Lawsuit Targets Celebrity Poker Game

Originally published on June 26, 2011 6:26 pm

Actor Tobey Maguire is one of a handful of celebrities being sued for allegedly winning cash that was stolen from investors in a Ponzi scheme.

Former hedge fund manager Bradley Ruderman reportedly confessed to losing $5.2 million of investors' money in a weekly poker game. Now, those investors want their money back.

Celebrities including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck are said to have been players in the game, though no lawsuits have been brought against those three. But Welcome Back Kotter star Gabe Kaplan is among those who have had lawsuits brought against them. He tells Weekend All things Considered guest host Rachel Martin that he's being sued because he won.

"The suit only involves people who won money in games that the man who ran the hedge fund, which turns out to be a Ponzi scheme, was playing in," he says.

Private poker games are legal in California, so long as it isn't a "controlled" game. Nobody is allowed to make money for operating the game. The lawsuit alleges that these games were illegal, and says that since they were illegal, the defendants have no right to keep Ruderman's stolen money. Ruderman is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his actions.

Kaplan describes the game as a high-stakes, no-limit Texas hold 'em contest that has been played for roughly 10 years. He says that only those who consider themselves excellent poker players sat in.

"Ball caps, no sunglasses, no cigars, nobody drinks," Kaplan says of the scene. "It's real serious. People want to win."

He says Ruderman was a below-average poker player, but he knew how to bluff.

"When this guy came in, he was so convincing, he seemed to have the kind of personality that he didn't really care that much about the money, and he duped a lot of the people in the poker game to invest money into his fund," Kaplan says. "I mean he was a mini Madoff."

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MATT DAMON: (as Mike McDermott) Here's the beauty of this game: I got a full house.

MARTIN: Private mansions, five-star hotels - these are the venues for some of the most elite celebrity poker games in Hollywood. This past week, one of these high-stakes but low-profile games was put right in the spotlight. Several celebrities, including "Spider-Man" star Tobey Maguire, were slapped with lawsuits trying to get at their poker winnings - in Maguire's case, more than $300,000. The suits accuse one of the players, a former hedge fund manager named Bradley Ruderman of gambling away his investors' money in these celebrity games. Ruderman's now in prison, convicted of running a $44 million Ponzi scheme. As for those investors, they want their money back.

Now, private poker games are legal in California, as long as no one makes money for operating the game, but the lawsuits allege that this particular game was illegal. And as a result, the defendant shouldn't be able to keep Ruderman's stolen cash. Celebrities like Matt Damon...


DAMON: (as Mike McDermott) I just got top two pair on the flop.

MARTIN: ...Leonardo DiCaprio...


LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (as Jack Dawson) Full house, boys.

MARTIN: ...and Ben Affleck...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) That's a worst flop for Ben than Gigli.

BEN AFFLECK: (as Larry Gigli) Can you believe it?

MARTIN: ...are all said to have played in the game. They are not being sued, that's according to a celebrity who is Gabe Kaplan, star of the iconic 1970s TV show, "Welcome Back Kotter," and now a professional poker player. He says this game was for high rollers only.

GABE KAPLAN: It came together with a few really good poker players, some of them businesspeople, a couple of celebrities.

MARTIN: Have you played with Tobey Maguire, who's reported...

KAPLAN: Oh, yeah, I played a lot with Tobey.

MARTIN: He's reportedly pretty good. Is he as good as has been reported?

KAPLAN: Yes. Not as good as me, but he's...


KAPLAN: Tobey, I would say, is probably the best celebrity poker player. He's really good, and he could play with anybody.

MARTIN: How did you get into the game?

KAPLAN: Well, I was one of the original people. The game probably started about 10 years ago. And, well, I'm an A-lister, too, of course, you know? Usually, if I'm associated with somebody, like Todd Bridges or Danny Bonaduce or somebody like that. You know, I don't get too much association with Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire, but I do play cards with them occasionally.

MARTIN: Can you give me a sense of what the scene is? You know, maybe I've seen too many movies, but, you know, I'm kind of thinking cigars, dark lights, only men, maybe sunglasses, some ball caps.

KAPLAN: Ball caps, no sunglasses, no cigars. Nobody drinks. It's real serious.

MARTIN: Yeah. Are actors better poker players?

KAPLAN: No. It has nothing to do...

MARTIN: Really?

KAPLAN: That's why, you know, when this particular guy came in, he was so convincing. Bradley Ruderman seem to have the kind of personality that he didn't really care that much about the money. Ad he duped a lot of the people in the poker game to invest money in his funds.

MARTIN: So he may not have been a good bluffer at the poker table, but he duped everyone off the table.

KAPLAN: Yes. Exactly.

MARTIN: That's Gabe Kaplan, the star of "Welcome Back Kotter," an avid poker player. Gabe, thanks so much for talking with me.

KAPLAN: Thanks a lot, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.