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'Tilt' plays it close to the vest

Television and poker make unlikely bedfellows. At heart, poker isn't a very visually arresting game: The players sit still, shifting occasionally and struggling to look like Madame Tussauds statues. Eye contact is exchanged; silent calculations are made; emotions are stuffed. While most TV crazes these days involve psychedelic journeys into colorful cadavers or obsessive-compulsive housewives wielding berry pies, Texas Hold 'Em gives us a bunch of glum stiffs and a lot of hands.

And yet viewers have made poker into a full-fledged TV trend, which continues tonight at 9 with the premiere of ESPN's second-ever scripted series, ''Tilt." After all, a high-stakes poker game can be a quiet storm of anxiety and deception, and it is possible for inventive TV writers and directors to translate that atmospheric tension into something palpable. If big personalities are lining the table and making outrageous bluffs, a card game can turn into an engaging psychological contest, and even a metaphor for all of life's gambles. It doesn't hurt if the all-night sordid romance of Las Vegas is glowing in the background.

''Tilt," which was created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who wrote the 1998 movie ''Rounders," is only partially successful at milking drama out of the game. Its biggest problem is that its Las Vegas characters are too typical to make their endless competitions very interesting. If there were half as many original, cliche-free casino characters as there are testicle references, the series might hold more promise.

Michael Madsen is the centerpiece, a legendary player named Don Everest who is known as ''the Matador" for his ability to lure people in and cut them down. Everest is nothing but cool badness, making arch evil eyes as he triple-guesses other players and delivers silly nuggets of wisdom such as ''A deuce is kind of like a mackerel in the moonlight. One minute it's real shiny, the next it stinks." Unlike TV's more compelling slimeballs, he's not psychologically rich or unexpectedly sympathetic. Madsen brings his ''Reservoir Dogs" cred, and the script asks little more of him.

The Matador is so thoroughly bad that three generic young guns have set out to bring him down. Each of them once suffered at the Matador's hand, and now they've banded together like a posse of pretty kids to round him up and punish him. Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) is the stubble-faced leader of the pack; Clark (Todd Williams) is his buddy; and Miami (Kristin Lehman) is the former poker child prodigy he may get involved with. They're trying to win their way toward an encounter with him.

While this trio targets the Matador at his hangout, the Colorado Casino, a sheriff named Lee Nickel (Chris Bauer) is also pursuing the Matador for reasons that aren't made entirely clear. Nickel believes the casino is crooked, and one look at its shady owner Bart (Don McManus) supports his theory. Bart is the typical honcho who cheats innocent fun-seekers out of their hard-earned wages without a moment's pause.

The plot is a bit muddy tonight as ''Tilt" throws us into the middle of all this bitter revenge without much clear explication. It's quite possible that Koppelman and Levien will manage to clarify the story as the series moves forward. They certainly have created a convincing casino-bound world, like that in the more comic NBC drama ''Las Vegas," only rougher around the edges. Now they need to fill their vivid setting with dimensional and unusual characters, to mix provocative gray areas into all the blinking neon and green felt.

Starring: Michael Madsen, Eddie Cibrian, Kristin Lehman, Todd Williams, Don McManus
Time: Tonight, 9-10

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