Warner Bros. Recruits World’s Greatest Pickpocket, Apollo Robbins, for Will Smith Film
In 2001, the Gentlemen Thief, Apollo Robbins, was performing at a show at Caesar’s Palace, in Las Vegas. He was told former President Jimmy Carter was coming to the show, but, owing to Robbins profession, he wasn’t allowed to shake Carter’s hand. Instead, Robbins chatted up his Secret Service men. A few minutes later, he held up a copy of Carter’s itinerary, which an agent snatched from him and said, “You don’t have the authorization to see that!” Robbins also didn’t have the authorization to empty many of the agents’ pockets of just about everything save their weapons. When an agent went for his badge, Robbins had that, too. He gave all the items back to the head of the detail…including the keys to the Carter motorcade. This ordeal, and many others, is beautifully captured in Adam Green’s profile of Robbins for the New Yorker here. For a visual of Robbins methods, watch him fleece Green below.
I’ve seen Apollo Robbins perform twice. The first time was at the Rubin Museum in New York, where he shared the stage with cognitive scientist Marisa Carrasco to offer real-time proof of the many, shall we see ‘weak spots,’ in human focus. Robbins’ expertise isn’t just how to relieve you of your possessions, it’s how to manipulate your focus, rejigger your conscious priorities, and make you blind to what’s happening, literally, right in front of your eyes. For this reason, and others, Robbins has been brought on to consult for the Department of Defense.
The second time I saw Robbins perform was in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he took the stage at TED Global to talk about, and demonstrate, how flaws in our perception allow him to take a man’s wallet and place it on his shoulder without him even knowing it.
After speaking to Robbins, I brought him into the pressroom to meet some of my colleagues. He managed to slip off one’s ring (a tight gold wedding band with diamonds), tie a string around it, and place it another coworker’s pocket…without any of us seeing him do it despite the fact we were surrounding him, merely feet away, paying close attention.
At least, we thought we were.
Robbins' life sounds like a great movie—born with fine and gross motor-skills deficits, he had to be fitted with a series of metal-and-leather leg braces. Doctors told his parents he’d never walk normally (his legs bowed outward, his feet twisted in), or have full use of his hands. Robbins went to rehabilitation therapists to simply learn how to walk without tripping and to develop coordination in his hands. Today, his degree of dexterity, and ability to manipulate our focus, is practically unparalleled. Watch the below clip, and see if you can catch Robbins' biggest con. Here's a hint–it has nothing to do with picking the gentlemen's pocket that he brings on stage.
Based in Las Vegas (where else?), Robbins career has skyrocketed. He’s gone from picking the pockets (he returns everything) of people waiting in line to see Penn & Teller to being featured on TV shows (like National Geographic’s Brain Games) and traveling all over the world showcasing his talents.
Robbins is currently serving as a consultant on Warner Bros. grifting movie Focus, which began filming in New Orleans last month. Robbins is helping directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa conceive and choreograph original slight-of-hand maneuvers that, they say, have never before been seen on film.
We spoke to Robbins about his incredible career, why we’re so susceptible to his gifts, and what his dream project is.
When I read Adam Green’s profile of you in The New Yorker, and I’m sure I’m the 10,000th person who’s said this to you, but all I could think was, ‘his life would be an incredible movie.’
I’ve had a lot of documentary inquiries. That’s always a questionable thing. You have to find out, ‘What is the vision they’re trying to go for?’ This is very personal.
Especially your childhood, and the medical problems you suffered.
I have had a bunch of TV show requests from that aspect, trying to use it as a platform, kind of like The Mentalist, they’ve asked me about some different angles on that. I think those things are probably just preliminary discussions.
Can you tell me a little about how you had to teach yourself basic motor skills?
A lot of people assume I have a lot of dexterity with my hands, but my hands were something I really had train myself how to use. I had so much trouble even holding a pencil that I had to use both hands. I really had to go through a deliberate process learning every skill I did, and it took me much longer than the average kid, but I would chew on it like a bulldog and wouldn’t let go.
Have you ever thought about writing your own script?
