“Round and round they go. Here come the cards, there goes your dough,” Hawkeye says, dealing out cards in a MAS*H episode titled “The Merchant of Korea.”
Usually, we see the officers and nurses playing poker in the Swamp, but in this episode, they’re in the officers’ club. Even Margaret is in the game. When Winchester says he’s surprised to see her, she laughs and answers, “Oh, a little poker always relaxes me.”
Well, here’s a little secret from the MAS*H writers room to make you smile even more during these poker scenes: A little poker never relaxes anyone trying to write the plot of these funny episodes.
On MAS*H writer Ken Levine’s blog, he uses choice words to describe “The Merchant of Korea,” dubbing it “one of the hardest scripts David Isaacs and I ever wrote.”
The problem is keeping the poker game going while plotting the rest of the action in the scene.
“The reason the script was so tough was because it featured an extended poker game,” Levine wrote. “We’ve written poker scenes in other sitcoms and the problems are always the same.”
When it comes to writing, issues arise when you want to make sure the audience can follow what’s relevant in the poker hands being played, so in some ways, you have to explain the game as you go. This has to happen in a way that sounds natural, so any time you hear a character explaining why their hand has beaten someone else’s, understand that it’s because Levine and Isaacs took pains to ensure nobody in the audience got lost in the “shuffle.”
Poker fans will appreciate that when it came to editing those scenes, Levine also felt strongly about the game playing out naturally for those folks in the audience who actually knew what a game of poker should look like.
“You can’t take out too much or the game stops making sense,” Levine said. “Or at the very least, people are betting and making decisions way too quickly and unnaturally. They need time to call.”
He went on to describe how the writers would get caught in loops trying to remember where the players logically were in the progression of the game, asking questions like: “How many cards have been issued?” or “What was Hawkeye’s hand?” or “Does Hot Lips get to call before B.J.?” or “Which players have folded by this point?”
In his post, he describes the production of these poker episodes as “murder” because characters might be looking in odd directions that disorient the viewer. Continuity was a challenge. You can tell he’s kind of scarred by this entire process of making poker episodes because when looking back, he writes with hypersensitive hyperbole, “Camera coverage of poker games are always fraught with danger.”
Levine said because these poker episodes were so tedious to shoot, the show often took shortcuts filming poker scenes. The MAS*H writer said that they “generally tried to make [poker games] very short or cut away to something else, so we could come back just when we needed to without having to show all the logistics that got us there.”
In the end, Levine said even though the episode was such a challenge, he was proud of how clever and funny it was. He praised shows like The Odd Couple and Maverick that bravely shot so many poker scenes, admitting he wouldn’t have been up for the task.
As for MAS*H and “The Merchant of Korea,” he writes, “my main source of pride is that… it seems to make sense.”