Gabe Kaplan has had a whirlwind financial and business career, going from broke nightclub comedian, to successful actor, to poker player. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 31, 1945. His parents hoped he would become a doctor or a lawyer, but after high school, his dream was to play baseball for a living.
The San Francisco Giants invited him to Florida for Spring Training, and as Gabe says, "I was a damned good hitter, but I took my life in my hands trying to catch fly balls." He realized the life of a career minor leaguer was not what he wanted, and took a job as a bellman at a resort hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey. After three months of listening to the hotel's stand-up comedians do their acts, he was certain he could be just as funny.
Gabe hit the road, perfecting his material in small nightclubs and coffee houses across the country. When he was more comfortable on stage, he began incorporating routines based on his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, and eventually was asked to perform on The Tonight Show. Like many comedians before him, it was his big break, and jobs came easily after the show aired.
Gabe worked on a situation comedy for television, and a few years later, "Welcome Back Kotter" was born. Working with Alan Sacks to produce the show, Gabe was the star (along with a young John Travolta), and did well financially as the show shot into the top ten and remained there for most of its four season run on ABC.
In 1978, Gabe decided to enter the WSOP $10,000 buy-in tournament. On the morning of the tournament's first day, he joked that he had learned the game the night before, and was ready to play. Although he had played poker as a youngster, Gabe insists that he really wasn't much of a player, and just entered on a whim.
It was an expensive whim, as he was busted out of the tournament in just a few hours. However, he became keenly aware of the competition, and played in side games to hone his skills. During the 1979 WSOP, Kaplan also took an early departure from the tournament, but played in the side games again, at much higher limits. In fact, as Benny Binion said, "They were the biggest games I ever saw, and the big game (the night of May 19th) had $100,000 and $200,000 pots all night long." "Big winners in the game included Jimmy Chagra, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss and Gabe Kaplan."
In January and February of 1980, the Sahara Reno hosted Amarillo Slim's Second Annual Poker Classic (which became the Super Bowl of Poker). At the end of the first day's play in the $10,000 hold'em championship, Gabe Kaplan held a slight lead over Sam Moon and Ray Zee. The list of players below them read like a "Who's Who" of poker: Pearson, Baldwin, Tomko, Appleman, Sklansky, Brunson, and many more.
With nine players left, some of the big names were gone, but Sailor Roberts, the 1975 WSOP Champ, was leading the bunch. On the last hand of the day, Ray Zee got all-in with pocket aces and flopped a set. Kaplan, with pocket sevens, also flopped a set, and to the disappointment of Zee, made quads on the turn. Although it did not put him in the lead, it was enough to carry him on to a $190,000 victory the following afternoon.
Gabe's excitement was understandable, and his confidence was at an all-time high. So high, in fact, that he challenged the 1979 WSOP Champion, Hal Fowler, to a heads-up freeze-out for $200,000. Gabe won.
So sure of himself at this time was Gabe, that he then challenged Bobby B
aldwin, the 1978 WSOP Champion, to the same freeze-out for $200,000. Bobby accepted, but sat stunned after he lost and Gabe walked away with another $200,000.
His excellent play continued, and Kaplan took a sixth-place finish in the 1980 WSOP Championship. At the Super Bowl of Poker in Lake Tahoe in 1982, Gabe started the final day of the $10,000 tournament in seventh place, and wound-up finishing fourth.
Kaplan continued playing tournaments, and did a little acting in movies, but had put most of his money into the financial markets and didn't feel the need to work too hard. He did do some headlining in Las Vegas, and enjoyed success in other poker games besides hold'em, winning the 1984 Super Bowl of Poker ace to five low-ball championship, and also the Commerce Club's low ball championship.
Gabe has been on the road doing comedy clubs recently, although he says he "Totally ignored show business for 15 years." He has also taken up playing in poker tournaments again. At the Mirage, for the World Poker Tour's no limit hold'em event, Gabe finished third, earning just over $250,000. I don't think I would be out of line to say, Gabe, welcome back!
Ed Note: Even Freddy "Boom Boom" Wasington would approve of the booming action going on at Pacific Poker