The PokerNews Top 10: Celebrity Performances in Poker

Gabe Kaplan

This is the week when celebrities descend upon the World Series of Poker, with the Ante Up for Africa Celebrity-Charity Tournament on Thursday, and the Main Event which kicks off on Friday. This marks the third year for the Ante Up for Africa event, which over its first two years has attracted many figures from the film and entertainment industries, as well as professional athletes and other well-known figures. The WSOP Main Event has also drawn its share of participants from the world of music, movies, and sports, and will no doubt do so again this time around. The participation of such high-profile non-professionals playing alongside the game’s greats often brings added attention to poker, and on occasion, these celebrity entrants have performed exceptionally well in such circumstances. Here are ten especially notable instances of celebrities making good.

10. Orel Hershiser, Quarterfinals ($75,000), 2008 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship

Perhaps something in Orel Hershiser’s experience as a major league pitcher who won 204 games, a Cy Young Award, and a World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers prepared him for the mental challenge of heads-up poker. Whatever the cause, in his first try at the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, Hershiser won his first three matches, defeating Ted Forrest, Allen Cunningham, and Freddy Deeb before finally succumbing to Andy Bloch in the quarterfinals. Hershiser expressed humility afterwards, comparing himself to a 64th seed competing against the likes of North Carolina and Duke in the NCAA tournament. (A near-miss on the list was Ante Up for Africa co-organizer Don Cheadle for his victories over Phil Ivey in the first round of the 2007 NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship and over David “the Dragon” Pham in the first round in 2009.)

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Orel Hershiser in action at Caesars Palace

9. Sam Simon, 329th place ($39,445), Tobey Maguire, 292nd place ($39,445) and Sully Erna, 237th place ($45,422), 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event (three-way tie)

Sam Simon, the television producer/writer (“Taxi,” “Cheers,” “The Simpsons”), Tobey Maguire, star of Pleasantville (1998), Seabiscuit (2003), and the Spider-Man films, and Salvatore “Sully” Erna, lead singer and songwriter for the heavy metal band Godsmack, all made relatively deep runs at the 2007 WSOP Main Event, outlasting over 6,000 competitors and surviving into the fourth day of play. Erna would follow up his performance five months later with a runner-up finish to J.C. Tran at the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em event at the Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio, earning a cool $307,325.

8. Telly Savalas, 21st place ($8,080), 1992 World Series of Poker Main Event

Actor Telly Savalas was best known for his roles in WWII films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), although it would be the ‘70s TV detective drama “Kojak” that would turn Salavas into a cultural icon. A longtime poker player, Savalas was part of the scene at Binion’s Horseshoe and the WSOP from the early years, and frequently played in both preliminary events as well as the Main Event. Savalas would make a final table in 1987 in the $1,000 Seven-Card Stud Hi/Lo event, but his greatest triumph would come in 1992 when he finished 21st out of 201 entrants. At that year’s Main Event, won by Hamid Dastmalchi, Savalas finished just ahead of Barry Greenstein (22nd), Mike Sexton (23rd), and Mel Judah (24th).

7. Gabe Kaplan, 6th place (no cash prize), 1980 World Series of Poker Main Event

By 1980, comedian and actor Gabe Kaplan was a pop culture icon thanks to his hit sitcom “Welcome, Back Kotter.” A year before, Kaplan had left the show midway through its fourth season, but was still better known as the wise-cracking high school teacher he portrayed than as a serious poker player. Indeed, Kaplan was still a relative novice when he played in his first ever WSOP Main Event in 1978. Not surprisingly, he was one of the first players eliminated that year. But by the time he took his third shot in 1980, he’d begun to hold his own in high-stakes cash games, and had even won Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker Main Event earlier that year (see item #1). In 1980, there were 73 entrants in the Main Event, and from that field Kaplan managed to make the six-handed final table where he competed against established pros such as Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Jay Heimowitz, and the soon-to-be-legend and eventual champion, Stuey “the Kid” Ungar. Despite making the final table, Kaplan earned no cash prize as only the top five spots paid that year.