I haven’t thought about that yet. I’ve been asked about being a co-creator in that space, but I just don’t know. I would like my life to be a gateway to this world, and the difference between what the reality of the pickpocket world is versus what Hollywood depicts it as. It’s an interesting thing. How does somebody rationalize what they do when they victimize somebody else? I enjoy playing with this shadow economy and this shadow world. For me, it’s not just about doing a film, it’s about how, collectively, do all of these things I’m doing in my life factor when I’m gone? What am I leaving behind? I’d like to have a central purpose, versus just leaving a dollar.
Right, instead of ‘look how cool my life was.’
Yeah, I think that there are interesting things about my life that are what brought me to what I’m doing…an unraveling of myself. My fascination with attention lead me to find out I have ADHD, and I’m off the drugs. It’s interesting trying to manage or control the attention of others when I was, in a lot of ways, learning how to manage my own attention.
Most people think of me as being impenetrable to the deceptions or cons I employ when, in actuality, yeah, I’m human, too. I know my moves work because they work on me,
Is ADHD good for a pick-pocket or bad?
[Laughs] When you think about pick-pocketing, I think the biggest skill ADHD gives you is being able to perceive the mind of your mark. Think about attention as a budget – if you’re looking at yourself when you’re making a call, how dedicated are you to that call? If total focus is a dollar, are you spending eighty cents of your attention on that call? Fifty cents? Because if I can see how much attention you’re spending, then that’s my risk analysis.
Has your ADHD helped in any other way?
My perception tests highly under stress. What I’ve found when I tried to break that down was that I had hyper focus under duress, and that was a byproduct of the ADHD. When the stress is situational [as in, I’m going to lift that wallet], it calms me because it gives me multiple inputs to perceive at the same time. So all the voices inside my head, all the variables, all the choices that I’m having trouble making, suddenly solidify. In stressful environments that’s much easier for me to do.
It’s sort of creepy that our conscious mind is just a little bit behind what’s going on, and that you’re able to take advantage of that. It’s kind of Matrix-y, this notion that we’re not seeing the world as it really is.
Yeah, and there’s a lag that’s interesting between your conscious and your awareness. You can’t be aware of something unless you pay attention to it. It makes sense, because attention is your perception’s steering wheel for your eyes and ears. The other thing that’s interesting is that you can be aware of something without tending to it. Which means that it goes into the radar but you’re just not attending to it. It’s the cocktail affect.
I already like the sound of this.
Well it’s the idea you could be talking in a group of friends at a bar, and there can be all this chatter around you, but if someone says your name nearby, suddenly you attend to it, “Oh they’re talking about me!” So that means, a portion of your mind is still being actively used to monitor your surrounding that says your name is important.
That’s fascinating. That probably also explains how you can be talking to somebody and somehow feel, “Ok, I sense that a pretty woman just walked in.”
Yup. And some of that is in your automated system where you’re instincts are involved. Daniel Kahneman wrote a book called “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely are both great thinkers in this space, which is known as behavior economics. It’s this idea that our brain works in counterintuitive ways—it’s almost divided into intuition and logic. Intuition allows us to do things very quickly, but we want to live in logic because we want to be critical thinkers and not magical thinkers, we don't want and to fall prey to our biases. But we can’t live like that because we all work by instinct in some way. Like when a pretty girl walks by. The hardest part is when she walks by and your girlfriend’s there.
Yes, that is the hardest part. It would be nice to have you around to explain that it’s all just instinct, part of our reptilian brains that we can't control.
Do you think its possible for people to become more aware of their surroundings, and of their own focus limitations, if they learn more about how their own minds work?
Completely. That’s why I want to do with TV right now. I do this TV show for National Geographic called Brain Games. I’m now trying to push a show about critical thinking minds. On the surface level, it’s sexy, it’s deception, but underneath, the live-viewing audience is learning. Covert learning! Knock them on their head so they think “oh that’s really cool” and then they walk away and they’ve got that skill in their head now. And they’ve learned to think a little bit more and be more aware by recognizing they’re vulnerable to these things.
Here’s a simple, slightly less interesting question, but, how the heck do you get a tight watch or a tight ring off somebody? How’d you teach Will Smith how to do that?
