Apollo Robbins, Pickpocket

Fascinating story:

“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.

Really—read the whole thing.

EDITED TO ADD (1/6): A video accompanying the article. There’s much more on YouTube.

Posted on January 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM31 Comments


Calvin January 2, 2013 9:41 AM

A little more context: “Jillette” = Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, so not some random guy off the street

Clive Robinson January 2, 2013 9:51 AM

And in the UK over Xmas-NewY break we have had a number of repeats of a number of different versions of Oliver…

I still remember first hearing Ron Moody playing Fagin singing,

Robin Hood, what a crook.
Gave away, what he took!
Charity’s fine, subscribe to mine.
Get out and pick-a-pocket or two,
You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys
You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two

Like the “Great Escape”, “Mary Popins” and that dreadfull tale of the Von Trapp Family Singers “The Sound of Music”. UK holiday TV would not be the same without Oliver…

Dave Walker January 2, 2013 10:06 AM

The cartridge-removal trick sounds very impressive – the pen would have to be returned without the victim noticing, which is likely to be rather harder than just removing it.

Also, the article brings to mind a recollection of when I was the willing victim (off-stage, at a pub) of a stage pickpocket, some years ago. I was able to spot when my calculator, an HP-48 (which is a fairly hefty piece of kit, for a pocket item) was lifted from the inside pocket of my jacket, not because I actually felt the pickpocket’s hand remove it, but because I felt the weight distribution of my jacket and its contents change. He admitted when I picked him up on it, that he didn’t expect the calculator to be so heavy, and estimation of an object’s weight and whether its loss would be expected to be felt, was also why he hadn’t tried to go for my watch (a clockwork Breitling with a steel case and strap). He did successfully lift a number of light items, though, and I was fairly impressed.

While it’s a very niche case, this might be considered a plausible argument for making valuable items that people would typically have on their person in a pocket, heavy enough to notice the loss of.

Dirk Praet January 2, 2013 10:44 AM

You may also wish to check out Scam City, a TV show where host Conor Woodman and his crew aim to expose pick pockets and other scammers in towns all over the world, then when caught ask them how to explain how it all works. Really interesting.

Figureitout January 2, 2013 1:03 PM

When talking about pickpocket-proof clothing, I assume they mean the tops of the pockets are tight so you can feel movement. Maybe one of those homebrew camera tasers can be modded into clothing, but friendly fire risk may be too high.

Also notice how he comes up to you, and dominates the conversation, “Say yes.” “Yes.”. A simple counter for it is to ignore the domination; as it’s obvious the guy’s a showman and wants to control your attention. I still remember in Europe, someone set-up a mobile puppet show; watch out for stuff like that.

Dirk Praet January 2, 2013 3:13 PM

@ Dr. I. Needtob Athe

it’s dated January 7, 2013

While most of us have coffee and cereals, Bruce bends time for breakfast.

MingoV January 2, 2013 5:22 PM

It’s likely that the pen pickpocketing and cartridge removal happened prior to the filmed encounter.

Mort January 2, 2013 5:43 PM

Cool stuff. I would love to see what kind of things he could smuggle past a security checkpoint.

Z. Constantine January 2, 2013 10:32 PM

There are duplicates and the “paper” is actually a material which is absorbed by the envelope/a coating on the inside of the envelope.

Maybe flash paper with a particularly-thick/fire-proof envelope? (There’s probably a better combination)

TL;DR – This statement only makes sense if you read the whole article.

simon January 3, 2013 3:11 AM

‘Pickpocketing’ acts are notorious for needing stooges and plants which is why you don’t see so many of them as other illusionists. Expensive to run (staff) for the resulting effect plus the traditional issues with stooges (as in the Prestige movie) usually result in too much buck for the bang as it were. They also rely on the build up ie the convincers have to be in early so you really really think your going to see a hapless member of the public losing watches, etc etc. The article reads like one superstar helping out a fellow lower level performer. Wouldn’t be surprised if Robbins is on the PandT bill in Vegas. Not being cynical because lifters are great to watch and really rare outside of variety. Fun to read.

Clive Robinson January 3, 2013 3:52 AM

@ Z. Constantine,

Maybe flash paper with a particularly-thick/fire- proof envelope? (There’s probably a better combination)

Yes my first thought was chocolate, it’s a substance that melts at slightly less than full body temprature. As a result it melts in your mouth and inside pocket but not normaly in your hand which is closer to room temprature some 10C or 20F degrees colder.

Now if you think about it prior to the trick a person from the audiance would occupy their mind and hands with the heart not the envelope. So you would put any temprature sensitive component of the trick in the envelope not the heart. To ensure this occupation of the mind the person handing them the heart and envelope could ask the person to write a personal message on question on the heart.

Thus what you are looking for is a substance for the heart that easily disolves or sublimates with a catalyst. For the envelope you are looking for a temprature sensitive component that locks the catalyst up at room temprature or below, but at say 30C releases it to disolve or sublimate the heart and a liner that either absorbs the dissolved heart or is pourous in some way to release the sublimated gas. It would further help if the catalyst changed the colour of the heart from red to some other colour such as white or transparent such that it more easily matches the inside colour of the envelope.

Another thought that occured was to do it by some mechanical means like the simple trick of making objects disapear in a bag that stage magicians have used for years (the bag in reality has two pouches inside, the object goes in the first pouch that is then closed leaving the second empty pouch open making it look like the object has disapeared).

