Poker has long been a favored diversion for those serving in the military, particularly during times of war when the game provides a much needed escape from the steeper life-or-death stakes of battle.
It’s only fitting, then, that the popular TV show M*A*S*H -- a comedy set against the backdrop of the Korean War -- would feature America’s favorite card game so prominently.
Spawned from the 1970 film of the same name, the long-running series became something of an American institution over its 251 episodes.
On the CBS network for 11 seasons, the show lasted many years longer than the Korean War itself, and remained popular right up until signing off early in 1983 with its farewell show -- at the time the most watched television episode in history.
The M*A*S*H film includes only a fleeting glimpse of the poker played by the those stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
However, one verse of the grim theme song, “Suicide Is Painless” (employed as an instrumental in the TV show), does characterize life as a kind of hopeless card game: “The game of life is hard to play / I'm gonna lose it anyway / The losing card I'll someday lay / So this is all I have to say: / Suicide is painless ...”
While the M*A*S*H film features almost no poker, its director Robert Altman would go on to feature poker prominently in his later California Split (1974), one of the better gambling movies ever made.
Meanwhile, the M*A*S*H TV series frequently had its characters engaging in a regular poker game.
Deal Me Out (S02E13)
An episode from the second season titled “Deal Me Out” features chief surgeon Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda, the actor whose name is sometimes used to refer to pocket aces), surgeon Trapper McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), Colonel Blake (McLean Stevenson), Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr), and a couple of others playing an all-night session of dealer’s choice.
They play variations of five-card stud and five-card draw for low stakes, with a buck appearing to be the usual betting amount and pots only occasionally creeping up to more than $20.
Interruptions occur -- at one point Hawkeye and Trapper get pulled away to the operating room -- but it’s clear that while the game is going it rates as the highest priority.
At one point the players humorously evoke the Old West, with Trapper announcing “I think it’s about time we separate the men from the boys around here.”
He claims to be the “new sheriff,” then jerks a thumb at Corp. Klinger who dresses in drag in a failed effort to get discharged.
“This here’s the new school marm,” he explains. “Deal, Tex,” says another.
Gunshots outside the tent suddenly erupt, further suggesting the Old West setting, and the game is interrupted again while they deal with a gun-wielding private (played by John Ritter in a guest spot) who’s hoping for a discharge of his own so as to avoid being sent back to the front.
All is settled without much trouble, however, and the game stubbornly continues until the episode ends at dawn.
“Same time next week?” someone asks as the game breaks up. “I thought this was the same time next week,” comes the reply.
An episode from the third season titled “Payday” finds the game returning once again, with several looking to put their paychecks in play.
The unit’s chaplain, Father Mulcahy (William Christopher), joins the game this time around. He explains he’s trying to raise money for an orphanage, although that purpose fails to evoke sympathy from his opponents.
“No extra help, Father,” warns Trapper when he sits down, looking upwards.
“Oh, no no no,” says Fr. Mulcahy quickly in response. He then proceeds to lose enough to have to leave the game, perhaps proving he hasn’t solicited any heavenly aid.
As it happens, help does come to Fr. Mulcahy from an unexpected source after a problem arises with the paychecks.
An extra $3,000 arrives with the money intended for the officers and enlisted men, and rather than deal with the paperwork Hawkeye (that month’s pay officer) gives the extra funds to Fr. Mulcahy for the orphanage.
Later someone from Accounting and Finance appears looking for the missing funds.
All is swiftly resolved, though, when Trapper wins a big hand with quad tens after having re-bought back into the game with a watch he’s stolen from Hawkeye.
Hawkeye takes the big pot -- just about $3K -- away from Trapper and delivers it to the A & F officer.
The episode ends with the innocent Radar taking a seat and calling a new game. “Anybody know how to play Go Fish?” he asks. “How about Hearts? Old Maid?
Lieutenant Radar O’Reilly (S05E04)
By the fifth season Radar has learned poker well enough to play with the others, although he clearly needs help with his poker face.
In a five-card draw hand everyone stays in for the draw, and Radar takes three cards.
Radar looks at the first and chuckles. Then he looks at the second and begins to laugh. He turns up the third -- “Ha!” -- he says, with a wide grin. Sure enough he’s drawn a full house, and eventually drags a small pot with great satisfaction.
