Apollo Robbins Will Steal Your Wallet: A Conversation with the World's Best Pickpocket

Apollo Robbins is good at stealing stuff. For years, this renown pickpocket entertained Vegas audiences by stealing their hearts-- generally by stealing their wristwatches and money clips. But everything changed for Apollo after he picked the pocket of one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents during one of his shows. I sat with Robbins to talk about the art of pickpocketing, life after Vegas, and why he lets gypsies steal stuff from him.

How'd you get into pickpocketing business?
My half brothers were involved with crime. But I was too young to participate. I also had certain disabilities that prevented me [from joining in]: like braces on my legs. When I became a teen, I ran into a friend at a magic shop who took me under his wing. I started reading up on magical theory and immediately blended that with what my brothers had shown me.

Your style of pickpocketing is based in magic?
I applied my magic in ways that were invasive, where it happened on people. There are two kinds of magic. If you think of it like martial arts, there's sparring where you are doing it with a partner and the other is kata where you're doing an exposition for the audience. Many times, illusions or magic sets are designed as an exposition for the audience to watch, but the the style I do with the pickpocketing is directly interactive. So I used that idea to build my pickpocket act in Vegas.

You mentioned a story about Jimmy Carter's secret service man. How did stealing from an president's bodyguard turn into your big break?
My show was part-variety, part-magic, so I brought people on stage. Then I'd steal all their stuff and give it back to them. But 7 or 8 years ago, I pick-pocketed one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents. After that, I got approached [to consult] police departments and security individuals. I got to visit prisons and I started learning the thinking and skill set of real thieves.
So, there's a difference in how thieves and magicians pick pockets?

The thinking is the same. But you're in a different context and coming from a different place. For a street thief, the priority--more than dexterity or nimble fingers-- is being able to monitor where someone's attention is. It's fascinating. They don't so much manipulate attention [like a magician does], because they don't want to be memorable. But they do want to know where someone's attention is. If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.

And what about a magician?
You have to monitor the responses you're getting from the person you're working with and adjust your performance. In the same way that a film director would use a film lens to blur out a certain item or use a spotlight, I use certain movements that draw the eye instinctually.

So, what are some of the tricks a successful pockpocket will use?
If you keep eye contact as you approach someone and go to their side, the person will stay very focused on on your face and upper body because it's alarming to them that you're keeping eye contact. But if you break eye contact as you approach from the front and then you step to their side, you can use this. If you don't want them to focus on something you're doing with your hands, just by tilting your head into their personal space, it'll draw their attention, and they'll want to look at you. I use that when I'm stealing.

That's crazy! Is it safe to meet you in person?
Generally, yes. [Laughing] It depends on whether I'm on or off the clock!

Any other tricks of the trade you don't mind sharing?
My business is basically a business of false assumptions -- I create assumptions that look like reality and take advantage of those. I'll tell someone I'm going to try and steal from them and then challenge them to catch me. Then I'll use hand movements to create false assumptions. I'll put my hand in their pocket, and when it comes out, they're expecting that I would have stolen something. Then I create a ruse, by moving my hand in a half-circle. Their eyes will instinctively chase the movement, almost like a cat chases a string-- it's fascinating.

So, the ruse is in the half-circle?
Exactly. If you keep your hand movement in a straight line, the person won't follow it. They'll snap to the end location and they'll snap back to the pocket, and they'll catch your other hand if it's doing something. But that's not the only trick. If I'm going to steal from someone, I'll lock onto what I'm about to steal, but I wait. I'll use statements and situations that create an inner dialogue so they'll second guess themselves. They may say "I think he's up to this." And you can detect that. You develop a sense to detect that.

And when they're caught in this inner dialogue, then what?
When they have that inner dialogue, it suppresses their outside senses, so they can't feel when you're pulling something and they can't see it, even their glasses are getting pulled right off their face. There's a pickpocket who specializes in this named Bora. He removes glasses without people ever noticing, even though their field of vision has changed.

That sounds incredible. So, is pickpocketing still an art that people are practicing on the streets?
Definitely. That's what been interesting to me. You have organized teams that have become very prevalent in the US, especially around large sporting events -- The Super-Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. I set myself up to be pickpocketed in Spain. I just wanted to feel the sensation.

How did it feel?
Fascinating. Two Gypsy ladies outside of Alhambra locked up a frame on me. One lady was reaching inside a bag to pull out some fern leaves and the other was locking up my elbow and trying to steal from behind. I saw them doing it to other people, so I positioned myself so I'd be in the queue for it.

So, what's next for you?
I'm working with a show called Leverage on TNT as an advisor, teaching them how to do these types of techniques on television. I also work with the actors and the writers. And I'll be on an episode this fall. Until then, you can catch me at istealstuff.com.

Got any leads for who we should interview next? Email the person's name and the questions you're curious about to chetan@mentalfloss.com. If we end up using your lead, we'll be sure to include your name!

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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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North America: East or West Coast?
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