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Norm Macdonald ready for HSP debut

There was a time when High Stakes Poker reigned supreme among televised cash games. When the show was introduced, it held a virtual monopoly on the format and the viewers ate up the player interaction and the realities of there being just so much more to lose for the participants. It was "real poker" at its finest and all of the big boys came out to play.

Now, some of the big boys have better things to do. With HSP now sporting PokerStars affiliation, Full Tilt Poker's biggest stars -- notably Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan and Patrik Antonius -- will be absent from the franchise's seventh season, set to debut Saturday at 8 p.m. on Game Show Network. As if losing those poker icons isn't enough, the show has also parted ways with a poker legend with mainstream cache.

Gabe Kaplan rose to fame on "Welcome Back Kotter" and then promptly left that show at its zenith. Kaplan's subsequent emergence in the competitive poker world is the stuff of legends. The actor's participation in the World Series of Poker in the late 1970s brought that tournament previously unchartered attention and his presence has been tied to poker ever since. For six seasons, Kaplan has been the face of the HSP franchise. Now, he's gone from the show, and while neither party has confirmed, speculation says that it wasn't the former host's decision.

With HSP's cash game competition ever-growing ("Poker After Dark" forays into cash games and "The Big Game" has been a hit in poker circles), GSN's made a move that should see extreme results, replacing one comic standout with another. On Feb. 7, the network announced that Norm Macdonald would be taking over Kaplan's chair in the booth, piloting the show as a solo act.

GSN issued the following statement:

"Gabe Kaplan did an outstanding job hosting 'High Stakes Poker' for six seasons, and we wish him all the best in his future endeavors."

They would not comment about the reasons for Kaplan's departure.

Macdonald is likely more a stranger to fans of poker than those of comedy. While he's been seen at the WSOP and in assorted California tournaments for the past few years, he's been plying his comedy trade for more than two decades, including a four-year stint on "Saturday Night Live" and one of the most memorable hosting gigs in ESPYS history. Now, Macdonald steps into Kaplan's very large shoes.

"'High Stakes Poker' is my favorite show on TV," said Macdonald, a comedian dealing with the nerves associated with following a great act. "I was completely stunned that Gabe wasn't doing it again because, to me, he's the best poker guy on TV, the best analyst by a mile. I wish I had shoes that were less hard to fill. When I was a kid, I loved 'Welcome Back Kotter.' I'd always watch and then Gabe suddenly vanished. I remember hearing stories of his doing the dream thing of vanishing from the world and playing poker. It was awesome on all levels. So yeah, I'm very intimidated by all this."

While Macdonald brings a new edge, there are questions that we'll see answered Saturday night concerning how his humor will play through an edit. With SNL, with the ESPYS, with his stand-up and almost everything he's ever done, the lack of filter has loomed large. Now, Macdonald will be challenging Poker PROductions to make the comedy work through a heavy editorial process that will also be incorporating player conversation into the format.

"I'm not in full control," Macdonald said. "The producers will have an idea of what they want to do, but I think it'll be better to stay in the background. When I watch poker, I'll be like 'shut the [expletive deleted] up' to whoever the commentator is because I always find what the players have to say very interesting. I'm going to try to stay in the background."

One thing Macdonald won't be doing is trying to match Kaplan's analysis. While Macdonald has managed the occasional cash in mainstream tournament play, he recognized that he's not going to have much luck explaining the play of some of the world's best players.

"I haven't really decided what I'll do yet," Macdonald admitted earlier in the month. "Obviously, I'll bring the 'I'm not as good at poker as Gabe Kaplan' approach."

You could hear the publicity people on the call shifting in their seats at that one, but that's what makes Macdonald an interesting choice. Where Kaplan mostly played things close to the vest with his humor, it's obvious that Macdonald won't have any fears of letting loose.

"I'll be a fan," he finally assessed. "I'll do my best to analyze the hand, but since I'm more an amateur on that ground, if there's a reraise out of nowhere, I'll react with expletives like I would at home. That's my favorite part -- when play comes out of left field. That's my favorite part of 'High Stakes Poker.' I really have no experience in cash games and I'm not sure what my tournament experience will bring me. We'll see how it goes."

Assertions like that one will keep things interesting. Macdonald showed throughout the interview that he was unwilling to hold back for publicity's sake. He named Dwan as his favorite player despite Durrrr's absence from Season 7, then invoked Gavin Smith, another Full Tilt guy. Macdonald isn't controllable and is making it clear he's going to let loose. Maybe its just the kind of shock value that a franchise that has felt obligated to facelift more than once in recent seasons really needs. If Macdonald is the saving grace, though, he's not saying as much.

"My dream is to not destroy the franchise forever," he asserted with typical bluntness. "I'm nervous. I love the show so much, so my greatest hope is to keep it … I'm not going to be as good as Gabe Kaplan, I'll tell you that."

GSN, for all the squirming its executives must be doing in their seats at comments like that one, is hoping the opposite is true. Macdonald is following a tough act, but a standout performance just might save the franchise.

You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.