Apollo Robbins has made a career out of upending people’s perceptions. Widely revered by his peers as the best pickpocket in the world, Robbins confines his gifts to the right side of the law, working as a sleight-of-hand artist, entertainer, speaker, security consultant, and all-around expert in the arts of deception. His methods have been studied by psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the military for what they can teach about how the brain works. Some of his most famous steals include Jennifer Garner’s engagement ring, the cartridge from Penn Jillette’s pen, and everything in the pockets of Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail. As Adam Green wrote in a 2013 New Yorker profile, “When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time.”
For Robbins, pickpocketing is a way to understand the mysteries of human attention and cognition. As he told Green: “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. My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.” We called up Robbins to get his expert take on the jewel heist in Ocean’s 8, and to find out why we’re all so obsessed with scams and cons right now.
How would you grade the film’s heist elements?
I thought the overall structure of the con was fun. It was reminiscent of some famous diamond heists and jewelry cons that happened over the last couple decades, like the Antwerp diamond heist and Gerald Blanchard stealing the Sisi Star. Both had similarities, so that was kind of a nice tipping of the hat. But most of the things I do are associated with pickpocketing, and in that sense I wasn’t as enthused. With the pickpocketing elements there seemed to be a lot of bump ‘n’ pull, which isn’t really what happens in the real world. People usually believe that in order to pick a pocket you need to bump into someone and that’s mostly a myth.
Did the stealing of the necklace seem plausible?
The stealing of the necklace was on point, in that it was a motivated action during a highly emotional time, where she’s getting sick inside the toilet. And so that would be a time when you would do it. I think they did a really good job of coming up with the timing of that, because all the constraints they had with security and finding the blind spot of the camera, those are very real concerns. That was very well structured: getting her funneled into the bathroom and then blindly getting someone in and out of that access. I wouldn’t have any notes on that.
What other challenges would be involved in pickpocketing a necklace that big?
The closest equivalent I could give you wouldn’t necessarily be jewelry but stealing a camera lens from around someone’s neck. That’s the same kind of idea, and one of the factors you have going on during is the weight. The weight is going to change drastically and that has to be accounted for. You can either substitute the weight by kind of putting pressure something at the location. Like, for a camera you would put pressure on the straps so they wouldn’t realize when the lens was being pulled. But you also need some kind of emotional event that it takes bigger priority to them than recognizing that the weight has changed.
How do you create those emotional events for people?
If it’s on the street it might be done through a fight or an altercation or an accusation. I’ve seen this done with Russian criminals: They kind of swarmed in and accused a tourist couple of having shorted a vendor. And during the course of all that fluster, they used a map to cover the lens, steal the camera off, and they’re holding on to the strap to make sure they can’t feel the weight go away.
Would an event like the Met Gala be quite easy to pickpocket at?
It probably would, I would imagine, because [people’s] guards would be lowered. At that point, you would want somebody on your team running countersurveillance just to see who’s watching you, because they would have a lot of security.
And then you just have to find an excuse to engage with someone physically?
Depending on what you’re stealing. With a necklace, you have to motivate why you’re touching someone around the neck, and it kind of raises their suspicion right away. It would require a pretty high kind of action. But stealing a watch could be a combination of things: having somebody reach inside of something else, or having them help me up a step, and holding onto their arm. Getting access to their pockets, getting access to anything that’s on their person, you don’t have to talk to them to do that.
What are the hardest and easiest pieces of jewelry to steal?
I tend to stay away from jewelry, because I think it has such a sentimental value for women. That said, I did do an event for Tiffany one time. But instead of stealing the jewelry off of people I was placing it on people without their knowledge.
Watch steals are rather simple depending on the type of clasp. And then it depends on whether they know that I’m stealing or whether I’m covertly doing it. Because my signature, what separates me, is that I tell people, “In three minutes I’m going to be wearing your watch, try to catch me.” And that’s more suspense based. Rings sometimes you need a little bit of lubricant, a soap or oil. So you can imagine needing to motivate that. Stealing rings used to be done while palm reading; you put a little oil on their palms to make the lines more readable. And as you turn their hand over you just steal the ring off of their finger. The hardest thing for me to steal off of a person really is eye glasses while they’re wearing them, because it changes their vision.
How do you do that?
I get my hand to their shoulder as I’m talking to them, kind of like an affirmation. And then I ask them a question that’s more important than their sight. Maybe something maybe past tense … like, “So the American Express you had in your wallet.” And by me saying that in the past tense, it raises this question. And if I see them bite on that hook, I’ll pull their glasses while they’re thinking about that. It really shows when we’re thinking inside of our head, there’s just so much we just don’t prioritize. Even though our eyes are open we just don’t see.
What makes for an easy target versus somebody who’s very difficult to take from?
Humility, surprisingly. Often, someone who is overconfident is a very easy target. An old friend of mine said that there’s two types of people in the world: There’s marks and there’s suckers. The only difference between the two is that suckers have to pay money to find out that they’re a mark. I find that to be very true when I’m working with people. If they’re overconfident, I can often use that overconfidence against them. I guess you could also frame it this way, as curiosity. Our perception is directly related to how curious we are. If we stop asking questions, we stop perceiving. And my goal, if I want to deceive you, is to get you to stop asking questions, to be satisfied with the answers you have.
At the Cut we’ve been writing about a lot of stories that have involved scams and heists — we’ve been calling it the Summer of Scam. Do you have any insight into why people are so sort of fascinated with con men and women, particularly right now?
I think it’s been like this for a long time. There’s two questions I generally get asked: One, how do I stop myself from being a victim to these types of things, and two, how can I learn to do these things? Which is such an interesting juxtaposition. People vicariously want to be the person that has the power to do this. So I tend to think of it like a convict petting zoo. They want the ability to be able to have the mouse play with the cat without getting eaten.
Any of the scams, heists, cons, the things that you’re looking at when you’re writing about them, a key element of a lot of con artists tends to be with working outside the brackets. Meaning that there’s this frame of when you believe the event occurred, and a lot of it is actually either before or after you think the event has occurred. And you can look at that as a formula for almost any type of major crime. The gentleman who did that diamond heist with the Sisi Star, he used to break into banks with the ATM machine. And he would come in before the bank was even fully built and pretend to be one of the construction workers. And he would build countersurveillance speakers into the drywall, he would build a little channel into the air-duct system for him to get away, so by the time they’re viewing the crime they have no perception that someone had been involved that early in the bank’s process.
You’ve said in the past that you hoped to work on a one-man show. Is that still the goal?
That New Yorker profile was a process — it was eight years during the course of the writing of that profile, and by the time it came out, I’d started to become more fascinated with how society in general is deceived, whether it’s what we choose to believe in or how we question reality.
Whether that’s through a TV show or whether that’s through a live training exercise I do, or a talk, or maybe a book, I’m trying to let people question their normal thought processes. So much of the way we deceive ourselves is using our brain’s natural tendency to try to be efficient — but in order for us to learn critical thinking, we have to question all those things. Perception can teach us so much about how we can think more critically.
Bertrand Russell had this philosophy — was it 1920s, 1930s — he said, “The problem with the world today is that fools and fanatics are so certain, and wise men are full of doubt.” I think that’s the real problem now: politically left or right, it’s the problem with people being absolutely certain and not having the flexibility to question.