Poker & Pop Culture: Kenny Rogers' 'The Gambler'
"On a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere..."
Thus begins what has to be the single most recognizable poker-themed song in American popular music. By 1978, country music star Kenny Rogers had already established himself as a star, having recorded over 15 albums and enjoyed several hits on the country charts. The then 40-year-old singer had experienced some crossover success as well, most notably with the Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum-penned "Lucille", which besides topping the Billboard country singles chart had reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the pop singles chart).
But it was the title track to Rogers' album The Gambler, released in November 1978, that helped catapult him to iconic status in American popular culture. For months everyone was singing along with the raspy-voiced Rogers as he spun the tale of a chance meeting between a younger man and an older gambler in which the latter passes along a crucial life lesson, its infectious "you got to know when to hold 'em" chorus again helping carry Rogers to the top of the Billboard country charts and all of the way to #16 on the Hot 100 in early 1979.
"The Gambler" would have an even more lasting effect, spawning a series of television movies starring Rogers. Ultimately the song would become the gray-bearded singer's signature tune, helping give him "the gambler" as a permanent nickname. How did this clever, well-crafted song that so uncannily showed the rest of the world what poker players already knew — namely, how the game of poker so readily encapsulates life's many trials — come to be?
"I Always Figured You'd Be Older"
As was the case with "Lucille" (and many other of his best-known hits), Rogers did not write "The Gambler." Rather the man responsible for what some consider poker's theme song was Don Schlitz, who unlike the wise and worldly poker player the song portrays was in his early 20s when he wrote it.
Born in Durham, North Carolina in 1952, Schlitz moved to Nashville in 1973 to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. He took a late-shift job as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University, working all night, then spending his days writing songs and shopping them around Nashville studios. It was in the summer of 1976 when the combination of a new tuning on his guitar and an idea for a song about playing cards came together in Schlitz's mind as "The Gambler."
In interviews, Schlitz has told the story of discussing the unfinished song with fellow songwriter and mentor Jim Rushing, who after hearing the first few verses encouraged him to finish it. After that initial burst of inspiration, it would take Schlitz six more weeks to write the final verses. Eventually, thanks to a few connections at Capitol Records, Schlitz would record the tune and it was released as a single in early 1978. The song made it to #65 on the country charts. A modest success, though not nearly good enough to allow Schlitz to quit his job at Vanderbilt.
Eventually the song was presented to Larry Butler, the famous country music producer who had been at the helm for Rogers' "Lucille" as well as numerous other chart-toppers. Recognizing the song's potential, Butler took it to Rogers whose new album he was producing. At the time, Butler was also producing Johnny Cash's new album, Good Girl, and in fact encouraged Cash to include "The Gambler" on his album as well. Interestingly enough, Rogers and Cash would record the song on consecutive days, though Rogers' version, released a month before Cash's, was destined to become the "definitive" one (as Schlitz himself maintains).
Schlitz tells how the song was largely the product of his imagination, not based in any substantial way on his own self-admittedly limited experiences. "At that point in my life," Schlitz says, "I'd never been on a train." He says the song was in part inspired by his father's advice to favor discretion, but ultimately "it's a song, a story, and somehow the combination of Kenny's persona and the droning melody and the fact that it broke all the rules at the time (too long, no love interest, not exactly a great dance record, it took too long to get to the chorus...)...made it a record that is more than a songwriter should ever expect."
Not surprisingly, to this day Schlitz frequently gets asked about "The Gambler." "Once after a show," Schlitz recounts, "a man came up to me and said (and I get this a lot) 'so...you wrote "The Gambler."' I smiled and nodded. Then he said, 'I always figured you'd be older….' 'Yeah. Me, too,'" Schlitz replied.
I Found an Ace That I Could Keep
While Rogers' gruff baritone perhaps best suits the character of the old poker player, "The Gambler" is told from the perspective of the younger man who "met up with the gambler" on the train when "both too tired to sleep." Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that a younger man wrote the song, although as Schlitz points out, it was Rogers' interpretation that turned the song into something more enduring than Schlitz himself could achieve.
