Was he ever. Savalas, 61, was in the main event of the annual World Series of Poker—a four-day game of "Hold 'Em" for which 140 players each anted up $10,000, with a top prize of $700,000.
It was the last time Telly saw his 10 grand. After 15 minutes of sipping grapefruit juice, smoking cigarettes and studying his cards and the seven other players at his table, he got a winning hand. But 30 minutes passed before he won again with a pair of sixes. An hour into the action he was down some $5,000; 15 minutes later he had half of that. Then, after winning a pot of $1,000, Savalas really started raising, and everyone knew he had something. With only one other player left, Savalas bet his entire stack—about $3,500. Then he flipped his hand: Jack-high straight. His opponent flipped his hand: Queen-high straight. Goodnight, Telly.
Compared to Nick the Greek, who claimed to have made and lost 73 fortunes, Telly had nothing to bellyache about. Two weeks earlier he had won $14,900 at Binion's in the two-day-long, seven-card high-low split competition. Of 149 players who entered that contest (with a $1,025 buy-in), Savalas came in third.
It was that early success that made Telly decide to enter the finals. "I've gambled from Day One on the streets of New York," he says, and although he was a novice at the game of "Hold 'Em," he has become so sharp at blackjack that "there was a time when a couple of casinos wouldn't let me in."
Telly wasn't alone in his bad luck. Last year's champ, Jack Keller, went early too, and such new and old legends as 110-pound Stu "the Kid" Ungar, Betty Carey and Amarillo Slim Preston tapped out long before Bill Smith, a Dallas pro, took the final hand with a full house. Telly was sanguine about his loss. Once you've put away enough to meet your responsibilities, he said philosophically, "you can afford to risk a certain amount for fun."
Don't think for one second that Telly Savalas came to Las Vegas to gamble. No way. Telly came—he insists—to do research. See, Kojak is planning to star in a movie about Nick the Greek, the legendary gambler who died in 1966, so he went to Binion's Horseshoe Casino to soak up the color. And then, "All of a sudden I was playing."