Written by Don Schlitz
Although responsible for one of country music’s most famous lines (“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…”), Don Schlitz’s premier story song, “The Gambler” is far deeper than what first appears. The game of poker is disguised as a metaphor for life and shows that it’s not what cards one is dealt, but how the player handles those cards, that is truly the secret of life. Kenny Rogers’ gruff and gritty vocal tells the story of two travelers, one barely living and one barely alive. It’s a strong connection between a couple of strangers, and shows that we may not be so different at all.
They travel on through the darkness, passengers at a crossroads, and the old man gives his secrets to survival because he’s “made a living reading other people’s faces.” The two men are heading to an unknown destination on an evening when the sage, aware of the distant sadness in the young man’s eyes, offers him some sound advice for some strong whiskey and a lit-up cigarette. He implores him to take charge of his fate, but to live presently in each moment because “there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done.” By the end, one man’s final moments may have led to another’s finest, as the narrator finds an “ace that he can keep” in the last words of his fellow voyager. The old man lives out his last wishes of dying in his sleep.
“The Gambler” resided at No. 1 for two weeks in December 1978, and earned Schlitz a victory for Best Country Song at the 1979 Grammys. The tune also proved victorious in the same category at the 1979 CMAs. A 1979 made-for-TV movie called The Gambler, which was inspired by this song, became the highest-rated TV film of the year. For Rogers, it’s the highlight of a considerable song catalog, and for Schlitz, it represented the start of a songwriting career filled with masterful storytelling.
“The Gambler” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.
This song was everywhere in 1978 – virtually every station seemed to be playing it. The single sold about two million copies and insiders were lamenting that the fact that it was issued during a very down economic period (the Jimmy Carter Presidency) or it would likely have sold 4 or 5 million copies.
I actually heard Bobby Bare perform the song about a year before Kenny Rogers issued the song – apparently Bare’s label didn’t think the song had hit potential. Too bad – it might have resurrected Bare’s career.
Truthfully, Bare’s laconic version might have been a hit but not nearly as big a hit as it turned out to be for Rogers
Thanks for featuring this song. It’s classic ’80s country, and indeed a metaphor for life–we discussed it quite a bit in my summer country music class. I was proud to see that most of the students had done their homework and caught on to the deeper meanings of the lyrics.
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