A few years ago, at a Las Vegas convention for magicians, Penn Jillette, of the act Penn and Teller, was introduced to a soft-spoken young man named Apollo Robbins, who has a reputation as a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability. Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn’t have much to work with.
“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”
Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.
“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.
Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.
Robbins, who is thirty-eight and lives in Las Vegas, is a peculiar variety-arts hybrid, known in the trade as a theatrical pickpocket. Among his peers, he is widely considered the best in the world at what he does, which is taking things from people’s jackets, pants, purses, wrists, fingers, and necks, then returning them in amusing and mind-boggling ways. Robbins works smoothly and invisibly, with a diffident charm that belies his talent for larceny. One senses that he would prosper on the other side of the law. “You have to ask yourself one question,” he often says as he holds up a wallet or a watch that he has just swiped. “Am I being paid enough to give it back?”
In more than a decade as a full-time entertainer, Robbins has taken (and returned) a lot of stuff, including items from well-known figures in the worlds of entertainment (Jennifer Garner, actress: engagement ring); sports (Charles Barkley, former N.B.A. star: wad of cash); and business (Ace Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns: Patek Philippe watch). He is probably best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail in 2001. While Carter was at dinner, Robbins struck up a conversation with several of his Secret Service men. Within a few minutes, he had emptied the agents’ pockets of pretty much everything but their guns. Robbins brandished a copy of Carter’s itinerary, and when an agent snatched it back he said, “You don’t have the authorization to see that!” When the agent felt for his badge, Robbins produced it and handed it back. Then he turned to the head of the detail and handed him his watch, his badge, and the keys to the Carter motorcade.
In magic circles, Robbins is regarded as a kind of legend, though he largely remains, as the magician Paul Harris told me, “the best-kept secret in town.” His talent, however, has started gaining notice further afield. Recently, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the military have studied his methods for what they reveal about the nature of human attention. Teller, a good friend of Robbins’s, believes that widespread recognition is only a matter of time. “The popularity of crime as a sort of romantic thing in America is profoundly significant, and Apollo is tapping into that,” he told me. “If you think about it, magic itself has many of the hallmarks of criminal activity: You lie, you cheat, you try not to get caught—but it’s on a stage, it has a proscenium around it. When Apollo walks onstage, there’s a sense that he might have one foot outside the proscenium. He takes a low crime and turns it into an art form.” […]
Robbins strolled through the crowd, smiling and nodding, resting a hand on a shoulder here, lightly touching an elbow there. From time to time, he let his fingertips graze someone’s pocket, a technique called “fanning.” “He’s got a cell phone, keys, and maybe some cash in that right front pocket,” Robbins whispered to me, indicating one man. “What I’m doing is taking inventory and making sight maps and getting a feel for who these people are and what I’m going to do with them. I’m a jazz performer—I have to improvise with what I’m given.”
By the time he finished his circuit of the patio, his manner had changed: he was more animated and playful, his movements graceful, almost stylized. Later, he told me that he uses his pre-show scouting missions to segue into his thief persona. “Normally, when I’m not performing or stealing, I second-guess myself, I have doubts,” he said. “But when I get into that mode I’m invincible.” […]
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.” […]
To the extent that people imagine the training of pickpockets, they probably picture the sooty urchins of Fagin’s den, in “Oliver Twist,” rehearsing the theft of fob watches from gentlemen’s waistcoats. A similar sort of underworld academy, the School of the Seven Bells, is rumored to exist somewhere in Colombia: the final exam tests the ability to noiselessly remove items from the pockets of a jacket rigged with bells. But Robbins is self-taught, and his devotion to his studies borders on the monastic. Every moment not spent refining his technique or in some way expanding his knowledge of human nature and how to exploit it is, to his mind, time wasted.
