Have I ever mentioned Jackpot Jay's First Law of Pop Culture? It goes like this:
Any pop cultural phenomenon, given a reasonable degree of creativity, will be successful -- that is, bought, watched and/or commented upon obsessively -- in proportion to the number of individuals and institutions it offends.
Rap music, in general.
The movies of Quentin Tarantino.
"Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction."
Video games overflowing with testosterone, in general.
George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees ...
... and on and on and on.
If Jackpot Jay's First Law of Pop Culture is correct, then "Tilt" is bound to be a huge hit.
Consider this partial list of those who have surely been offended -- and worse -- by just the first episode of "Tilt":
1.) The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce: If "Tilt" is to be taken literally, then the only function Las Vegas visitors serve is to be cheated. This can't be good for the tourist business.
2.) Casino management: Bart "Lowball" Rogers, who runs the fictional casino in which most of the action of "Tilt" takes place, is not merely greedy. He's contemptuous and dismissive of his clients, looking at them like cattle who exist only to be relieved of their large, disposable bankrolls. This can't be good for the long-term health of the gambling industry.
3.) Casino workers: In one chilling scene, a hapless poker room manager is abused, humiliated and threatened by Lowball and the show's preternaturally sleazy protagonist, Don "The Matador" Everest, for allowing a visiting police officer to enter The Matador's no-limit game with "only" $8,000. Before sentencing the poor guy to a soul-numbing demotion -- he now has to work with the lame 25-cent slot-machine crowd instead of the romantic gun-slinging no-limit poker studs -- and taking away his meritorious service watch, The Matador tells him, "If I run out of toilet paper at home, I wipe my (rear) with eight grand -- nine if I've had chili." This can't be good for the self-esteem of casino employees.
4.) Parents of young children: Speaking of things that can't be good for the self-esteem of casino employees ... The Matador is in a meeting with Lowball, in which they are discussing the most efficient way to cheat an obvious sucker out of his bankroll, when The Matador suddenly jumps up, announcing, "I'm going to relieve myself." Lowball inclines his head toward the back of the room, where a smiling, barely-clad showgirl awaits. The camera closes in on The Matador -- above his waist -- and we see his face changing expressions as the showgirl presumably performs a quick act of oral sex. The facial expressions I wanted to see were those of the fathers and mothers throughout America trying to explain to their young children what was happening on their TV screens. This can't be good for parent-child relationships.
5.) Law enforcement officials all over the country: The local cop is craven and for sale to the highest bidder, who turns out to be -- surprise! -- Lowball. (During a scene in which the local cop is asking Lowball to see a tape of visiting Des Moines police officer Lee Nickel being cheated by The Matador -- a tape which, by an amazing coincidence, was erased only a couple of hours earlier! -- we see the local cop wearing one of those watches the casino gives its "employees" for meritorious service, one of the many subtly savage touches that promises to make "Tilt" an all-time guilty pleasure.) Nickel, who is there to exact some kind of revenge against The Matador for as-yet-unspecified reasons, is supposed to be the show's "straight arrow." As The Matador explains to Lowball, "He's as straight up as a stalk of corn." This, of course, does not prevent Nickel from pistol-whipping and threatening to kill the guy who erased the tape of The Matador cheating. All in all, a portrait of law enforcement that can't be good for recruitment drives -- unless your local law enforcement agency is looking to hire cowards or psychos with impulse-control problems.
6.) The American Psychiatric Association: Where's the love, people? In this show, even the "heroes" are emotional cripples. (The supermodel-handsome white guy, Eddie, the supermodel-handsome black guy, Clark, and the supermodel-beautiful token tomboy, Miami, are a kind of post-modern ironic version of "The Mod Squad.") All three vibe like wounded orphans (though Eddie, at least, literally has living parents -- his Mom, who we meet in the first episode, is a chilly lady currently working at the Golden Nugget as a dealer; his Dad is still grinding away at the $2-4 limit hold 'em tables at Foxwoods). They trust nobody, use language exclusively as a weapon, are hyper-aggressive, reject everybody before everybody can reject them, and are seeking revenge against The Matador through an as-yet-unspecified plot that involves collusion and possibly other forms of cheating. And these are the good guys.
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Eventually, the absence of anyone remotely likeable to "root" for -- nobody trusts anybody, everybody is a cheat, everybody is looking out only for No. 1 -- could turn off viewers who like to have somebody with whom they can identify. In that sense, some critics have compared "Tilt" to "The Sopranos," which, for some viewers (including me), became more difficult to watch as the few sympathetic characters on the show became progressively marginalized (Carmela, Dr. Melfi), or dehumanized (the Tony who, early on, sat up all night in a rain-soaked barn with a sick horse and a goat before turning into Totally Paranoid Tony; the Paulie Walnuts who morphed from a lovable idiot-savant-philosopher into a conscienceless homicidal maniac).
7.) The Religious Right: Cheating. Lying, card-dealing Moms, casual oral sex without benefit of marriage, rapacious businessmen, craven and pistol-whipping cops, lovelessness all around ... do I have to go on?
