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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Björk’s 6 Favorite TED Talks, From the Mush­room Death Suit to the Vir­tu­al Choir

The Sci­ence of Willpow­er: 15 Tips for Mak­ing Your New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions Last from Dr. Kel­ly McGo­ni­gal

The Kit­ty Gen­ovese Myth and the Pop­u­lar Imag­i­na­tion

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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