6. Shannon Elizabeth, semifinalist ($125,000), 2007 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship

When actress Shannon Elizabeth, best known for her roles in American Pie (1999) and Scary Movie (2000), made her deep run in the 2007 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, she was already known as one of the better celebrity poker players thanks in part to her victory in a celebrity-only event at Caesars Palace in early 2006. Elizabeth won heads-up matches against Rene Angelil, Jeff Madsen, Barry Greenstein, and Humberto Brenes before finally losing to eventual winner Paul Wasicka in the semifinals.

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Shannon Elizabeth at the 2009 WSOP

5. Ben Affleck, 1st place ($356,400), 2004 California State Poker Championship

Better known at the time for having been the co-star and Oscar-winning co-writer of Good Will Hunting (1997) — or perhaps for his relationship with Jennifer Lopez (to whom he was then engaged) — Ben Affleck’s victory in the 2004 California State Poker Championship likely marks the first major tournament victory by a celebrity since Gabe Kaplan’s triumph in 1980 in Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker (again, see item #1). Affleck outlasted a tough field, including a final table that included pros Raymond Davis and Amir Vahedi. After his victory, Affleck expressed humility regarding the good fortune he experienced during the tournament, but also credited his success to having been tutored by poker pros Annie Duke, Antonio Esfandiari, Allen Cunningham, and Gabe Kaplan.

4. Jennifer Tilly, 1st place ($158,335), 2005 WSOP Ladies’ Event, No-Limit Hold’em

Jennifer Tilly began appearing in films during the 1980s, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Now most poker fans know her both as poker pro Phil Laak’s significant other as well as a constant presence at major poker tournaments where she has earned nearly half a million dollars over the last five years. However, Tilly’s victory at the 2004 WSOP in the Ladies’ Event in which she bested a field of 601 entrants was her first major success at the poker tables, making her the only celebrity on this list to own a WSOP bracelet.

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Jennifer Tilly at the 2008 WSOP

3. Gabe Kaplan, 3rd place ($256,519), 2004 World Poker Tour Mirage Poker Showdown

Many of those who first came to poker following Chris Moneymaker’s surprising victory in the 2003 WSOP Main Event were probably unaware of Gabe Kaplan’s long poker career when he turned up on the Travel Channel’s telecast of the 2004 WPT Mirage Poker Showdown final table. The $10,000 buy-in event attracted 281 entrants, including nearly all of poker’s elite, and Kaplan’s near-victory certainly sealed his place as a top-notch tournament player. Indeed, a glance at the other five participants at the final table of that event gives a good indication of the caliber of competition Kaplan faced: Jim Meehan (finished 6th), Scotty Nguyen (5th), John Juanda (4th), Lee Watkinson (2nd), and Eli Elezra (1st).

2. Guy Laliberte, 4th place ($696,220), 2007 World Poker Tour Championship, Five Star World Poker Classic

Guy Laliberte is the founder and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian entertainment company responsible for numerous productions that uniquely combine ballet, gymnastics, acrobatics, music, and comedy. He had only been playing poker for a couple of years when he won a satellite into the WPT World Championship in the spring of 2007, then proceeded to finish fourth out of 639 entrants in the $25,000 buy-in event. Since that victory, Laliberte has appeared on High Stakes Poker, in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio playing in the Big Game, and at high-stakes online poker tables as well.

1. Gabe Kaplan, 1st place ($190,000), 1980 Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker

After just a couple of years of serious attention to poker, Kaplan won the $10,000 buy-in main event at Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker, an event that at the time rivaled the WSOP in terms of its prestige and the quality of players it attracted. In order to win, Kaplan had to outlast a field that included such legendary figures as Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Bobby Hoff, Johnny Moss, Sailor Roberts, Bobby Baldwin, David Sklansky, Puggy Pearson, and Dewey Tomko. Kaplan would go on to achieve further success at Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl, winning two ace-to-five lowball events in 1983 and 1984.

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