A few years ago, at a Las Vegas convention for magicians, Penn Jillette, of the act Penn and Teller, was introduced to a soft-spoken young man named Apollo Robbins, who has a reputation as a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability. Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, "a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole," was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn't have much to work with.
"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.
Robbins, who is thirty-eight and lives in Las Vegas, is a peculiar variety-arts hybrid, known in the trade as a theatrical pickpocket. Among his peers, he is widely considered the best in the world at what he does, which is taking things from people's jackets, pants, purses, wrists, fingers, and necks, then returning them in amusing and mind-boggling ways. Robbins works smoothly and invisibly, with a diffident charm that belies his talent for larceny. One senses that he would prosper on the other side of the law. "You have to ask yourself one question," he often says as he holds up a wallet or a watch that he has just swiped. "Am I being paid enough to give it back?"
In more than a decade as a full-time entertainer, Robbins has taken (and returned) a lot of stuff, including items from well-known figures in the worlds of entertainment (Jennifer Garner, actress: engagement ring); sports (Charles Barkley, former N.B.A. star: wad of cash); and business (Ace Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns: Patek Philippe watch). He is probably best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter's Secret Service detail in 2001. While Carter was at dinner, Robbins struck up a conversation with several of his Secret Service men. Within a few minutes, he had emptied the agents' pockets of pretty much everything but their guns. Robbins brandished a copy of Carter's itinerary, and when an agent snatched it back he said, "You don't have the authorization to see that!" When the agent felt for his badge, Robbins produced it and handed it back. Then he turned to the head of the detail and handed him his watch, his badge, and the keys to the Carter motorcade.
In magic circles, Robbins is regarded as a kind of legend, though he largely remains, as the magician Paul Harris told me, "the best-kept secret in town." His talent, however, has started gaining notice further afield. Recently, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the military have studied his methods for what they reveal about the nature of human attention. Teller, a good friend of Robbins's, believes that widespread recognition is only a matter of time. "The popularity of crime as a sort of romantic thing in America is profoundly significant, and Apollo is tapping into that," he told me. "If you think about it, magic itself has many of the hallmarks of criminal activity: You lie, you cheat, you try not to get caught–but it's on a stage, it has a proscenium around it. When Apollo walks onstage, there's a sense that he might have one foot outside the proscenium. He takes a low crime and turns it into an art form." …