8.) Professional poker players the world over: It's been said that top-flight pros will love this show, because they expect "Tilt" to encourage bushels of fleece-able know-nothing newbies to flock to poker games in casinos and online. Other than those who pick up some SAG money by appearing in "Tilt" -- real-life players Daniel Negreanu and T. J. Cloutier had bit parts in the first episode (both pass up a chance to sit down with The Matador, preferring to look for greener, and safer, pastures) -- it's hard to believe that many pros will look at the show as an income enhancer. Quite the contrary, in fact. What know-nothing in his or her right mind is going to want to go to Las Vegas or any casino if he or she thinks these places are lousy with sharks who will abuse them verbally and possibly even physically while cheating them out of their money?
9.) Ordinary, run-of-the-mill obsessive players looking to improve their games: Some reviewers have praised the authenticity of the poker scenes. So far, there have been four key hands: 1.) the one where The Matador gets Lee Nickel to fold when he bets $1,000 without looking at his hole cards (Nickel: "Did you even look at your hand?" Matador: "No, but I saw your face when you looked at yours." Nickel: "I fold."); 2.) the 6-4 suited with which The Matador busts Nickel for better than 30 grand; 3.) the 4-3 suited with which Eddie busts an arrogant know-it-all of an Englishman during a game played right next to a boxing match (hey, don't ask me!); and 4.) the 10-6 offsuit with which, in flashback, a 12-year-old Miami fills her straight and takes $7,000 on the river from an obnoxious low-level gangster type. In the hands of a Phil Ivey or Johnny Chan, playing 6-4 suited or 4-3 suited or 10-6 offsuit might occasionally work out. They might even get away, once every millennium or so, with making a huge bet without looking at their cards. But, for the vast majority of players, this is a good way to go broke. Fast.
10.) Child welfare agencies: A 12-year-old girl playing no-limit hold 'em for thousands of dollars in a Las Vegas hotel room? That's got to violate at least a few thousand major laws, no?
(It goes without saying that poker purists, who measure the quality and entertainment value of any art form by how exactly it mimics the reality of the poker world, will hate "Tilt." General sleaziness at the tables, world-class players cheating, guns being brandished mid-hand, dishonest hotel executives, a 12-year-old girl playing in -- and winning at -- high-stakes no-limit games, incorrect bets, calls with substandard hole cards ... why it's a scandal, a blot upon the good name of poker itself! I'm not privy to any inside info, but I'm assuming that when ESPN execs green-lighted "Tilt," they were looking for an audience that extends beyond a few hundred poker purists. Of course, I could be wrong about that ... )
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1.) The production values are first-rate, especially for a TV show. In that respect, it feels like a top-flight HBO production -- like "The Sopranos" or "Oz." And like "The Sopranos" and "Oz," the atmospherics are superb.
2.) Mike Madsen is perfect as The Matador. Everything about the guy is scary. An entire repertoire of menacing expressions, a charmingly cruel face, a growly voice, and a hulking body as well as the mastery of vicious verbal attacks that his nervous sycophants are supposed to find amusing add up to a package of unremittingly off-putting aggression. Madsen is probably best-known for his role in Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," in which he plays the guy who cuts off the young cop's ear and then soaks him in gasoline, preparatory to burning the terrified cop alive. In many ways, that role was the perfect preparation for playing The Matador.
3.) The other actors are all good. Don McManus as the supremely oily Lowball is wonderfully repugnant, even if the character he plays is absurdly unrealistic.
4.) The insight into what makes American hearts go pitter-patter, of what Americans see as romantic, is fascinating. The sublime "safety" of emotionlessness, the sheer joy of getting over, the worship of luck over skill and hard work, the almost sexual thrill of telling any institution to (bleep) off, the adolescent wet-dream deliciousness of staying up late at night and getting up whenever you want to, the sheer wonder of walking around loose with a roll of hundreds held together by a rubber band, a roll that could choke a horse ... why, it's the flip side of the Good American Dream, the dark side of capitalism that they don't like to talk about on "The O'Reilly Report."
5.) The writing, especially the dialogue, is excellent, which is not surprising, since two of the creators of "Tilt" are David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who wrote "Rounders," only the greatest poker movie ever filmed. By a mile.
A couple of weeks ago, a reader wrote in, wondering if I knew of any good retorts he could use at his local casino so as to develop a cooler table image. Just watch "Tilt," sir. There are enough good lines in the first episode alone to last you a lifetime. In addition to The Matador's lines about relieving himself and using $8,000 for toilet paper, here are a couple of other ripostes that you might want to keep on file for trips to the local casino or that perfect moment in your favorite home game:
Seymour (the ringleader of the plot against The Matador, a kind of Charley to Eddie, Clark and Miami, his three angels of revenge): "This ain't America, kid. This is Vegas."
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Eddie: "No, I played 'em because I have a pair."
