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You've got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em in the high-stakes world of TV poker.

Although our fascination with people playing cards seems to have faded slightly in recent, recessionary times, the genre bounces back with Face the Ace (Saturday, NBC, 9 p.m.). Equal parts game show and reality experiment, the series gives amateur card sharks the chance to compete against top pros for a $1-million (U.S.) pot.

And NBC is betting the bank that viewers will watch them. Departing from the no-frills style of syndicated poker programs - most of which take place in makeshift studios in Las Vegas casinos - Face the Ace is filmed before a live studio audience and boasts production values more in keeping with prime-time shows such as Deal or No Deal . NBC is test driving the series with back-to-back broadcasts in Saturday prime time before moving it into a regular Saturday afternoon timeslot next month.

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Also working in Face the Ace 's favour is a highly-recognizable front man: The show is hosted by Steve Schirripa, best known for his portrayal of affable wise guy Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos .

"This is wish fulfilment for amateur poker players," said Schirripa recently. "Most people don't get to compete against their favourite athletes in sports like football or basketball. This is a chance for them to test skills against some of the best poker players in the world."

Informed commentary on Face the Ace is provided by Ali Nejad, who performs the same function on NBC's popular series Poker After Dark . Deal or No Deal briefcase model Megan Abrigo appears as the show hostess and requisite eye candy.

To qualify, contestants have already tested their skills on a poker website. The pro players include such poker legends as Mike "The Mouth" Matusow and Phil "Poison" Ivey.

In each episode, an amateur will challenge one of the pros - who remain hidden behind smoked-glass doors - to a game of Texas Hold 'Em for $40,000; if the contestant wins, he or she can keep the money or play a different pro for $200,000. Beat a different pro in the third match and the challenger collects one million dollars. Lose a hand at any time and the contestant walks away with nothing. The pros, meanwhile, are playing for their favourite charities.

For the amateur players, and presumably viewers, Face the Ace keeps alive gambling's eternal long-shot fantasy: A minimal wager - or in this case, no wager at all - can result in a huge, life-changing payday. In his host role, Schirripa will assist players in deciding whether to walk away from the table early, or push their luck for the cool million.

"It all depends on your situation in life," says Schirripa, who worked as entertainment director for a Las Vegas casino before The Sopranos . "Forty grand could be life changing, but some of the folks that come in are thinking, 'I got here with nothing. I'm either going home with the whole shebang or I leave with nothing.' Poker is an all or nothing game."

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