Clearly, nothing's in a name. In just 18 months of serious poker, the late lamented Mr. Kotter has risen from a penny-ante pigeon to a no-limit shark. Having taken some half-million dollars from the card tables of Las Vegas since June, he set out this month to prove his prowess head-to-head with Bobby "the Owl" Baldwin, 29, winner of the 1977 World Series of Poker. The game was $100,000 freeze-out, meaning that each brought $100,000 to the table and would play until one went bust. They sat down at 2 a.m. in the Silver-bird Casino—after Gabe's last show in the nearby MGM Grand. Two hours and 55 minutes later, when Kaplan raised the pot $10,000 (on a pair of fours), the Owl flipped up his cards and muttered: "Hell, you got me, Brother Gabe. Looks like it's going to be a long, cold winter." Gazing at a small mountain of $500 chips, Brother Gabe managed to keep his poker face as well, saying tersely: "That's a lot of pocket change down there."
Gambling, Kaplan explains, was part of the avocational fallout of his career migration from TV studio to nightclubs. "When I first came to do shows in Vegas," admits the 34-year-old bachelor, "I followed the usual entertainer's syndrome—I played craps and lost. Suddenly, I realized what a jerk I was—making such great money [about $100,000 a week] and losing it all right back. A friend suggested that I try poker instead, that it was more entertaining." But in Vegas entertainment is expensive, and Kaplan dropped a bundle mastering the game. Eventually, though—in preparation for the Owl—he beat this year's world champ Hal Fowler and took the legendary "Amarillo Slim" Preston in four freeze-out matches (Slim won five others). Gabe has gotten so hot, in fact, that a syndicate of a half-dozen showbiz friends are anonymously helping to bankroll his action. "I'm into the psychology of the game," says Kaplan. "I definitely bluff more than the other pros—I'm a great bluffer." Testifies one of the pros, Doyle Brunson: "Gabe was terrible when he started. But he picks up fast and has the sort of reckless disregard for money that is helpful to a high-stakes player."
Those close to Kaplan still find it all a little implausible. His parents, now retired in Brooklyn, "can't believe I'd be playing cards for that kind of money," says Kaplan. "They just shake their heads and act like I'm telling jokes." It's the same for his old low-stakes poker buddies in L.A., who regard him as just a bigger fish. "I'm always trying to show my actor friends how great I am," he moans. "I end up making really wild moves and bluff with nothing. They're wise to me."
Some names just go with poker—"Amarillo Slim," "Puggy" Pearson, "Texas Dolly" Brunson, "Sailor" Roberts. But Gabriel Kaplan?