So by having the envelope lined with a double pouch such that the heart goes in one pouch and when the envelope is closed and sealed that pouch bonds closed. When the person tears open the envelope the heart is effectivly laminated into one wall of the envelope and the person then sees only the other pouch that is now emppty.

There are problems with both ideas (not least the chemicals could be poisonous or damage clothes) but it indicates the trick could be made to work.

Tim R. January 3, 2013 5:39 AM

Cool. I was pick pocketed once by a bunch of kids on the street (wallet, not much cash and no cards at the time). My old man was paranoid when he visited the city, always had a safety pin on his jacket inside pocket.

Also interesting the idea of what you can sneak past airport security. I once (inadvertently) got a small pocket knife through security. It was on a bunch of keys that I was told to take out of my pocket. I was holding them in my hand as I was patted down, guy never even looked at the keys. I’m sure a pro could misdirect even a seasoned security guard.

Mike B January 3, 2013 6:19 AM

Fortunately pickpocketing is one place where American style criminal justice excels compared to European style. The reason pickpocketing is so much less common in the United States is because it requires a high degree of skill and usually works in a sort of master/apprentice system with masters often referred to as Fagens. In Europe where criminal penalties are less and general quality of life crimes are often not prosecuted these organizations can persist for generations. In the US prosecutors learned that if you could throw the Fagans in jail for several decades the “art” would become lost because wood be pickpockets would never find a master and would probably resort to general stickups and muggings which are a lot easier to detect.

B-Con January 3, 2013 2:14 PM

A great article.

One interesting excerpt:

One of the first things that Robbins ever explained to me was his observation that the eye will follow an object moving in an arc without looking back to its point of origin, but that when an object is moving in a straight line the eye tends to return to the point of origin, the viewer’s attention snapping back as if it were a rubber band. Robbins discussed his theory with Macknik and Martinez-Conde, who devised an experiment to test it. Subjects were shown two videos of Robbins performing a simple coin trick while lab equipment tracked the motion of their eyes. In one video, Robbins pulled his hand away in an arc at the crucial moment of the trick; in the other, it moved in a straight line. Sure enough, the eyes of the viewers followed Robbins’s hand more persistently when it described an arc.

Dennis January 3, 2013 3:18 PM

I suppose it’s possible that Jillette was in cahoots with Robbins, that the writer was lying about what Robbins did to him, that the Secret Service story is apocryphal, etc.

But if you accept that some of Robbins’ demonstrations of skill were for real, and that Jillette’s professed dislike of pickpockets is for real, a little Bayesian analysis suggests that Jillette mostly likely was not in cahoots with Robbins.

A more plausible scenario is that Robbins stole Jillette’s pen cartridge before they started talking. I don’t know whether that would be more or less difficult than doing it while directing Jillette’s attention elsewhere for a “trick.”

Guy January 3, 2013 4:58 PM

The anecdote has me wondering if pickpocketing might be countered by focusing one’s attention on the sense of touch, rather than sight or hearing. That is, on feeling whether things are being lifted from one’s pockets rather than trying to follow their hands around.

Then again, I suppose that they will be doing their best to distract people and move them around the whole time, so they may well succeed in lifting items while you’re distracted and trying to answer a question or whatever.

renoX January 4, 2013 2:57 AM

The anecdote has me wondering if pickpocketing might be countered by focusing one’s attention on the sense of touch,

The problem is that unless you’re focussing on it, it seems that the sense of touch is slow: once I was stolen a (cheap!!) watch, it took me around 10s to “register” the sensation because I was busy climbing stairs at the same time, of course this is far too long to catch the thief..

Jason January 4, 2013 8:19 AM

Penn Jillette is huge. (in reputation and personality and size).

If you’re a pickpocket in a room containing Penn Jillette, you absolutely steal Penn Jillette’s stuff, and you do it before he knows you’re a pickpocket.

jkm January 4, 2013 9:11 AM

When talking about pickpocket-proof clothing, I assume they mean the tops of the pockets are tight so you can feel movement.

No. Each pocket is provisioned with a mouse trap.

aaaa January 5, 2013 3:32 AM

@Mike B Where did you get that from? I live in Europe and never heard of fagens.

I think that I have seen some similar term in a few hundred years old book for kids, but I can not recall how it is named.

It was a story about a good boy having to join a group of crooks, but it is a.) a story, b.) few hundred years old.

Clive Robinson January 5, 2013 10:31 AM

@ aaaa,

I think that I have seen some similar term in a few hundred years old book for kids, but I can no recall how it is named

The story is “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens,


The story has been made into atleast three English language films, a world famous musical, and several other non English language productions.

As I indicated above for some reason unknown to me “Oliver” gets shown on British TV just about every year at either Christmas or Easter. At least another Dickens story “A Christmas Carol” has a reason to be shown at Christmas as the name suggests.

The original story is worth reading as it has a grit and malice in it coupled with black humor that does not come through in the more whimssical films or stage plays.

Dirk Praet January 6, 2013 3:53 PM

The most interesting part of the article is on page 8, where it is mentioned that Robbins’ work has even been noticed by neuroscientists. Recommended viewing: the three-part “Brain Games” series on National Geographic, among others featuring Robbins doing some of his magic with clever background information on how exactly the human brain works and how it is that we don’t pick up on what he is doing.

@ Clive, @ aaa

Fagin and Oliver Twist are mentioned in the 9-page New Yorker article.

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