The greatest comedy in the history of television is M*A*S*H. For 11 seasons, the gang of the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital entertained America with a comedic and at times dramatic portrayal of life during the Korean War. It is also one of the first television shows since Maverick to regularly use the game of poker as a key part of plot development. Let’s take a look at the role that poker played in M*A*S*H.
If you have ever watched M*A*S*H, then at some point you have seen Hawkeye, Klinger, Radar, Father Mulcahey, and others playing poker in the swamp. While five card stud was a huge form of poker during the Korean war, M*A*S*H had its characters play five card draw as the game is better suited for TV.
The games were simply a way for the characters to pass the time while in Korea and have some fun social interaction. If they were lucky, they would make a little money. Even Father Mulcahey would play in the games. He once admitted during the series that the game of poker relaxed him, and in reality it is entirely possible that a game of poker would be relaxing as opposed to the realities of the war in Korea.
Poker was also used to setup some excellent comic developments. In one episode, Major Winchester was dominating the game to the disdain of Hawkeye and company. However, once they picked up on a key poker tell from Winchester, they turned the tables and bled him dry.
Sometimes the games were used to help further the plot line or to develop certain characters for the audience. Sidney Freedman was a regular guests to their poker games as was other guest stars to the show, including the overbearing Colonel Flagg. Many times these bits were just a minute or two long, but they could easily setup a good portion of the episode.
Poker in M*A*S*H was less about the game and about the people in the game, much like recreational poker is for many of us. Nobody got rich playing poker at the 4077, but they did have a load of fun and developed friendships that would last through the war and beyond.