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Latest celebrity series plays its cards right

Celebrity Poker Showdown
On: Bravo Time: Tonight, 9-10

In this era of reality games like "Survivor," where the rule book is as fat as the players are lean, "Celebrity Poker Showdown" comes as a nice change. The six-part series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Bravo, is a simple, agreeable hour of card playing and celebrity clowning. Sure, watching poker on TV isn't exactly action-packed entertainment, and the show will never be confused with anything that has ever appeared on MTV. But it's not watching paint dry -- or watching "Carnivale" -- either, as famous players such as Ben Affleck and Allison Janney fight to stay out of the Loser's Lounge.

The game of choice is Texas Hold 'Em, which is easy to follow -- and made easier by an explainer at the beginning of each episode. During the hour, five players use the show's money to compete for winnings that will go to their charities of choice. Ultimately, the winners of each of the first five games will return for a finale with a high-stakes pot ($100,000), funded by a cellphone company that gets a few too many plugs. Tonight's table features Affleck, Emily Procter, Don Cheadle, David Schwimmer, and Willie Garson. While Affleck doesn't seem to be having much fun -- or is that just his poker face? -- Procter and Garson are jovial, and they bring the game to life. Garson, from "Sex and the City," is a loose player who pushes the betting envelope and keeps all the participants on their feet. About Affleck, he says, "He is supposed to be very good, I believe -- according to him."

Kevin Pollak wryly hosts the series, teasing the players in the Loser's Lounge when he's not consulting with poker expert Phil Gordon. The stretches of playing are also broken up by brief prerecorded interviews with the celebrities, who talk about their particular gambling style. In an upcoming "West Wing" hour with Janney, John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Martin Sheen, and Timothy Busfield, a very playful Janney confesses, "I throw things. . . . I don't like to lose." She makes the episode a bit of a kick, as does the usually stiff Schiff, who wears a series of hats and glasses for luck. (It will be interesting to see how many NBC stars ultimately appear, since Bravo is NBC's corporate sister.) For an hour of cards and chips, "Celebrity Poker Showdown" is surprisingly diverting, and that's no bluff.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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