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Gabe Kaplan was the only celebrity at poker tournaments in the 1970s


Ladies and gentlemen, let me reintroduce you to Las Vegas’ first celebrity poker player — Gabe Kaplan. You know him better as “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

“When people see me, they don’t say, ‘Are you Mr. Kotter?’ Or, ‘Are you Gabe Kaplan?’ They say, ‘Are you ‘Welcome Back, Kotter?’”

Anyway, back in ye olden days, Kaplan was the only celebrity at poker tournaments.

“The first time I played in the World Series of Poker, there were 42 players” in 1978, says Kaplan — who does stand-up Saturday-Sunday at the Suncoast.

These days, celebrities as big as Ben Affleck and George Clooney play poker openly.

But in 1979, poker had such a bad national connotation that when Kaplan asked celebrity friends to play in a rare TV tournament, celebs exclaimed, “What are you talking about?”

“Some were insulted, like, ‘No! I don’t want to be in a poker tournament,’” Kaplan recalls.

On the other hand, pro poker players had never been on TV at that time, so they saw a 20-minute appearance on ABC Sports as a big deal.

“They had their finest outfits on,” says “Welcome Back, Kotter,” I mean, Kaplan.

Kaplan, 68, became a huge star in the 1970s as the lead of “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which also launched John Travolta’s career.

But Kaplan was also a team captain on the era’s hit show, “Battle of the Network Stars.” Oh my god, do you remember “Battle of the Network Stars?!”

It pitted actors against each other in running and swimming races, in tennis, and in dunk-tank-ball throwing.

These were real celebrities — Farrah Fawcett, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, David Letterman, William Shatner, Ron Howard, Jimmy Walker, Kurt Russell, Suzanne Somers, Bruce Jenner, Sherman Hensley, Tom Selleck … and the announcer one month was O.J. Simpson!

But celebrities back then were not as high-maintenance.

“We were just out there warming up” on the fields, “Welcome Back, Kotter” says. “The public was around. There were no bodyguards, no personal assistants. Nobody was catering to us. We were just out there with the people, having fun.

“Celebrities had different priorities then. It was a big deal then. If you won — you got $20,000! People took it seriously. They actually practiced. They wanted to win.”

On the inaugural “Battle” show, Kaplan’s ABC team beat Bob Conrad’s NBC team, but Conrad threw a fit on camera until Kaplan agreed to a man-on-man footrace to decide the winning team — but that spawned ABC’s Farrah Fawcett to argue on camera that Conrad wasn’t playing fair.

“She got serious about it. They all did,” Kaplan says. “It was hard.”

Networks would never do such a TV show today. Actors make too much money and have different lives.

So now, Kaplan is back in Vegas.

He has been in Texas for several years, doing corporate comedy gigs, hosting poker TV shows, and running private investments.

But his roots are in comedy. He began his career at New York’s Improv comedy club with Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor.

“I started when there were 42 poker players and nine comedians,” Kaplan says.

Times change fast.

QUICK AND DIRTY NEWS

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And here is why I love Vegas: September is “Harry Potter Month” at all-nude strip club Little Darlings. The club’s campaign: “Every Sunday is Harry Potter Night! Costume Contest. Movie Screenings. Trivia and More!!!”

Vegas: We’re just more fun.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Page 3A in the main section on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also writes for Neon on Fridays. Email him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.