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Professional Pickpocket Apollo Robbins Plays Not My Job

BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME, the NPR news quiz. I'm Bill Kurtis, and here's your host at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco, Peter Sagal.


Thank you, Bill. Thank you everybody.


SAGAL: You're too kind. Listen, it's summer and when I was a kid many, many years ago, I spent my summers working in our family grocery store - the Evergood Market in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bill, what was your summer job?

KURTIS: I've always been an anchorman, Peter. I announced my own birth on the 6 o'clock news.


SAGAL: Well, those of us who weren't so blessed by destiny used to spend our time wishing we had a better summer job. This hour, we deliver. We'll replay some interviews with people who have got the best jobs ever.

KURTIS: This just in - we'll start with a man who has the coolest job ever, professional pickpocket, Apollo Robbins.

SAGAL: Are you always in anchorman mode, Bill?

KURTIS: Peter, I know this looks like a chalk-striped bespoke three-piece suit, but it's actually my skin.


SAGAL: That's a little gross, actually. Well, when we spoke to Apollo Robbins in March of 2013, I asked him how he got into that line of work.


APOLLO ROBBINS: The short answer is it's a family business I guess.

SAGAL: Oh, I see.


ROBBINS: But the long form, I started as a sleight of hand artist when I was an early teen, and I found that picking pockets was a little bit more lucrative. And I got invited to work in a show out in Las Vegas when I was 21. But I'd been exposed as a kid to - my half brothers had been involved with some illegal activity and it kind of rubbed off.

SAGAL: Right. But now you do this - you're legit. You do a show, and basically, we've seen you on video and we've read about it. Basically, you invite people onstage and you rob them blind while they're standing there.

ROBBINS: It's part of my community service I guess you'd say.


SAGAL: I understand. The amazing thing is they know that's what you're going to do.

ROBBINS: Yes. I think that's kind of my forte is that I tell people beforehand that I'm going to steal from them. And a lot of people think that that makes them safe, and hopefully I wake them up a little bit.

SAGAL: So tell me about a show. Tell me what you'll do. So you invite someone on stage, I assume, or you'll walk up to somebody if you're working a room. And what will you do?

ROBBINS: Usually I'll tell someone, for example, like their watch. If they have a watch on, I might say in three minutes, I'd like to be wearing your watch. Do I have your permission? Once they say yes, I play a little game with them as I'm interacting with them and I steal their watch.

They think that it's just about the watch, but very quickly, they learn that I might steal their wallets, their belts, their cell phones, their tie, or the hardest thing for me is their eyeglasses.

SAGAL: From their face?



SAGAL: How do you steal someone - I was going to ask you about the belt, but the eyeglasses are better. How do you steal someone's eyeglasses from their face without them knowing?

ROBBINS: For me that's kind of Holy Grail and it's very difficult for me to do.

SAGAL: Yeah.


ROBBINS: Think about it this way - if you have five senses and they're all feeding into one place, kind of like a bottleneck, then now your mind has to make decisions of what is important and what is going to be above the radar and what's going to be below the radar. So my job is to kind of figure out how they mentally prioritize things when they perceive them. So they can sometimes see that something's happening, but if they're not thinking about it, they won't realize it. One way of doing that is simply asking them a question that's more important than that. For example, I might ask them, now in your wallet that was American Express, correct? And now, as they think, did he have access to my wallet, and their mind starts thinking about that, I might take their glasses.


SAGAL: So the idea is like I'd be like so obsessed with the possibility that you just took my wallet that I don't notice you just snatched the glasses from my face?


SAGAL: Now, I've seen you on video and it's amazing how you interact with people and put them at ease and then steal everything they have. And they're delighted when all of the sudden you're wearing their watch or whatever.


SAGAL: Have you ever, since you work with strangers and I guess - I don't know - audience members all the time, have you ever gotten somebody mad at you because you took something of theirs?

ROBBINS: I have. I've had that happen a few times, especially in the early part of my career. One time, I had a guy, when I was performing at Cesar's Palace, and during the course of the show, I offered him an anniversary gift for him and his wife, and it was her watch wrapped in a little package.

And he took it very offensively. He grabbed my throat, and was holding onto it very tight. I started...

CHARLIE PIERCE: Were you aware he was doing it or was he stealing...


SAGAL: You know, it occurs to me, I don't know your business, but when someone's trying to choke the life out of you, it might be a great time to grab his glasses.


SAGAL: This is bad. This is not good. But OK, I want to hear how you handled this.

ROBBINS: Yeah, so I just did the same type of question that I mentioned to you. I just looked down where I could see his wallet was in his back pocket. And I said, well, at least tonight you still have your wallet. And I raised one eyebrow, looked at his pocket, and it made him release both hands and reach back for his wallet to check to see if it was still there.

SAGAL: And then you turned and ran.


ROBBINS: I stepped back. Security was there. And I told them, I said, you know, it's their anniversary. If you guys are happy to play along with them, I said I think it's fine for them to go through the rest of the night. I said, sir, we just - audience interaction show we ask that you sit quietly and just enjoy the show.


ROBBINS: And I just tried to let them still have a good night.

AMY DICKINSON: Maybe it wasn't his wife.


KURTIS: Apollo, one of the first interviews that I did when I came to Chicago way back when in 1966 was with Yellow Kid Wild who was one of the great cons.

ROBBINS: Joseph.

KURTIS: Yeah. Of all time, and here in Chicago, he was the very first interview I did in my broadcasting career.

ROBBINS: Oh, that's neat.

KURTIS: It is.

SAGAL: And this guy was a conman?

KURTIS: Yep. And he...

ROBBINS: He was legendary...

