One of the best-loved songs of all time, The Gambler is a first-hand account of what it means to win at the poker table. But there’s also a deeper meaning to this Kenny Rogers hit when you read between the lines.
Here, we explore the origin of this classic hit and delve deep into the meaning of The Gambler and how it can inspire us to deal with life’s unexpected twists and turns.
Who wrote The Gambler?
Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz wrote The Gambler in 1976. He was just 23 years old when he wrote the lyrics to a song that he then pitched to several artists. Schlitz wrote the song about his father, though he wasn’t a gambler. Rather, it was an opportunity for catharsis and enabled him to pay tribute to his late father, a man he described as “the greatest man I know.”
Before Kenny Rogers, Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash both recorded a version of the song. Bare never actually released the song and Cash’s version would only become popular after Rogers made it his own in a weird twist of fate.
Rogers released The Gambler in 1978 as the leading hit from his album of the same name. This was Rogers’ sixth studio album, and it has sold more than five million copies, from the USA to south-east Asia. Rogers himself has remarked how surprised he is that the song is popular in different parts of the world, where he is approached by fans who immediately recognise him as the gambler.
The Gambler is undoubtedly one of the greatest country and western songs ever produced and is as popular today as it was in the 1980s. But what is the story behind the lyrics? Is The Gambler as much about dealing with life’s challenges as it is about a card player?
Understanding the lyrics
Taken at face value, The Gambler is a story of a card player giving advice to another passenger on a train. The passenger gives a first-person account of failing to sleep on a late-night train, which leads to an open conversation with a card player, the gambler.
Throughout the journey, the gambler bestows snippets of advice about how to read people in exchange for some of the train passenger’s whisky – and even though the lyrics were likely about 5 Card Draw rather than today’s popular games of Texas Hold’em or Omaha poker, they are as much life lessons as they are poker tips.
The best-known lyrics in the song – “you’ve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em” can be interpreted as a metaphor for understanding when to stick with something and when to walk away.
It can be applied to a whole host of life events, including relationships, jobs, and travels. There are periods in the song where the passenger ponders the advice that the gambler offers, but it is left up to individual interpretation as to whether the advice is sage or not!
The legacy of the song
When Rogers released the song in 1978, it found its way onto the Hot 100 chart at a time when country music rarely entered the mainstream. The song propelled Rogers’ career and made him a household name overnight.
Two years later, Rogers appeared in the 1980 TV movie Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, where he played the role of Brady Hawkes, a seasoned poker player. The movie was an instant hit and was the highest-rated TV film of the year. As a result, Rogers appeared in four more TV movies where he reprised his character.
Although Rogers wasn’t the first to sing The Gambler, he was the one responsible for the song’s incredible success. In recognition of the song’s legend, Rogers was awarded a Grammy for the Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Thanks to the acclaim of The Gambler, Rogers went on to enjoy one of the most successful careers in country music history. He recorded 39 studio albums and released 80 singles. 24 of his singles reached number one on the country chart, cementing his place as a country music legend.
The hit was also transformative for Schlitz, who was able to quit his job as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University to focus on his career as a songwriter full time.
Following The Gambler, Schlitz co-wrote “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “When You Say Nothing At All,” both of which went to number one. He also has 24 country number one hits to his name.
In recognition of his contribution to country music, Schlitz was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, and he has earned two Grammy Awards and four ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year Awards.
Although The Gambler wasn’t written with Kenny Rogers in mind, it takes its place in history as the song most synonymous with the country music icon.
In many respects, it’s ironic that The Gambler was written by a man who didn’t gamble (Don Schlitz), and the story is a tribute to a man (his father) who also didn’t gamble!
From this, we can deduce that the song is about much more than a card game. Thanks to the clever lyrics and the use of poker as a metaphor, we know that The Gambler is a song about navigating life’s challenges and understanding when to stick or twist.
It’s perhaps for this reason that the song has enjoyed such huge mainstream success and has been enjoyed by people all around the world for decades.
After all, whether or not you’re a poker fan, you probably know some of the lyrics!