While television is cluttered with unreal reality shows, this competition is genuine, cerebral and full of high drama.

It’s tournament poker, and the tense exchanges of hundreds of thousands of dollars are the hottest ticket in American television.

Behind baseball caps and sunglasses, these modern-day gunslingers read weaknesses, watch for any frailties and pull the trigger when they feel it’s right.

Poker tournaments date back to 1949, but they weren’t televised until the early 1990s. Early versions of televised poker drew little attention.

Then the Discovery Channel asked filmmaker Stephen Lipscomb to do a one-hour documentary on the game.

Lipscomb was fascinated by the drama of high-stakes poker and soon started the “World Poker Tour” and created a sensation on, of all things, The Travel Channel.

He brought his presentation skills to the table, installing “lipstick” cameras at each player’s seat so the viewing audience could see the “hole cards,” or the cards dealt face-down that only that particular player can see.

That changed the whole experience, said professional player Annie Duke.

“Without seeing the hole card, it’s just a bunch of stone-faced people sitting around a table. But with the lipstick camera, it becomes very exciting and fun to watch.”

Poker also is exciting, Lipscomb found, because “it’s the perfect blend of luck and skill.”

“You and I could get on the court with the Lakers or Pistons, and we’d get killed,” he laughed. “But [with poker], you and I can play against the pros!”

Lipscomb also was able to build story lines and avoided clichés with his brief bios of the players, in which no one tells, over a tinkling piano, how his steelworker father got up at 3:30 every morning to drive him to the municipal poker table for practice.

Now, ESPN hosts the “World Series of Poker” and Bravo holds the “Celebrity Poker Showdown” to rival the World Poker Tour’s “Hollywood Home Game.”

Lipscomb delights in the fact that ESPN recently showed poker for 24 hours straight, and he said that a recent “World Poker Tour” show drew 3 percent of all viewers in America — a high number given the number of channels on most cable systems.

Their game is No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em.

Each player gets two cards face down and can bet, if they’re staying in. Three community cards are put on the table, face-up, in what’s called the flop.

Players again bet based on the combined cards. Two more cards are turned up, and players make the best five out of their seven cards. And the money flies.

But why poker, and not bridge? Or blackjack?

Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and the 2000 World Champion, feels it’s the game’s unique combination of skill and luck that is its drawing card.

“It’s a great game. There’s a lot of thinking going on, but lots of luck, too. And the human element — there’s a lot of emotion shown by the players. It’s really works, from the game-show aspect.”

Duke, sister of the current world champion Howard Lederer, and poker pro for the past ten years, agrees.

“In craps, there’s no skill — it’s all luck. Baccarat — there’s a huge element of chance,” she said.

“And in chess, chess is deeply intellectual. If I played Kasparov 100 times, he’d win 100 times. But you combine the two elements in poker.”

And it’s an equal-opportunity game, Duke said.

“I don’t like when people single me out because I’m a woman,” she said.

Duke spoke of winning a recent tournament:

“The day I won, there were two tournaments — women only, and open. I played with the men. But [women-only tables] are a great entrée for women.”

Celebrities are addicted, too — to both watching and playing.

“It’s interesting to watch the different styles [of the pros],” said Lou Diamond Phillips in a telephone interview.

Playing Texas Hold ’Em is “my new passion,” Phillips said. But he knows his depth.

“You’re always in danger against the pros,” Phillips said. “They never make a stupid bet.”

So Phillips plays other celebs on “Hollywood Home Game.” His take on his rivals?

“Ben Affleck plays a lot. Really good. Tobey Maguire is a good player.

“Norm MacDonald plays a good game. Mimi Rogers. Camryn Manheim (of the legal drama “The Practice.”)

“James Woods is a really good player, probably the best. A really tight player. He’s a brain.”

Does he have advice to the GI who wants to learn?

“Yeah man, play! You have to take some bad beats before you get good. You’ve gotta get a feel for the table. Play!”

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