KURTIS: Oh, and he finally granted an interview. I went out there as a young reporter, and we were ready to run it and it was canceled. And I got this call from Yellow Kid and realized that he had set up a con with his friends or someone else, hey, I'm going to be on television. Now he thinks I conned the con.


KURTIS: I did not go back to Kansas, as he suggested at the time.


ROBBINS: Actually, I'll tell you one of the little cons real fast if you want to hear...

SAGAL: Sure, absolutely.

ROBBINS: ...what the Yellow Kid used to do. Whenever he'd go into a town, before he'd leave, he'd take off his pinkie ring, and most conmen back then were famous for having an expensive pinkie ring.

But he would go into a pawn shop and have the ring appraised and they'd say that it's worth like four grand, which was an immense amount of money at that time. He'd ask if he could borrow a hundred bucks. And then the next day he'd come back, give them the hundred, claim his ring back.

But if he ever had trouble, he would go back to the pawn shops and say, hey, listen, I'm going to need a little more money. How much could you give me? And let's say they give him two and half, three grand, whatever they can give him. When they'd give him that cash, he gives them the ring.

But this time, he has duplicates of the ring that are fake and they never appraise them the second time. So that way he was able to collect a bunch of roll right before he skipped town.

SAGAL: That is slick.


SAGAL: One more question. I know that you're not just a Las Vegas performer, you're also a consultant for the Department of Defense - is that right - on security issues?

ROBBINS: I do. It's not security issues that I work for them, it's more training modules regarding about human behavior, in that area.

SAGAL: We heard that your first exposure to government security was basically robbing a Secret Service detail.

ROBBINS: Oh, yeah.


SAGAL: Oh that. Oh that little thing, he says. So what happened?

ROBBINS: So that was back in 2000. I was performing at that show at Cesar's Palace. And they said that Jimmy Carter was coming to the show. And they pulled me aside and they said Secret Service doesn't want you to shake Carter's hand.

And I said, well, I've never had a felony, it should be fine. They said well, they're just afraid it would make the news. Then as I started to leave, the manager pulled me aside. He says, listen, off the record, if you want to steal from the Secret Service, I think it'd be funny as hell.

DICKINSON: Oh my god.


ROBBINS: So I went and I hit two guys that were by themselves at first. They didn't want to be the only guys so they started taking me around to the other ones and so I got everybody else.

SAGAL: Really, so you went up to the Secret Service guys, you picked their pockets, you robbed them. What did you take?

ROBBINS: I took the credentials that they had in their inside jacket pocket, their personal credentials, the keys to the motorcade.


ROBBINS: And the itinerary where they were taking Carter to and some watches and things.

SAGAL: Well, Apollo Robbins, we are delighted to talk to you and could do it all day, but we have asked you here to play a game we're calling?

KURTIS: Try to pick this pocket, hotshot.


SAGAL: OK, you pick pockets, but can you make off with the contents of a Hot Pocket?


SAGAL: We're going to ask you three questions about the microwavable turnover.


SAGAL: If you get two right, you win our prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is Apollo Robbins playing for?

KURTIS: Ash Kumar of South Riding, Virginia.

SAGAL: All right, you ready to play, Apollo?


SAGAL: Here we go. Hot Pockets played a role in the saga of Hurricane Sandy last fall when what happened? A - a Hot Pocket factory in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn was destroyed, leading to what was called the Empty Pockets Crisis of 2012?


SAGAL: B - Newark Mayor Cory Booker fed his entire city with free Hot Pockets? Or C - the company introduced a new flavor to commemorate the event, called New Jersey Wreckage?


ROBBINS: I would go with B.

SAGAL: You're going to go with B, Newark Mayor Cory Booker. You're right.


SAGAL: Someone complained to Mayor Booker during the storm that he couldn't get any Hot Pockets and Booker's response to the guy caught the attention of the company and they gave coupons for free Hot Pockets to the city of Newark.

Very good, next question. Design Ben Heck created the ultimate Hot Pocket accessory. It's which of these? A - the Hot Pocket hot pocket, an asbestos lined pocket to tuck the hot Hot Pocket into?


SAGAL: B - a Hot Pocket holder on top of his Xbox video game controller, so he wouldn't have to pause to take a bite?


SAGAL: Or C - the Hot Pocket rocket, which launches the food directly from the microwave into your mouth?


ROBBINS: I hate to be redundant but I think I'll go with B again.

SAGAL: You are correct, Apollo, it was the Hot Pocket holder for the video game controller.


SAGAL: Last question for you, we'll go for perfect. Snoop Dogg once did a rap for a Hot Pockets television ad. Which is these is a real line from Snoop's rap? Was it A - with my mind on my money, my money on my mind, got a rumble in my tummy, eat a Hot Pocket and I feel fine?


SAGAL: B - don't change the dizzle, turn it up a lizzle, got some cheesy drizzle, dripping on my chizzle?


SAGAL: Or C - it's the one and only D-O-Double G. You know I'm eating on the H-O-T P-O-C-K-E-T.


ROBBINS: Oh, I'm indecisive on this one. I'm going to flip a coin and go to B.

SAGAL: It's B, very good.


SAGAL: Snoop loves Hot Pockets, despite the cheesy drizzle dripping from his chizzle.


SAGAL: Bill, how did Apollo Robbins do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Proving that we've never met a conman who isn't very smart, he's got it all right.

SAGAL: Well done.


SAGAL: Apollo Robbins, what a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for joining us on WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME!


ROBBINS: It's a pleasure.

SAGAL: Thank you, Apollo.

ROBBINS: Thank you. Bye-bye.


SAGAL: When we come back, a duet between soul singer Mavis Staples and Alice Cooper. Well, not actually, but we can dream, can't we?

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