In pursuit of his craft, Robbins has ended up incorporating principles from such disparate fields as aikido, sales, and Latin ballroom dancing. He is a devotee of books like Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” and has also immersed himself in the literature of criminal lore. The book that made the greatest impression on him was a paperback, published in 1964, called “Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Patterns,” by David W. Maurer, a professor of English who devoted his life to the study of raffish subcultures, before apparently killing himself, in 1981. Robbins loved the vivid trade lingo in “Whiz Mob,” and he continues to pepper his conversation with such terms as “pit” (inside jacket pocket) and “prat” (side pant pocket), “skinning the poke” (removing the cash from a stolen wallet and wiping it off before tossing it) and “kissing the dog” (the mistake of letting a victim see your face). Reading about how street pickpockets operated, Robbins was gratified to discover that he had arrived at similar methods intuitively.
Street pickpockets generally work in teams, known as whiz mobs or wire mobs. The “steer” chooses the victim, who is referred to generically as the “mark,” the “vic,” or the “chump,” but can also be categorized into various subspecies, among them “Mr. Bates” (businessman) and “pappy” (senior citizen). The “stall,” or “stick,” maneuvers the mark into position and holds him there, distracting his attention, perhaps by stumbling in his path, asking him for directions, or spilling something on him. The “shade” blocks the mark’s view of what’s about to happen, either with his body or with an object such as a newspaper. And the “tool” (also known as the “wire,” the “dip,” or the “mechanic”) lifts his wallet and hands it off to the “duke man,” who hustles away, leaving the rest of the mob clean. Robbins explained to me that, in practice, the process is more fluid—team members often play several positions—and that it unfolds less as a linear sequence of events than as what he calls a “synchronized convergence,” like a well-executed offensive play on the gridiron.
If a crew of pickpockets is like a football squad, then its star quarterback is the “cannon,” an honorific generally reserved for pickpockets skilled enough to ply their trade without the help of a team. This is also known as “working single o.” Robbins works single o. He is his own steer, stall, shade, and duke man, though, unlike street criminals, he lets his victims know that he will be picking their pockets.
One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. “When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,” he said, showing me. “The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.”
Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. “If I come at you head-on, like this,” he said, stepping forward, “I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable.” He took a step back. “So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.” He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. “See how I was able to close the gap?” he said. “I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets.”
Learning how magic tricks are done is often disappointing, because it’s not really magic. With Robbins, though, effect and method are one and the same, and seeing how he accomplishes his thefts is just as impressive as witnessing, or failing to witness, the acts themselves. Each movement dovetails perfectly with the next, with no extraneous steps or flourishes. When he places his arm somewhere, it’s not an accident; he’s blocking his victim’s view or locking him in place or temporarily stashing a wallet by pinning it against its owner’s body.
Robbins told me that he likes using the momentum of his victims’ own movements to remove things from their pockets rather than pulling them out himself. He showed me what he meant, first asking me to put my wallet in my inside jacket pocket. “So your wallet is in your pocket?” he said, pulling my jacket open.
I checked, and it was.
“O.K., good. So now I clip the wallet with my middle and index fingers, and as I close the jacket and turn you to the right it just slides out.”
As he spoke, Robbins turned me to the right, and then rested his right hand on my shoulder.
I said, “So if you were going to take the wallet that’s when you would have done it, on the turn?” Robbins brought his hand forward to show me that he was holding my wallet between his fingers. Even though he had explained each step along the way, I hadn’t felt a thing.
But physical technique, Robbins pointed out, is merely a tool. “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention,” he said. “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”
Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about “surfing attention,” “carving up the attentional pie,” and “framing.” “I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would,” he said. “If I lean my face close in to someone’s, like this”—he demonstrated—“it’s like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, ‘You had a wallet in your back pocket—is it still there?’ Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I’m free to steal from their jacket.”
Orchestrating it all is what Robbins, by way of Maurer, calls “grift sense.” “Grift sense is the closest thing to a sixth sense we have,” he told me. “It’s stepping outside yourself and seeing through the other person’s eyes, thinking through the other person’s mind, but it’s happening on a subconscious level.” He went on, “I can analyze how I do things, but the actual doing it—when the synapses just start firing—I can’t explain.”