The game soon breaks up, and when a player named Woodruff doesn’t have the $85 he owes he explains how he works at headquarters and has access to the mimeograph machines with which he can somehow manufacture promotions.
Hawkeye and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) ask him to make Radar a second lieutenant, and a couple of days later we learn he’s obliged.
When the news comes, Radar can’t figure out why he was promoted. But Hawkeye and B.J. ignore his confusion.
“It was in the cards,” cracks B.J.
Radar is predictably very uncomfortable with his new position of authority. Like that full house he couldn’t really profit from thanks to his inability to hide the truth, so, too, does his honest, generous nature make it hard for him to be a boss to anyone.
And so by the end Hawkeye and B.J. make sure he’s returned to being a Corporal.
The Merchant of Korea (S06E14)
This episode from the sixth season introduced a new character to the poker table, Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers).
Once more it is payday, although when a screw-up at HQ causes the officers’ pay to be delayed, Charles ends up loaning money to some of the others.
When Charles lords it over B.J. and Hawkeye -- thus inspiring them to call him “the Merchant of Korea” after Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice -- they get the idea to invite him to the poker game and he accepts.
A poker novice, all are greatly excited at the chance to win some money from “Losechester.”
“I must warn you, I’m a very lucky person,” says Charles. “Oh, we all are,” Hawkeye responds. “That’s why we’re in Korea.”
The game begins and in the first hand of five-card draw Charles raises, then asks for four cards, eliciting smiles all around.
Those happy faces quickly change, however, when he turns over a winning straight and rakes a huge pot, merrily whistling Verdi’s La Traviata as he does.
Charles proceeds to crush the game for several hours until finally the others discover his tell -- he whistles more loudly when he has nothing.
“Rhapsody in Bluff!” says B.J. Eventually all win their money back and then some, and leave the game whistling themselves.
Wheelers and Dealers (S10E05)
This episode “Wheelers and Dealers” from the tenth season finds B.J. upset about his wife back home having to take a job to help pay the mortgage.
B.J. takes out his frustration on his opponents in a poker game, beating them mercilessly in hand after hand.
One hand of five-card draw finds the group starting out making small raises of “two bits” before the draw. B.J. stands pat while others take cards.
“Must be hosting a royal reception” says a wary Sgt. Verbanic (Anthony Charnota).
After the draw B.J. and Verbanic start re-raising back and forth, with the latter finally saying “let’s play like grown-ups” before raising to $10.
B.J. comes back with $20 more, and when Verbanic re-raises again B.J. bumps it up another $100, tossing in his wedding ring to help make up the amount.
During that action, a cowboy hat-wearing Hawkeye is fixing a drink when he spots B.J.’s hand -- 10♥ 8♠ 9♠ A♠ 6♦! He’s stood pat with ace-high and is bluffing.
And it works, as Verbanic folds.
Play continues until the others get tired of losing to B.J. and the game breaks up. Still desperate for action, B.J. hits the officers’ club and starts hustling privates gambling at pinball until finally Hawkeye and Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) intervene.
It’s Margaret who snaps B.J. out of his self-pity after he complains to the pair about having to be away from his family.
“Maybe you do have the most to lose,” she says. "But that's only because you’ve got the most.” It’s a life lesson that applies at the poker table, too.
Poker turned up elsewhere on M*A*S*H, including in the episode titled "Your Hit Parade" (SE06E18) when the gang play the made-up game Double Cranko -- a combination of checkers, chess, poker, and gin rummy in which the rules seem to change constantly according to players' whims ("Bishops are jacks!" "Checkers are wild!").
Less dark than the film, the M*A*S*H TV show frequently moved back and forth between comedy and drama, more often than not dealing with its wartime themes with grins rather than grief.
Thus was poker an especially apt vehicle to infuse some light-hearted fun into an otherwise serious setting.
Martin Harris is a poker writer and player and a part-time professor at UNC-Charlotte who teaches, among other things, a course on poker's role in American history and culture.
In a new bi-weekly column on PokerListings.com, Martin will be exploring the many ways poker and pop culture intersect. Read more work by Martin Harris on his own blog, Hard-Boiled Poker.