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ESPN's poker series likely winner

After sadly bowing to pressure from the NFL and scrapping its successful Playmakers series last year, ESPN is done licking its wounds. At 9 p.m. Thursday, it gets back into the business of the episodic series with Tilt, a drama based around the poker world (of course).

Without NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to deal with this time around, ESPN has crafted an edgy, dark but highly entertaining look at poker players in Las Vegas, hoping to cash in on the game's recent rise in status and popularity.

After watching an advance copy of the first episode, it's clear ESPN will get two things out of its latest effort _ a hit, and more controversy.

The controversy will come from two scenes, neither of which forwards the plot of the series at all. In one, the series' main character, Don "The Matador" Everest (played by Michael Madsen), engages in a sex act in the bathroom.

In another, an underground poker game among black players immediately turns into a gun-pointing near-shootout, while all the other games featured among white players in the pilot are calm and civilized events.

Both scenes are pointless and could be deleted without harming the quality of the episode. Unless, of course, the whole idea is to inject something into the show that will get the critics in a lather and create some press. In that case, job well done.

Created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), Tilt shows a lot of promise.

Set at the fictitious Colorado Casino in Las Vegas, the series revolves around the efforts of three young, beautiful (it's called artistic license) professional players who are backed by some syndicate hellbent on bringing the well-connected and dastardly Matador down at the upcoming World Poker Championships.

A small-town cop is also on the Matador's trail after being cheated at a game.

Tilt is not nearly as over-the-top as Playmakers was, and the acting is superior. Eddie Cibrian is believeable as the young hotshot poker player, and partners Kristin Lehman and Todd Williams play their parts just as well. Madsen is perfect in the role of the Matador.

Whereas Playmakers portrayed football players as cheaters and philanderers, chances are there won't be too many professional poker players complaining about being portrayed as beautiful, well-dressed, well-meaning people trying to take down the bad guy.

That, and the absence of a "poker commissioner," should ensure Tilt's survival and give viewers something Playmakers was never allowed to deliver.

A second season.

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