Born in Garden City, New York in 1924, Aristoteles 'Telly' Savalas will always be best remembered – at least, by readers of a certain age – for his portrayal of the bald, lollipop sucking title character in the television series 'Kojak', which aired on CBS during the Seventies. However, it is somehow fitting that 'Kojak' is used, nowadays, to describe a starting hand of king-jack in Texas Hold'em poker because Savalas was, in his time, a highly accomplished exponent of the game.
By his own admission, Savalas 'gambled from day one on the streets of New York.' In 1969, while filming 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' – in which he played villain Ernst Blofeld – he incurred the wrath of producer Harry Saltzman when he fleeced Bond star George Lazenby of his daily living expenses during a late-night poker game that he had organised for the cast and crew. Saltzman gatecrashed the game, won back the money and warned Savalas against any further exploitation of the Australian actor.
Savalas made his first appearance in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 1985, at the age of 61, purportedly to research an upcoming film role as professional gambler Nick 'The Greek' Dandolos. Whatever his motivation, Savalas enjoyed early success, finishing third of 149 entrants in a $1,000 Limit Seven-Card Stud Hi/Lo event at Binion's, Las Vegas and cashing for $14,900. Suitably inspired, he stumped up the ante for the $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold'em World Championship at the same venue two weeks later. He did not last long, though; after just an hour or two of the four-day-long tournament, Savalas bet the last $3,500 of his dwindling stack all-in on a jack-high straight and lost to a queen-high straight.
Undeterred, Savalas continued to play in WSOP tournaments from time to time. In 1987, he finished fifth in a $1,000 Seven-Card Stud Split event, again at Binion's, and cashed for $11,650. In 1992, he enjoyed a much better run at the $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship, finishing 21st of 201 entrants and cashing for $8,080. With total live earnings of $40,630, Savalas hardly set the poker world on fire, but once confessed, 'My excitement is seeing the characters around this poker game.You wouldn't believe who they are.'
Savalas' fondness for gambling was not lost on the admen from Player's Club International, who had him reprise his 'Kojak' catchphrase 'Who loves ya, baby?' after a fashion, by pitching the phrase 'It's bonus time, baby' in a series of late-night television advertisements during the Eighties. Savalas also witnessed the Las Vegas debut of a youthful Phil Hellmuth Jr. – who, in 1989, became the youngest ever winner of the WSOP Main Event – when the 'Poker Brat' took a seat next to him at a $30/$60 Seven-Card Stud 8 table in the Dunes poker room for the first time.