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ESPN’s 'Tilt’ Shows A Strong Opening Hand

Based on a look at the premiere, ESPN may have drawn the right hand for its new scripted drama series Tilt. Created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, Runaway Jury, Knockaround Guys), the gambling show antes up where pro football series Playmakers folded.

Without a sanctioning league to breathe down the necks of the total sports network, Tilt writers will be hard-pressed to create circumstances outside the perceptions or realities of Las Vegas, a city that inhales pigeons (poker-parlance for “sucker”) and spits them out broke, hung over and sometimes married to a stranger.

House money in hand, Tilt will likely run the course of Vegas Lite, knowing basic cable isn’t quite ready for some of the harsher and more prurient practices that can be found in Sin City.

In its first episode, Tilt offers a taste of life swimming with the big card sharks, especially when there’s blood — e.g. money — in the water.

Set at the fictitious Colorado Casino, poker prodigy Eddie Towne (Eddie Cibrian, Third Watch) and cohorts Clark Marcellin (Todd Williams, Lift) and Miami (Kristin Lehman, Showtime’s Poltergeist) hit the city trying to build a bankroll to take on the notorious veteran Don “The Matador” Everest (Michael Madsen, Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2) at the casino’s annual World Poker Championships.

Veteran actor Madsen is not only believable as the callous poker ace, but his Wayne Newtonian looks serve as a reminder of sorts for the Vegas setting.

Bart “Lowball” Rodgers (Don McManus, Magnolia) plays the president of Colorado Casino, but the first episode barely gives him time to show the deviance and diplomatic reserve necessary to successfully run a gaming establishment. His character does show promise when he demotes an employee, then insists he remove the watch given as a casino gift.

Lowball and Matador have a mutually beneficial relationship, but their game is being undercut by newcomer Lee Nickel (Chris Bauer, The Wire), who relentlessly pursues a vendetta against the casino.

While Tilt figures to draw a wide, built-in audience, given poker’s explosion on the tube, the show’s smart, sharp writing and excellent production may also entice its share of non-card players as well. All in all, Tilt looks like a sure bet.

Executive-produced by Koppelman, Levien and Orly Adelson (3, Playmakers, The Junction Boys), Tilt debuts Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. (ET) on ESPN.