It seems the whole world has turned to poker. The World Series of Poker on ESPN, Celebrity Blackjack on the Game Network, the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, and Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown are all hits. The popularity and significance of poker are not limited to television either. Many college campuses and fraternities are holding weekend tournaments, with young (white) males providing the largest increase in players. Playing cards, poker chips, and all-things poker were top sellers this Christmas. At Sears, a gaming set (which comes with a chrome handle, 300 chips, and two decks of cards) goes for $100. Borders Books hocks how-to books from Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, and Phil Gordon.
Hoping to capitalize, ESPN last week launched Tilt as it latest foray into dramatic sports television. From the writers of Rounders, the series brings poker’s underground elements to the small screen. It tells the story of Don “The Matador” Everest (Michael Madsen), who dominates the game not because of his skills, but rather, his alliances with players, casino owners, and the police. As the series starts, he’s facing down a new adversary, the Young Crew—Eddie Towne (Eddie Cibrian), Clark Marcellin (Todd Williams), and Miami (Kristin Lehman)—all seeking retribution against the Matador.
Tilt follows in the tradition of ESPN’s previous series, Playmakers (which lasted only one season because of complaints from the NFL), showing the darker side of the game and the industry. While much of the first episode, called “The Game,” merely and sometimes confusingly introduces viewers to storylines and character histories, it also makes clear there is nothing fair about poker. The Matador wins because he cheats. In one scene, he squashes the aptly named Lee Nickel (Chris Bauer), a small-town cop seeking revenge for the death of his brother, who exposed the Matador’s bad behavior. But again, the Matador has the advantage, receiving signals about cards from others sitting at the table. It is not clear whether his helpers help for money, loyalty or merely the opportunity to get next to the world’s greatest player.
Set in Vegas, amid casinos and card rooms, Tilt features guest appearances by poker legends (Daniel Negraneu, T.J. Clutier, and Norman Chad in the first episode). Supposedly demystifying the glitzy surface offered by other Las Vegas-situated series (CSI, Las Vegas, Casino, and Caesar’s), it reiterates that there is nothing fair about the gaming industry. The final line of the premiere episode hammers this point home, with Eddie reminding us, “When you take on Vegas, Vegas wins.”
With such dialogue passing for wisdom, Tilt appeals both to poker fans and a presumably heterosexual male viewership. Predictable set-ups promise sex, violence, and race-based intrigue. The first episode locates one poker session inside what appears to be all-black strip club and a bathroom scene where an unknown woman provides the Matador with oral sex. Here, two (black) players pull guns during a dispute, and the Matador breaks a rival’s leg. Tilt takes removes poker from the mainstream and puts it back it its supposedly rightful seedy place.