Indeed, it is curious how Rogers' "persona" (as Schlitz references) has over the years been melded into that of "the gambler" — not unlike how the monster of Mary Shelley's novel often gets mistakenly called "Frankenstein" even though the name properly belongs to the monster's creator. One effect of Rogers' "older"-sounding voice is to suggest the speaker is relating the encounter to his audience many years after it occurred — that is, after he, too, has experienced the world in a way that has confirmed the lessons passed along to him by the poker player. Even so, the speaker is not the "gambler" per se.
There is little doubt that it is the song's memorable, sing-a-long chorus that likely made it a hit. But the song also possesses a highly compelling narrative — remarkable, actually, given the less than compelling situation being described (i.e., two strangers conversing on a train). Thus, while Schlitz self-effacingly suggests "it took too long to get to the chorus," we willingly sit through those first three verses in order to learn what advice the old gambler intends to impart.
Poker players instinctively recognize the gambler's advice to be largely well-founded, highlighting several elements of the game that may well escape the novice player. He begins by noting the importance of physical tells, informing the young man he's "made a life out of reading people's faces / And knowing what their cards are by the way they held their eyes." Indeed, it is this ability that enables the gambler to recognize the young man is down on his luck ("I can see you're out of aces"). Not unlike Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ancient mariner who accosts the young man at the wedding to tell him his tale, the gambler now intends to provide counsel to his less experienced fellow traveler.
Bolstered by the last of the young man's whiskey, the gambler launches into the chorus which for poker players contains at least a couple of important truisms — understanding when to leave the game is a crucial skill for ensuring profitability ("you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em") and chips on the table are still in play and thus should not be considered otherwise ("you never count your money when you're sitting at the table / There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done").
Finally, the gambler's last "secret to surviving" combines the importance of hand selection ("knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep") with having an appreciation for how situational differences can affect the play of a given hand ("every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser"). With that the gambler crushes out his cigarette and fades to sleep.
The young man, left alone with his thoughts, recognizes that "somewhere in the darkness, the gambler, he broke even," an apparent affirmation of the soundness of the old poker player's advice. Then, in the last line of the last verse (before the chorus is repeated), the young man says how in the gambler's "final words I found an ace that I could keep."
That last line in fact represents a witty reversal of the song's metaphorical conceit. Whereas throughout the song the gambler had been literally talking about poker while figuratively talking about life, the young man's "finding an ace" is in fact a non-literal (i.e., figurative) reference to poker. The "ace" is, of course, the beneficial life lesson he's received — a figurative (not literal) "card" which he can now "play" as he proceeds through the game of life.
Kenny Rogers as The Gambler
When "The Gambler" was released in late 1978, we were still years away from Texas hold'em becoming the most popular variant of poker, although as we all know the game had by then been made a central focus of the World Series of Poker. Thus when Kenny Rogers appeared at Binion's Horseshoe in the spring of 1979 to sing "The Gambler" prior to the Main Event, the advice that "you got to know when to hold 'em" seemed neatly appropriate to the proceedings at hand.
As mentioned above, Rogers would soon be tapped for a television movie inspired by the song, with the film's full title — Kenny Rogers as The Gambler — further helping push Rogers (or his "persona") over into the role of the gambler himself. In the movie (first broadcast in April 1980), Rogers plays an Old West gambler named Brady Hawkes, and in the course of the fairly formulaic melodrama he takes on a younger poker player, Billy Montana, as a protégé. The film was a ratings success, and ultimately four more sequels would be produced, the last of which appeared in 1994.
Rogers would also continue his successful recording career, scoring over 70 hit singles (both country and pop), the most recent in 2006. As he had before for "Lucille," Rogers won a Grammy in 1979 from the Country Music Association for "The Gambler" (Best Male Country Vocal Performance).
In 1979, Don Schlitz would also receive a CMA Grammy for "The Gambler" (Song of the Year), as well as one from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Best Country Song. (Needless to say, Schlitz was finally able to quit his computer operator job.) Thus began a long, prolific songwriting career for Schlitz, resulting in over two dozen #1 country singles recorded by numerous artists including Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, Lee Greenwood, the Judds, and many others. In 1993, Schlitz was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Sounds as though unlike the titular character of their most famous song, both Rogers and Schlitz did more than break even. And three decades later, their collaboration continues to occupy a prominent place in popular culture as a soundtrack (of sorts) to our favorite card game.