The Art of Controlling Attention: A Master Pickpocket’s Story


Apollo Robbins, also known as The Gentleman Thief, has been manipulating people’s attention to steal things for a very long time. To many magicians, Robbins is known as a kind of legend who combines methods from traditional pickpocketing as well as techniques from fields like “aikido, sales, and Latin ballroom dancing.” As an entertainer for over a decade, Robbins has pick over 80,000 pockets. His act involves taking something from the subject and returning it to them in a clever manner.

He famously had an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail when he chatted up one of the agents and masterfully emptied his pockets in a matter of minutes. Robbins pulled out Carter’s itinerary from his own pocket, and when the agent tried to take it back and show Robbins his badge, Robbins pulled that out of his own pocket as well. He then turned to the head of Carter’s detail and handed him his watch, badge, and the keys to the motercade. Adam Green of The New Yorker recently profiled the prolific Robbins.

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.
 

Robbins has appeared on multiple shows where in he performs his act. Even when he explains what he is doing as he is doing it, he moves too quickly for the audience, let alone the subject to notice.

Robbins’s method is almost completely unique. He was never trained in the art of pickpocketing and wasn’t exposed to literature on it until he had been stealing as an entertainer for multiple years. He starting looking for books on pickpocketing so he could learn to describe what he was doing and found out that many of the techniques described in the books he had come to intuitively. But Robbins had some techniques unique to himself. Green writes:

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.”
 

When Robbin’s is taking from people, his act is part magic and part neuroscience. He uses the fact that people have a limited amount of attention and by manipulating people to focus on certain things, he can take advantage of their distraction to steal from them.

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.”
 


Attribution

“A Pickpocket’s Tale,” The New Yorker


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