Every year, thousands of would-be millionaires, wide-eyed with dreams of riches, attempt to earn their fortune in the high-stakes world of Las Vegas gambling. Others are all too willing to let them try.

TV/New Media Reviews
A snake! A snake killed me! (Courtesy of ESPN)

Don “The Matador” Everest (Michael Madsen, “Kill Bill”) is one of the latter. A Texas Hold ‘Em legend, Everest is willing to teach the other gamblers at the table a costly lesson. In the pilot, he gets himself and the casino in trouble when one of the players he bankrupts turns out to be Lee Nickel, an undercover cop (Chris Bauer, “61*”).

Nickel suspects Everest cheated, but when he reviews the casino’s security tapes, he finds that they have been erased. Nickel also believes his brother was murdered by “The Matador.”

Bart “Lowball” Rogers (Don McManus) is Everest’s best friend and owner of the Colorado Casino where The Matador plays. While Rogers presents himself as a legitimate businessman, he takes every measure to ensure the profitability of his casino and the safety of Everest, the star of the casino’s World Poker Championship.

Others have pasts that cross with Everest’s. In the pilot, viewers learn that Miami (Kristin Lehman) knew The Matador when she was 12, hustling adults at the tables. Eddie Towne (Eddie Cibrian) also has history with Everest, although this story is only alluded to in the pilot. Joining them is Clark Marcellin (Todd Williams), and though he has a love-hate relationship with the other two, they concoct a plan to raise enough money to enter the championships and slay The Matador.

The show lives and dies on the strength of Michael Madsen. While the rest of the cast play their roles well, they are relative unknowns. The character of The Matador appears to have been written for Madsen and the show suffers when he’s not on the screen. Each of the trio of young bulls brings their own baggage to the group. The tangled past between Nickel and Everest only fuels Nickel’s determination.

“Tilt” attempts to give viewers an inside look at the underside of the gambling world. While flashy casinos are instantly recognizable Las Vegas landmarks, they contrast sharply with underground gambling dens the trio visit to earn their bankroll. The visuals feel natural, but the fact that the show airs on basic cable, as opposed to HBO, requires some of this realism to be scaled back..

After the success of the controversial football drama “Playmakers,” ESPN chose to capitalize on the current popularity of poker with this dramatization. The pilot accomplished little else than introducing characters and future plot lines, “Tilt” may have some potential.

Revealing the less glitzy elements of the gambling world is not new, but these characters are intriguing enough to overcome that. Their intertwined histories create a soap-opera mentality that will draw in viewers, even if poker is not their game.

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

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