“The Gambler” is the title of an 1867 novel by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and a song written in the 1970s by Don Schlitz. “Gambler” (without the definite article) was a 1985 hit by Madonna. This piece is about the Don Schlitz song, made famous by country music superstar Kenny Rogers.
Here in the UK Rogers had two #1s, “Lucille” (1977) and “Coward of the County” (1980). In between those releases he recorded “The Gambler”, a Grammy-winner in the US but not a hit in the UK at the time. Even so by the mid-80s I had heard it often enough on the radio to know the story, and to be able to sing the chorus.
The story is simple enough, told over two verses. On a “train bound for nowhere” the singer meets a gambler who has “made a life / Out of reading people’s faces / And knowing what the cards were / By the way they held their eyes”. The gambler can see that the singer is “out of aces” and offers him some advice. The advice forms the chorus, and if you’re unfamiliar with the song you can follow either of these YouTube links: here’s Kenny Rogers singing to camera, cutting cards and pouring a shot of whiskey, and here’s a video that shows the lyrics.
As the chorus tells us, in the context of card-games specifically, but with relevance for life in general: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / Know when to run”. I adapted the next part of the chorus recently in a discussion with my wife about a member of her family, who (and my wife is concerned about this) will stand at a cash-point slowly counting out their notes after making a withdrawal rather than moving on quickly. “The Gambler” advises that “You never count your money / When you’re sitting at the table” and my advice is similar: “You never count your money / When you’re standing at the cash-point”. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.
I know that these words were familiar to me in the mid-80s because that’s when I spent a few days with my uncle Jimmy, who lived down in Southampton. We went for a drink at his local, The Woodman, and the early-evening quiet was broken by a duo performing covers in the corner of the bar. Jimmy was unimpressed and said, “They should knock a few pence off the ale for inflicting that shite on us”, or words to that effect. I can’t remember anything they played but when they had finished my uncle told me how much he liked that Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler”. Did I know it? I nodded. He thought the words were just great and started singing them. I thought so too, but didn’t join in, too self-conscious, too shy, maybe just too young. I’d probably join in now, belting it out like the England team did on their way to the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final. They adopted it as their anthem for the tournament, prompting a belated release for the Kenny Rogers recording and a chart high of #22. You can read the whole story (and a lot more detail about Rogers’ career) in this piece from the Independent at the time.