The World of Apollo Robbins: “Merging magic and self-defense,” by Stanley Pranin


“Could one’s attention-diversion abilities coupled with a strong martial arts background allow him to “talk his way out” of a dangerous situation?”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninA few days ago, I saw a link to a TED video that immediately caught my attention. The presentation was given by a man named Apollo Robbins, a magician who goes by the name of “The Gentleman Pickpocket.” The reason for my excitement is because I know Apollo. He came to my dojo for a brief period last year. After class, he regaled us with demonstrations of his amazing skills and created a truly “magical” atmosphere that captivated all of us present.

Apollo and I also had several talks about common aspects of magic and aikido, and how techniques from each discipline might enhance the practice of the other.

In watching this recent TED video, my impression was that Apollo’s “patter” — already highly developed — had become even more sophisticated. He combined rapid speech with clever humor, and an array of gestures and body language that served to catch and direct the audience’s attention.

Before I go further, please view this delightful video of a master magician at work…

The concept of magic of Apollo, and I’m sure that of most magicians, is centered on controlling the attention of their audience. There are a virtually unlimited number of ways of achieving this such as the skilled use of verbal cues, manual dexterity, body language, facial gestures, humor, confusion, redirection and misdirection of the audience’s attention, etc.


Since most of our readers are martial artists, I’m sure they will immediately see parallels in their training with much of what Apollo is explaining during his show. After we learn basic aikido techniques and they become second nature, we see that there are additional, more advanced tools available to apply in a self-defense scenario to improve the odds of a favorable outcome.


What if aikidoka, for example, could learn even a few of Apollo’s magic skills to supplement their knowledge of martial techniques? Imagine if they could draw upon this expanded skill set under duress in a situation where physical intervention might be necessary. Could one’s attention-diversion abilities coupled with a strong martial arts background allow him to “talk his way out” of a dangerous situation instead of fighting? What techniques do crisis intervention specialists, hostage negotiators and those in similar fields draw upon when dealing with mentally unstable and potentially violent individuals?


To suggest another interesting line of thought… do we already use “magic” skills in our aikido training? To give a concrete example, watch any video of Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei and you will see him using leading and redirection maneuvers extensively.

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba taking the initiative and directing the attention of uke prior to physical contact.

Magic at work! Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba taking the initiative and
directing the attention of uke prior to physical contact from 1961 film.

Here we see the founder of aikido setting up a technique in a manner analogous to the redirection of a magician. Morihei would rarely respond to attacks, but rather create favorable circumstances for the execution of the technique through such gestures and body language.

I am of the firm belief that it is possible to view aikido through alternate lens and expand the tools we have at our disposal. One fruitful avenue of research would be to examine the world of magic as exemplified by such experts as Apollo Robbins. Many of their sophisticated magic techniques rely on the same mental and physical principles we use in aikido.

To be successful, the magician must master the art of directing the attention of his audience. At the more advanced levels of our aikido, practitioners should strive to extend their capabilities to exert similar control techniques during their interaction with training partners. It may then become possible to neutralize the attacker’s intent and conclude the encounter with minimum force and without injury. That would really be “magic!”

This is a fascinating area of inquiry, and we invite readers to contribute their input to a discussion of this topic.

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  1. Nice to see my two worlds collide! (Magic and Aikido)

    I’ve always loved Apollo’s work. He’s the reason I studied pick-pokceting for many years.
    The two most certainly go hand in hand. (No pun intended)

    Tons of the soft stuff in Aiki lines up very well with pick pocketing.
    Tactile misdirection. I have dedicated much of my Aiki-career to focus on misdirection through touch.

    Great article! Thanks Stanley!

    • Thank you, Nathan! I’m pleased to learn that you are familiar with Apollo’s work. I would very much enjoy getting some idea of how you’re relating the worlds of magic and aiki!

  2. Martial arts are all inherently forms of deception, illusion – or magic if we want to use that word, but not of the paranormal variety. I’ve used the analogy of “magic” more than a few times in aikido classes, but as the “magician” we shouldn’t be taken in by the illusion. O Sensei’s skills have frequently been attributed to paranormal power. To the degree that he himself endorsed this view I’m not sure, but from the stories I’ve heard he didn’t exactly discourage it. But it’s only a charlatan, either by a willful deception or a pious one, who leads people to believe that their illusions or their highly developed physical and perceptual skills derive from a supernatural source.

