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"The Gambler" was written by the Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz. With the classic chorus lines, "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em," the song is told from the first-person perspective about a conversation with an old poker player on a train. The card shark gives life advice to the narrator in the form of poker metaphors, before presumably dying in his sleep. Schlitz doesn't play poker, but the song isn't really about a card game - it's about handling what life gives you, what some would call "playing the hand you're dealt." The "hold 'em/fold 'em" phrase became a common saying, and is one of those lyrics that sounds like it must have already existed in the collective consciousness, but Schlitz insists he had never heard it before when he came up with it.
When he was trying to make it as a songwriter, Don Schiltz had a much more sensible job as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University. The songwriter Bob McDill, whose popular compositions include "Good Ole Boys Like Me" (Don Williams) and "Gone Country" (Alan Jackson), was his mentor, and Schlitz says it was on a walk home from McDill's office when he wrote most of this song. He typed out the words when he got home, but didn't have an ending. It took him about 6 more weeks to complete the story with the old poker player drifting off at the end.
Don Schlitz wrote this song in August, 1976 when he was 23 years old. It took two years of shopping the song around Nashville before Bobby Bare recorded it on his album Bare at the urging of Shel Silverstein. Bare's version didn't catch on and was never released as a single, but other musicians took notice and recorded the song in 1978, including Johnny Cash, who put it on his album Gone Girl. It was Kenny Rogers who finally broke the song loose, in a version produced by Larry Butler. His version was a #1 Country hit and even made its way to the Pop charts at a time when Country songs rarely crossed over.
This song had a huge impact on both Kenny Rogers and its writer Don Schlitz. Rogers had three #1 Country hits under his belt, but "The Gambler" gave him the title track to his biggest-selling album. Schlitz was able to quit his day job (actually a night job - he worked the graveyard shift) and become a full time songwriter. Some of his other songs include "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" by Mary Chapin Carpenter and "On the Other Hand" by Randy Travis.
This song spawned a franchise, mostly with the 1980 TV movie Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, where Rogers played the seasoned poker player Brady Hawkes, and Bruce Boxleitner starred as his apprentice. It was the highest-rated TV film of the year, and Rogers reprised the character in four more made-for-TV movies, the last called Gambler V: Playing for Keeps in 1994. There was also a popular "The Gambler" slot machine sold to casinos.
Kenny Rogers won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, and Don Schlitz won the award for Best Country Song.
Rogers performed this song on a season 4 (1979) episode of The Muppet Show. The Muppets were not solely for kids, but you rarely saw such a combination of alcohol, cigarettes and death in a show with such a large audience of children. It was one of the few skits where the Muppets had human hands, as the gambler Muppet needed them to handle his cigarette. At the end of the sketch, the ghost of the gambler appears and joins in the chorus. Many kids remembered this one for quite a while.
This entered the UK charts for the first time in 2007 after being popularised by the England Rugby team. During the Rugby World Cup the prop forward Matt Stevens warmed up for games by performing the song in the dressing room on his guitar and the England team subsequently adopted it as an unofficial anthem during their successful run to final of the tournament.
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