Wednesday, April 04, 2012


It looks like my friend Martin Harris has found a new home at Poker Listings for his occasional excellent series on poker's intersections with pop culture. (It has previously appeared at Poker News and Epic Poker.) Today's installment reviews the episodes of M*A*S*H in which poker games show up:

He mentions the episode I most remember whenever the subject of bluffing comes up--Charles Emerson Winchester's bad habit of whistling when he bluffs. (See Martin's summary of the episode, "The Merchant of Korea.") I think of it, however, because of a lack of plausibility.

Even long before I played poker, the discovery of Winchester's tell struck a false note with me because of how it occurs. Mind you, I haven't seen the episodes in literally decades, so it's possible that my memory is faulty. But my recollection is that it is only after a poker session (or perhaps during a break in the game, away from the table) that BJ and Hawkeye are complaining to each other about how Charles is always winning. Then one of them chimes in with another gripe: "And it's so annoying how he whistles when he's bluffing." There's a beat, then a light bulb goes on over their heads. They smile and in unison say, "He whistles when he's bluffing!" They celebrate because they have finally discovered the chink in his armor that will allow them to start winning.

In other words, at least one of them had, while playing, noticed the association between his conduct and his bluffs, but it wasn't until later reflection that he (or they) realized that they could exploit this observation to beat him.

That's just not even remotely plausible. As I said, even decades before I ever played the game, I knew that that couldn't possibly be how such things would go. It rang as false as Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and not starting to fall until he realizes that there's nothing but air under him.

Ah well. It's not exactly a show that one watched for hyper-realism of details. But that particular plot point has bugged me for years and years and years whenever I've thought about it, and now I have finally had an excuse to express my annoyance about it.


qdpsteve said...

Although I doubt there's a single episode left that I haven't seen at least three times, M*A*S*H has always been a favorite of mine. Probably the only exceptions to the above are some early episodes where Hawkeye and Trapper were especially cruel to Frank, and a few later shows that were annoyingly sanctimonious about war, "the horror of it all," etc etc.

Having said that, one of my all-time fave TV laugh lines was related to an early M*A*S*H episode involving poker, when Trap and Hawk are called away from a game to perform emergency surgery. After the procedure, while leaving the ER, the PA system broadcasts: "Attention, could Captains Pierce and McIntyre please return as soon as possible to their poker game? They need your money." Gets me every time...

(And, the M*A*S*H subject that *really* gets me every time: their food episodes lampooning army chow. There was a 'steak' episode, a 'spam parmesan' episode, a 'Packo's Hungarian Hot Dogs' episode... but the best was when Hawkeye, desperate for a break from humdrum camp life, manages to get ribs and sauce delivered from a place in Chicago called Adam's Ribs. I defy even the hardest-core vegetarian to watch without it leaving their mouth watering for a fantastic classic barbeque dinner.

Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Thanks, PG. In that "Merchant of Korea" episode, it's Radar who unwittingly identifies the tell.

Winchester cleans up, then decides to take a walk, leaving everyone else to complain about his crushing them. Klinger wonders if he might be cheating. Then Radar complains that he never stops whistling, even when he's got a bad hand. "He just keeps whistling louder," Radar says, not realizing what it means. "A-ha!" says everyone else. (That's when BJ says "Rhapsody in Bluff!") It's still fairly contrived, but having naive Radar stumble into identifying the tell makes it a little more reasonable.

qdpsteve: That "They need your money" line is in the first one I discussed, "Deal Me Out" (SE02E13). Actually that episode also has a running food gag in it, too, as they frequently refer to the sandwiches at the game. At one point Hawkeye suspects he sees them move. Another time, Radar comes in, asking "Are these for anyone?" "Anyone with a death wish," comes the reply.

Anonymous said...

Slow news day?

Rakewell said...

Shamus beat me by about 12 hours. I was curious about whether my memory of the scene was anywhere near correct, so I shot the DVD of the episode to the top of my Netflix queue, and it arrived today. I just watched it. Now I don't have to supply my own correctives, since Shamus nicely describes the sequence.