When I first realized we were making a video about the neuroscience of magic, I had no idea I would be spending a day with Apollo Robbins, the “gentleman thief” who once relieved ex-president Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail of their watches, wallets, keys and badges. And yet, on a sunny morning in mid-October, Apollo arrived at the offices of Scientific American in New York City, having agreed to help us create something fun to accompany a book excerpt we ran as a cover story in the November/December 2010 issue of Scientific American MIND.

This compact, charismatic entertainer immediately began scanning the joint, profiling my colleagues. Would they be testy or obliging? Were they the type who could laugh at themselves? Did they have the right kind of watch, pockets, gadgets and jewelry for a fulfilling pilfering experience?

Apollo is no criminal, though he knows—and has learned from—more than a few. As a result, he not only can easily distract us from our belongings but also con us into giving them up.

In one case he related to me, he and some compatriots pasted an “out of order” sign on a night-deposit box and then, dressed as security guards, blithely waited for users to hand over their deposits—which one did, apparently assuming Apollo and an accomplice  were bank employees. But that was reality TV, to prove a point, not to profit. Unlike his less savory friends, Apollo gives people their stuff back.

To accomplish his courtly thievery, which Apollo likens to tours of a convict petting zoo, this pesky pickpocket dabbles in much more than distraction and sleight of hand. He delves deftly into human psychology. I worried increasingly throughout the day that he knew more about me than I meant to show. At first, it was small things. He assessed the confidence level of my colleagues, just as they sat at their desks.

Later, on the streets of New York, I saw him work the crowd, effortlessly drawing strangers into his game, sending them into fits of giggles, and, of course, nabbing everything attached to their bodies and in their pockets. Although I watched him do this many times, I never once really saw what he was doing. This, of course, did nothing to lift my sense of unease.

Apollo admitted that part of his game was an intense form of people watching. He needs people to like him, to trust him. Success at that means figuring out who you are dealing with—fast. The confident, mellow guys think it is fun when you dupe him. But alpha males need to feel as if they are running the show, or they will not cooperate.

Apollo gets into people’s personal space to throw his marks off-guard and manipulates the use of space to disorient them. This gives him an advantage. How close people stand to each other also provides clues to their relationship, he says. Mostly people stand a certain distance apart or they will feel intensely uncomfortable, but men easily move very close to women who have been intimate with them. The couple doesn’t pay attention to this—but Apollo does.

You can learn a lot, too, he says, by simply watching what someone is looking at. If two guys in a casino are checking out a hot babe, the motive is ordinary. If they are eyeing an old lady’s handbag, they may be up to no good.

My normal job as a Scientific American MIND editor keeps me in front of a computer, but during the shoot my role was carrying people’s belongings in my large bag. I had cell phones, hair clips, wallets and watches. Some of it I did not remember being given. Apparently, by the end of the day, I was harboring several wallets that belonged to Apollo, most of them props. As I handed them back to him, he said, “You have my real wallet, too, the one with my money and ID.” I expressed surprise, but he looked nonplussed. He’d read me well enough not to have to worry.

Image of Apollo Robbins with Ingrid Wickelgren from the video,"Neuroscience Meets Magic."