    The honest masters of deception (how’s that for an oxymoron!) – like Apollo Robbins, Derren Brown, Criss Angel and Penn Jillette – are completely forthright about the purely psychological and prestidigitory nature of their powers and are adamantly outspoken against the notion of supernatural power. But the martial arts world is full of hucksters who do claim to have supernatural power – or at least attribute it to O Sensei and others. This is a great disservice.

    Aikido is a fine martial art when we see it as an ethical budo and maintain a secular approach. In my opinion this is the only way that aikido can grow in a modern world and evolve into the future. No one should ever use the name of aikido to defraud the public.

  3. Absolutely! I will write up some connections between Aiki and magic and get them to you somehow. 😉

    In the meanwhile, I wrote this small snippet-article back in January on Kuzushi using Pattern Interupts (a hypnosis-linked aspect) for changing Uke’s body mechanics and responses with pro active timing.

    Shoot me an email sometime.


    P.S. I forwarded a link of this to Apollo on Facebook. He said he enjoyed the read. 😉

    • Tom Collings says:

      The Apollo Robbins clip was great, thank you for posting it. I have been facinated by the practice of attention control and misdirection, and it’s practical application to violence prevention. My skills in this area are limited but even so distraction and proactive attention control have prevented or minimized violence many times during 26 years of street law enforcement work.

      Those who believe O’Sensei’s aikido is not passive but a very proactive process of taking the initiative to control violence, see deception and misdirection in almost everything he did. Most atemi and certainly irimi nage is all about momentarily snatching the uke’s attention. He is a great role model for how deception, misdirection and attention control can be used in a positive way. My study of this fascinating area of human interaction has uncovered three other masters of this art whose research and exploits have impacted me greatly and may be of interest to others:

      First is Milton Erikson, the legendary healer, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist so skilled he could put most people in a deep trace with a handshake. Someone who knew him told me he was once confronted by an armed mugger who displayed a weapon in his face declaring “you know what it is!” Erikson calmly slid back his sleeve and – drawing the guy’s attention to his watch said “sure – look – it’s exactly 8 pm,” as he walked away leaving the guy temporarily disoriented.

      A second “master of attention” is an old magician and theater director named Daniel Fitzkee whose 1945 book on the art misdirection is such a classic it still sells for $200.

      Last, and perhaps the greatest was Col. John Boyd, a Korean War fighter pilot who, undefeated in air combat became the US military’s greatest strategist. His unconventional approach was to always take the initiative focusing on the mind of the adversary rather than relying on speed or brute force. He developed what he called the “Decision Cycle” (also know as the Boyd “OODA Loop”) by which a person or organization reacts to events in any human encounter. By staying 1 step ahead of the adversary in the decision cycle he showed how you can take control of events, often with relatively little force. His orchestration of the 1990 Desert Storm invasion of Iraq is credited with saving thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict.

  4. This is an interesting thread. I’m joining in support of Lt Col John Boyd, who, while personally obnoxious and rather non-grata in his service (USAF), was one of the brilliant strategists of the 20th century USA. The Marines have adopted him. There’s a lot to taking the initiative and going through the OODA loop faster. I would suggest that technical proficiency is a tool.

    Boyd, in the air, used unconventional maneuvers. In his biography “The Mind of War” there’s an example of how his outside the box flying techniques caused the hydraulic system of an F100 to fail… on the ground. (He was being busted for crashing his plane. His CO didn’t believe that the hydraulics could fail. So Boyd talked his crew chief through what happened while a similar plane was parked.) Boyd’s air legacy is the F16. Beside being numerous and successful in combat, it’s the only fighter in the US inventory lighter than its predecessor the F15.

    On the ground, Boyd invented the term “asymmetric warfare”. Seen through this lens, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s KKK won the Civil War for the South by their asymmetric campaign against “Reconstruction”, 1865-76. The closest modern analogy is also probably Iraq. Now in the case of our Civil War, the noble war aims of the South, limited Federal government and states’ rights, were largely lost, but the more significant ignoble aims, codified in Jim Crow and enforced by the KKK for decades, were obviously won.

  5. Along a different tangent, when you think of competitive martial arts, like boxing or wrestling, a large part of the rules serve to reduce the possibilities of deception.

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