ESPN’s new poker series: Too much shouting, not enough dumpy Asians.

Tilting toward unwatchable
Tilting toward unwatchable

When Rounders came out in 1998, professional poker players loved it. For one thing, it stirred up new interest in the game … which meant a fresh batch of suckers. But even more gratifying for the pros was this: Hollywood had finally done its research.

The poker hands in Rounders are supremely realistic. We never see four aces losing out to a straight flush (I’m looking at you, every other poker movie). And it isn’t just the cards that the film gets right—the betting amounts and the table talk are also dead-on. When I covered the World Series of Poker in 1999 (yes, before it was cool, waaaaaay before; James McManus didn’t go until 2000!) all the pro players there agreed that Rounders was the first time a movie got poker right.

Tilt—a new dramatic series on ESPN (debuting Thursday, 9 p.m. ET)—gets poker right, too. Tilt was created by the guys who wrote Rounders, and just like Rounders it features lots of realistic poker play. Sadly, it does not feature Matt Damon, Edward Norton, sharp dialogue, or compelling plots.

The poker hands in Tilt are like the songs in a Broadway musical: All else comes to a screeching halt so we can focus on what we’ve really come here to see. The problem is, these days we’re not all that starved for realistic poker action on television. There’s World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel; ESPN’s own nonstop coverage of the World Series of Poker; and, to a lesser extent, Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown (which attracts much better actors than the ones in Tilt). It’s not enough anymore to nail the basic details of poker. By now, anyone who cares is already schooled in the strategy and lingo. Do we congratulate baseball movies for getting the dugout chatter right and showing guys running around the bases counterclockwise?

When the action doesn’t pause for a poker hand, Tilt is just an episode of Las Vegas (or maybe Dr. Vegas, rest its soul). It’s all cheesy dialogue and lame scenarios. My favorite moment: In a back-room game, one guy says (with a carefully scripted blend of anger and accurate poker terminology), “No string bets here, bitch.” When his opponent pulls out a small pistol, the guy draws a much bigger gun and shouts, “This time I raise!” (If only the second guy had then rolled in a massive cannon. “Reraise, bitch!”)

But the big disappointment here is the characters. Anyone who’s watched professional poker knows it’s filled with nothing but fascinating, superintelligent weirdos. These folks are blessed with the sort of mind that could calculate Wall Street futures, but are cursed with the sort of soul that longs for late-night Las Vegas card rooms. None of this contradiction is captured in Tilt.

Granted, I’ve only seen the first episode—perhaps in time these boring central-casting toughs will show some hidden depth. But they still won’t look the part. Poker players come in every age, shape, and nationality. That’s part of why I love televised poker: It’s the one place on the dial to see dumpy Asians. Yet Tilt centers on a trio of stylish, slim, attractive young Americans. Haven’t these writers watched World Poker Tour? Don’t they know that real poker players have awkward facial hair? That they wear satin jackets with casino logos and chew on unlit cigarettes for hours at a time? That they are frequently Vietnamese?

The truth is, most poker players are nerds—now more than ever, at a time when many winners build their skills in Internet card rooms. Tilt seems stuck in the past—its heroes are freewheeling cowboys who rely on their instincts and hunches. The new generation of pros tends to bank a bit more on math and game theory. And while cheating (the focus of Tilt’s central plot) is certainly still an issue, it feels so divorced from the aura of modern poker. After all, it’s tough to cheat in a televised event. And why bother when it might sully your new book deal?

I asked Paul Phillips, a top pro player (and a former computer programmer), what sort of real-life drama goes on in poker now and what might make for a great, true-to-life poker series. He mentioned all the money and drugs that flow around and the sudden influx of fame, but to me the most fascinating notion he raised was this: “In what other line of work do people spend every day trying to take their friends’ money? Except for the real lowlifes who have no friends, it’s inevitable that you make friends with people you play with a lot. There are so many ways it can impact a relationship.”

I’d love to see a subtle, gripping portrayal of the dysfunctional relationships that form within a crew of pro poker players. I bet HBO could have pulled this off (the constant distrust that haunts the crew of The Sopranos might serve as an excellent model). But this is ESPN—the network that brought you Playmakers. Just as it did with that series about a fictionalized NFL, ESPN takes the easy route here by ramping up the external conflicts: arguments, shouting, fistfights. Don’t get me started—it’s the same subtlety-stomping path ESPN’s been on with all its recent programming (PTI, Around the Horn, etc.). What once was the thinking man’s outlet for sports is now just the network of screaming matches.

By the way, Michael Madsen—as always—is excellent in Tilt. As poker legend Don “The Matador” Everest, Madsen hauls out his usual shtick: shiny eyes, gravelly voice, sudden and violent eruptions. He points at someone every time he speaks a line, just to kick up the intimidation factor. If only he were pointing at dumpy Asians in satin jackets, we might have a show here.