pockets, my wallet is usually tucked into my underoos. I don’t really need to pat to see if it’s still there.

  6. How come the guys on the Today show don’t carry wallets? Am I the only person who thought that this was weird? The only person who doesn’t need a wallet is the President. I mean… does someone follow them around all day?

    1. I wouldn’t carry a wallet while I was teaching a yoga class. Not sure why you would carry one onto a TV stage.

    2. I can’t remember who it was who went on Letterman and demanded to see his wallet, to prove that he was a real person and not just some guy wearing a costume. Of course, Letterman didn’t have anything at all in his pockets, and the point was made. I think it was Penn?

    3. I suppose they change clothes and such before going to work. When I’m going to work out at the gym usually I leave my valuables in the locker – maybe these guys leave their phones and such in the changing rooms.

    4. It’s a job, like any other.  For many (most) people, their personal stuff is locked in a locker at the start of their shift.  Any woman who works at a desk stashes her purse in one of the drawers when she gets to work.  I’ve seen plenty of men dump at least some of what is in their pockets into a desk drawer as well.

      And in the case of TV personalities, they show up to the studio in street clothes and change into something appropriate from the wardrobe department.  Their wallets are with their clothes: in their dressing rooms.

      1. In the case of a wallet, if you regularly keep it in your back pocket while you’re sitting, you will eventually end up with a torqued spine.

  7. Maybe it’s not important, but Cory didn’t link to an Atlantic profile last month, but rather a New Yorker profile. Proper attribution and all that. 

  8. I’d love to see this guy try to pickpocket a group of Zen monks, except I’m pretty sure those guys don’t have anything to steal.

    1. I live near a residential community of — alright, Buddhist, but not Zen specifically — monks, and have often seen them at the mall. They wear bright orange robes and come with a handler, who deals with the sales clerk for them (though I think that’s because of a language barrier, not for reasons of spiritual purity). The last time I saw a gaggle of them, they were 1) buying sandals, with they wore with socks, and spent at least forty-five minutes deliberating before they made their purchase, and 2) carrying cell phones that hung from a wrist strap hung off the same arm as their prayer beads.

  9. I was also curious about the whole “not carrying a wallet” part of the deal. I have always wondered if people who are ridiculously wealthy even bother with a wallet or cash…..and the Queen of England. What’s she got in that purse? Dog treats for corgis?

    1. I don’t carry a wallet when I’m working. Do most people? Better to leave it safely in the desk, in my opinion. I’m certainly not wealthy, just an average cubicle warrior, but I wouldn’t wear it out on the floor even when I worked for Walmart.

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