Professional Pickpocket Apollo Robbins Explains the Art of Misdirection

You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys 

You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two. 

Unlike the Artful Dodger and other light-fingered urchins brought to life by Charles Dickens and, more recently, composer Lionel Bartprofessional pickpocket Apollo Robbins confines his practice to the stage.

Past exploits include relieving actress Jennifer Garner of her engagement ring and basketball Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley of a thick bankroll. In 2001, he virtually picked former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail clean, netting badges, a watch, Carter’s itinerary, and the keys to his motorcade. (Robbins wisely steered clear of their guns.)

How does he does he do it? Practice, practice, practice… and remaining hyper vigilant as to the things commanding each individual victims’s attention, in order to momentarily redirect it at the most convenient moment.

Clearly, he’s a put lot of thought into the emotional and cognitive components. In a TED talk on the art of misdirection, above, he cites psychologist Michael Posner’s “Trinity Model” of attentional networks. He has deepened his understanding through the study of aikido, criminal history, and the psychology of persuasion. He understands that getting his victims to tap into their memories is the best way to temporarily disarm their external alarm bells. His easygoing, seemingly spontaneous banter is but one of the ways he gains marks’ trust, even as he penetrates their spheres with a predatory grace.

Watch his hands, and you won’t see much, even after he explains several tricks of his trade, such as securing an already depocketed wallet with his index finger to reassure a jacket-patting victim that it’s right where it belongs. (Half a second later, it’s dropping below the hem of that jacket into Robbins’ waiting hand.) Those paws are fast!

I do wonder how he would fare on the street. His act depends on a fair amount of chummy touching, a physical intimacy that could quickly cause your average straphanger to cry foul. I guess in such an instance, he’d limit the take to one precious item, a cell phone, say, and leave the wallet and watch to a non-theoretical “whiz mob” or street pickpocket team.

Though he himself has always been scrupulous about returning the items he liberates, Robbins does not withhold professional respect for his criminal brothers’ moves. One real-life whiz mobber so impressed him during a television interview that he drove over four hours to pick the perp’s brains in a minimum security prison, a confab New Yorker reporter Adam Green described in colorful detail as part of a lengthy profile on Robbins and his craft.

One small detail does seem to have escaped Robbins’ attention in the second demonstration video below, in which reporter Green willingly steps into the role of vic’. Perhaps Robbins doesn’t care, though his mark certainly should. The situation is less QED than XYZPDQ.

While you’re taking notice, don’t forget to remain alert to what a potential pickpocket is wearing. Such attention to detail may serve you down at the station, if not onstage.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. The sleeping bag-like insulating properties of her ankle-length faux leopard coat make her very popular with the pickpockets of New York. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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