Seymour (in the flashback scene, after he's "convinced" the obnoxious low-level gangster to pay 12-year-old Miami the $7,000 he lost on the river to her higher straight, to Miami, who's furiously gnawing on some bubble gum): "Have to be careful about the gum. Against a better player, you might give something away."
(After this, the scene shifts back to the grown-up Miami, who is visiting the hotel room where she won the $7,000. She looks to see if the piece of gum which she stuck under the table back in the day after Seymour's fatherly advice is still there. In "Tilt," this is what passes for a Hallmark moment.)
6.) It's definitely suspenseful. So many questions, so few answers -- yet.
Here are a couple of things that confused me, hopefully to be cleared up in later episodes:
WHAT MAKES THE MATADOR TICK?
There's a major clue early on, as The Matador and Lowball walk past Eddie and Clark, who are rolling around on the floor, staging a fight to try to convince The Matador that they hate each other, so that later, when they collude against him, he won't suspect that's what they are doing.
The Matador: "There are only two things I can think of worth fighting for."
The Matador: " ... and money."
This, however, does not adequately explain why The Matador would want to -- or need to -- cheat an obvious amateur like the Des Moines cop, Lee Nickel, especially in a scheme that involves at least three other players at the table and possibly even the dealer.
In fact, I can't even figure out how, exactly, Nickel was cheated. Was the idea that everybody else at the table was in on the fix, signaling to The Matador what their hole cards were so he'd know when he had a higher percentage of outs? For example, on the cheating hand, did they all signal after the flop -- The Matador had a 6-4 suited in the hole, and the flop came 8-5-2, giving him a double-inside-straight draw -- that they didn't have a 3 or a 7, so that he knew he had eight outs out of 29 unknown cards, instead of eight outs out of 47 unknown cards?
Or, more likely, did three or so of the guys signal him, which would have left him knowing that he had eight outs out of 41 unknown cards, instead of 47, which is not that much of an extra edge? And, if so, how did he know that Nickel had a set of 2s, or any hand with which to call his all-in bet? (Also, since Nickel called a $24,000-plus bet -- meaning he had at least $33,000 to start the hand, since he called a $1,000 opening bet by The Matador, then raised his $4,000 bet by $4,000 after the 8-5-2 flop -- how did he go from his $8,000 buy-in, which The Matador mentions in the scene where he and Lowball dress down the hapless floor guy who let Nickel into "my game" with only $8,000?) Is the implication that the dealer was in on the fix? If so, why did he need the other guys to signal what their hole cards were?
Also, if he could "see into the soul" of other players, and if he had Nickel on a string, getting Nickel to bet whenever The Matador wanted him to, and to check whenever The Matador wanted him to, as Miami -- no fan -- explains to Eddie, and if he's one of the best players in the world and Nickel is only some out-of-town schlub, why bother to go to all that trouble to win his money? Presumably, he has to pay off the guys who were signaling him -- and, perhaps, the dealer, too -- when he could easily have won all the money from Nickel without anyone's help, thereby cutting down his risk of exposure and his expenses?
Maybe he's just a danger junkie. But that would seem to be at odds with his comment to Lowball that money is the only thing worth fighting for.
WHAT'S THE STORY WITH LEE NICKEL?
Like almost everyone else in "Tilt," he's obviously out for revenge for whatever happened to his brother (kicked out of LV, killed, disgraced in some way?), who was a cheating partner with The Matador at one time. If Lee Nickel is trying to get The Matador to cheat him, so he can bust him or justify killing him or whatever, why does he get so upset when he "realizes" that The Matador did, in fact, cheat him? (Later, in his hotel room, he watches a video of his brother explaining how he and The Matador cheated people. Suddenly, he throws his badge in disgust while visualizing the others at the table doing exactly what his brother is describing in the video.) Or is his plan to bust The Matador? That seems a bit unrealistic, since he's obviously not that good a player, despite the fact that he apparently ran $8,000 into $33,000-plus while waiting for The Matador to arrive. If he were a good player, for example, he would have gone all-in on the hand where The Matador doesn't even look at his cards, because, unless The Matador had lucked into a monster hand -- a distinct long shot -- he'd have to fold.
To be continued and, perhaps, even explained.
BOTTOM LINE: "Tilt" is sick but addictive, an immorality play for our times, which pretty accurately describes poker, as well.
COUPLE OF RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE PATRIOTS' TROUNCING OF THE COLTS
It's definitely outside the usual subject area of this column, but indulge me, please, because I miss my old life as an interested observer of the sports world:
1.) In the second half, whenever the camera shifted to Bill Belichick stalking the sidelines, I felt like Morpheus in "The Matrix" when Neo puts his fingers up and causes the bullets from the three Agents to stop in mid-air: "I told you. He is The One."
2.) If, after that performance by the Patriots' defense, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel does not get a head coaching job soon, some kind of civil rights inquiry against the NFL needs to be instigated.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW PROFESSION
Last week: lost $193 playing online.
Online total: minus $4,743.
Career-to-date: plus $14,246.
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.