Released in 1978, Kenny Rogers’ version of “The Gambler” was nothing short of a wild success. It helped solidify Rogers as a dominant force in country music (the song was in the middle of a string of consecutive singles to top the country charts), gave him pop success in a time when country songs were hardly ever played on mainstream radio (the song would reach #16 on the pop charts) and reward Rogers with the 1980 Grammy for Best Male Country Artist. When Rogers died in March of last year, the song would top Billboard’s digital singles chart.
The song is just universal. I remember my mom singing it and just hearing it all the time in the house. In fact, I don’t think you could approach a person under 20 and have them not be able to sing you the chorus. Everyone knows “The Gambler”. I could sing you that song in its’ entirety and I feel like I could’ve for any point in the last 30 years.
But just a few nights ago, when rocking my fussy baby to bed, I realized something:
The lyrics to this song are kind fucked up.
Let’s start with the good stuff: “The Gambler” begins with Rogers as the narrator. It’s a warm evening and he’s just on a train headed nowhere. Fuck yeah. I love this imagery. If it wasn’t for COVID and all my other responsibilities, I would totally do this; just walk up to the Metra counter and be like, “I want one ticket headed west.” And when they told me that “west” wasn’t a viable destination, I’d just throw $20 on the desk, look at the clerk square in their eyes, and say, “I’m just bound for nowhere.”
That is the life.
So, it’s Rogers and the Gambler sitting in silence taking turns looking out the window, which seems weird. Is it a small window? Why can only one person look out at a time? Is there a time limit and how much you can spend looking out the window before the other person gets a turn?
Anyways, finally they’re so bored, the Gambler begins speaking, which is always the best mood in which to start a conversation. That line actually reminds me of a story: I’m taking the train into Chicago to do a show one night and this dude is just staggering between all the seats in the train car and talking to people. Clearly, boredom has overtook him. When he got to me, he motioned for me to take my headphones off and asked me what I was listening to. When I told him it was a movie review podcast, he told me I could go fuck myself, then flirted with the woman across from me, then got thrown off the train. Was the man the modern day Gambler? If so, his gamble did not pay off.
The Gambler tells Rogers, and I’ll paraphrase here, “Man, I can tell you’ve fucked up a lot in your life,” which is always the best way to start a boredom-led conversation. But then he makes an offer: “Hey man, I’m the fucking Gambler. I’ve been around and seen some shit and I know how to help you get back on track and I will tell you the secret for some of your whiskey.” Apparently, the train stewards in their car are lax about bringing on outside beverages.
Anyways, Kenny agrees, gives the dude his bottle of whiskey which the Gambler drinks the rest of (rude, but whatever) and now it’s time to get to talking. Over the next few lines, the Gambler lays out why he’s been such a successful gambler in his life. It basically boils down to four main tenets. They are, in order:
- You should know when to hold on to good cards
- You should know when to fold a hand you do not feel has a successful chance of winning
- In playing draw poker, it is critical to know to throw away the cards which do not give you a chance to have the best hand
- In playing draw poker, you should keep cards which give you the best chance of success
…and that’s fucking it.
Look, I am not a great card player. I would certainly never consider myself a gambler, no matter how cool of a nickname I think that would be for me to have- I could wear a trenchcoat and a cool hat! But I do understand the rules of poker, and these four points seem to fall into a category I would simply define as “basic play”. Oh, I have to know when to fold them, Gambler? You’re saying I shouldn’t go all in on a 2-7 non-suited hand? Yeah! I already knew that, you dumbfuck. So does everyone.
After giving out these four pillars of wisdom, the Gambler puts out his cigarette, closes his eyes and fucking dies! Holy shit at this song, which I remember singing with my junior high boys chorus. To summarize: after being bored, a dude with a cool nickname tricks a guy into giving up all his booze in exchange for basically reading the rules that come on that one shitty card that comes in the deck explaining the rules of poker, and then he dies. Double chorus. End song. I mean, there could have been a bridge where Rogers sings, “Kinda fucked up that I just watched a dude die and then sat next to him on a train because I thought he was just asleep!” But Kenny isn’t interested in that. I guess he just learned how to hold and fold, so now he’s figured out how to turn it all around.
Ok, after thinking about it, I take back my earlier statement: get me off that fucking train.