Lubrication? [Laughs] With a tight watch, it’s all about prioritizing—I touch somebody and then wonder, 'Why is he touching me?' If you understand why I’m touching you, now I have to ask you a question that is more important than me touching you. So I ask and you forget about me touching you. If I do it correctly, if I understand you correctly, if I get inside your priority system and I kind of get the access code to that, I can start readjusting your priorities, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m just strictly trying to get in there and play. 'Who are you with? Why are you in this group? What’s important to you? What’s going to make you uncomfortable, what’s going to make you happy? What makes you nervous?'
When you’re taking people’s belongings, you kind of make them feel dim. Like, why am I so slow, I thought I was smarter than this?
Right, but you’re not slow, you’re just human.
But none of us is paying enough attention.
The thing that I strive for in life is to make people move from being unconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent. I want you to know that you don’t know. And I’m not saying I know more than you know, but I know how to get you there. I’m not saying I have those answers, I just want you to know you don’t know – we don’t know! The scientific process is to be neutral. It’s to be curious. There are no absolutes. And I think we’re so quick to jump to beliefs, to jump to assumptions, to solidify, and I think a little bit more curiosity and flexibility helps us out immensely.
Have you ever heard of this movie, Pickpocket?
Yeah. There’s another one called Harry in Your Pocket with James Coburn.
Are there any thieving, pick-pocket or con men movies you love?
I love Matchstick Men because of the vulnerability with Nicolas Cage being OCD. I like James Coburn in Pickpocket. Overall, I thought the film was interesting. And of course I’m working on Focus with Will Smith, teaching him how to be a thief.
Any other movies that do it for you?
Have you seen the movie The Game with Michael Douglas?
Yes. He signs up for that service that turns his life upside down, throwing him into this insane series of twists and turns. Basically he turns his boring life into a thriller.
That’s my goal.
To create a company that does that.
A company that creates an entire alternate reality for someone?
To create massive, con-level experiences that affect behavior for people in positive ways. I believe it can be done. I’ve played with this already; I’ve done small versions of this for the military and different groups. It’s interesting once you take the training wheels off. People don’t know they’re playing with actors, the line is blurred between what’s real and what’s not real. So I’m doing that in Vegas now, and I’m trying to eventually open it up where it’d be great if I could have your flight into Vegas, the airplane, the TSA agents, all of it as a secondary element, all of it becomes part of the experience for you.
I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘Sleep No More’ in New York, that immersive play?
Yup, and Punch Drunk [the people who created ‘Sleep No More’], and I’ve heard a lot about ARG’s, alternate reality games in that space, too. I’m fascinated with all of those areas, and that’s where I’m looking for people who have expertise in immersive storytelling, specifically using technology. Geo-fencing to track your phone as you go through different environments. Like The Hunger Games, so when you move from one place to the next, a tracker’s being used. So that’s where I’m heading. It’s an ambitious endeavor, and it’s not just a scavenger hunt, it’s something more. What if at the same time, we’re profiling you so when you leave the game, you walk out with information about yourself and you know more about yourself based on the decisions you make?
It sounds very cool, if not potentially illegal. How would you design it?
The access I have now with the social psychologists, we can design that, and if you choose to play, the question can be; what do you want to learn about yourself? For business, for sales, for marketing, I just think it is a very interesting area.
Have you heard about the idea of the magic circle?
I don’t think so. It sounds like a Dungeon & Dragons thing.
In game design, games have magic circles – the boundaries. What’s the game and what’s not. So an easy way to think of this is a boxing match. If I punch you inside the ring, that’s the game, if I punch you outside the ring, that’s a felony. But this blurry line – you don’t know what’s the game and what’s not, that’s that new world. That’s the new world of games. Now with technology and cell phones and new types of theaters, I think that’s really where it’s heading. To me, that’s what I really enjoy now
It would be a lot of fun. And creepy. It's like creating misdirection on a grand scale, only with the hopes of revealing something about somebody.
Misdirection is not about looking off in the dark, it’s about looking straight at me and you’re still not going to process everything because you prioritize everything according to what’s important to you. So when you look at me, and I understand that you’re prioritizing, I can just make certain things invisible to you. I can make you not feel things, I can make you not remember things, and that’s a pretty big, scary Jedi mind trick kind of thing. There’s a Henry David Thoreau quote, which is so important; “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Featured image: Apollo Robbins at TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson