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At Last, a Winning Hand : Game show: Larry Caplan’s wife and mother were ill with cancer in Florida, and he wanted to join them. With the $88,600 he won on “The Challengers,” he can.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Larry Caplan moved to this picturesque community last year from Boca Raton, Fla., full of hope for a new life with his bride and a career as a corporate attorney.

“We rented a house just five minutes from the beach,” said Caplan, 32. “It was gorgeous. We loved it. It was like an adventure to come out here. It was exciting.”

But eight months later, Caplan discovered how cruel life can be.

His wife, Kathy, received a diagnosis of leukemia in February, and she returned to Florida to receive chemotherapy and be in the care of family members there.

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Larry Caplan continued his job with a large Irvine electronics firm so that his wife would continue to be covered by the company’s health insurance plan, and he made brief visits to Florida every other month.

Then last August, Caplan was dealt another emotional blow: His mother, also living in Florida, learned that she had breast cancer.

Because he was tied to his job here, Caplan needed something that would give him the financial freedom to return to Florida to be with his wife and his mother.

He found it in the want ads--a contestant search for a new television game show called “The Challengers.”

But before finding his pot of gold on television, Caplan had to face one last hardship. To make his first taping for the show, Caplan said, he called in sick for work. He later told his boss about the indiscretion and was promptly asked to resign, he said.

Caplan, who is no newcomer to television game shows--he won $15,300 on “Jeopardy!” six years ago--slammed the door on his horrible luck Monday when he ended a run of winning performances on “The Challengers” and walked away with $88,600.

“I couldn’t afford to leave my job and return to Florida,” Caplan said in reference to the company’s health insurance benefits. “I looked at ‘The Challengers’ as my ticket home, and that’s what it turned out to be.

“When I went to the show, I was feeling the pressure,” Caplan said. “But when I won, I felt I had freedom for the first time. For the first time in my life, I had some options.”

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Caplan, who learned before he appeared on the show that his wife’s illness had gone into remission, is planning to exercise one of those options. He is preparing to return to Florida, he said, where he hopes to find a new job. He also is considering returning to school to study tax law.

Although Caplan was surprised when his employer asked for his resignation, he said, he is not bitter. As part of a severance package, he said, his wife will continue to be covered by the company’s health insurance policy for another 29 months.

“A lot of the people there have been real supportive,” he said, declining to name the company.

Caplan said he first saw the ad for contestants in TV Guide about eight months ago but that did not apply until he saw it again in June. He did not learn he had qualified for a spot on the “The Challengers” until earlier this month. The show is hosted by Dick Clark and airs here Monday through Friday.

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To prepare for the show, on which contestants can accumulate cash for correct answers to current-events questions, Caplan said he became a voracious reader of newspapers. He also paid close attention to the show and its rules, which allow contestants to accumulate more money by electing to answer more difficult questions.

With the key to their Catalina honeymoon suite as a good luck charm, Caplan chalked up victories on three consecutive shows, qualifying him for the show’s “ultimate challenge,” during which he correctly answered three questions Monday and broke the bank.

Caplan said the final question called for him to name the government body former President Ronald Reagan addressed when he visited the Soviet Union earlier this month.

When he answered, “the Supreme Soviet,” the celebration began.

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“Dick Clark hugged me,” he said.

Now, Caplan is looking forward to moving back to Florida.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I know it will be good for my wife and my mom.”


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