The Gambler

Album: The Gambler (1978)
Charted: 22 16


  • "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. According to the Reader's Digest Country and Western Songbook, Schlitz wrote the tune in honor of his late father, "the best man I ever knew." "He wasn't a gambler," he explained. "But the song was my way of dealing with the relationship that I had with him."

    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 six 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 rendition was a #1 Country hit and even made its way to the Hot 100 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; 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 popularized 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.
  • This song was the punch line in a Geico commercial that debuted in 2014. "Playing cards with Kenny Rogers gets old pretty fast," a man says, before the scene cuts to Rogers playing poker while singing this song as his exasperated playing partners look on.
  • In September 2007, the New York hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam hired Kenny Rogers to play a birthday party at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. According to a neighbor, Rajaratnam asked him to play "The Gambler" over and over again; after singing it a dozen times, Rogers got fed up and refused to play any more. Rogers' management confirms that he played the show, but said he only played "The Gambler" a few times.
  • In The Office episode "Beach Games" (2007), the Dunder Mifflin staff, led by Kevin, sings this on the bus ride to Lake Scranton.
  • This was referenced on NewsRadio in the season 2 episode "In Through The Out Door." After losing an easy sports bet, Matthew misquotes the lyrics, saying, "It really is like that song, isn't it? You gotta know when to fold them, you gotta know how to hold them."
  • In 2000, Rogers collaborated with Wyclef Jean on a remix titled "Kenny Rogers - Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate." This version was used on Alias in the season 3 episode "Repercussions." It plays as Marshall, disguised as a Southern gambler, participates in a high-stakes card game.
  • Before he recorded it himself, Kenny Rogers offered "The Gambler" to Willie Nelson, who turned it down. "I was doing a song every night called 'Red Headed Stranger' which has 100 verses in it," Nelson explained to NBC's Jenna Bush Hager. "I just didn't want to do another long song, so he said, 'Okay, I will record it myself,' so he did."

Comments: 22

  • Marilu G.montalvo from Lake Jackson. TexasMet Ken when filming THE GAMBLER, along wth. Old Cowboys, R.I.P. KENNY RODGERS.
  • Ricky from CaliforniaInvesting is like gambling and you have to "know when to walk away". I walked away from my 60/40 investment portfolio to 100% treasuries in 2019 just before the 2020 crash. Thank you Kenny and you probably broke even and died in your sleep.
  • MiskicI love the part about not counting your money at the table. Its like the gambler told him to focus on the present moment and not to rush things, as many of us do in situations both good and bad.
    Later he tells why - cause every hand's a winner, and every hand's a loser, so its up to you to play them the best you can, no matter which cards you got.
    One of the best songs that tell about the focus on the now moment.
    At least how I see it.
  • OmikronJpgfile: that's a pretty funny comment.
    Though, if you want to look at it seriously, I guess the gambler explained that it's good to KNOW when to hold or fold, learning the when's is up to oneself I suppose.
    I'm guessing plenty of people have a 'playing' style that focusses either on going all in all the time, or fold as soon as they can. Being reminded of the alternative can be very insightful. all metafors for whatever you need it to be applicable to, naturally.
    Not counting your 'money' at the table, always kinda resonates with me like "don't worry too much about what you can lose."
    "When the dealin's done" can obviously be seen as a metafor for the gambler dying: worry about the sum of your life afterwards, not so much during it. If you know when to "hold" and when to "fold", everything will work out in the end.
    Again, figuring out the specifics is down to the individual and what they want to accomplish.
    I'm not quite sure if I agree with all of it, but it's a nice enough sentiment for a country song.
  • Jeff from WalkerJeff from St.Louis,MO.
    As a child from the 70's & 80's this song brings back memories of trips to see my grandparents. They lived in a double wide in Salem, MO. it would be so hot inside that trailer and wasps flying all over the place. Grandpa would say "don't show them that your scared son." Wasp don't care if your scared when you sit in a chair with a nest under it.
    And it was always a blast to ride in Grandpa's Diplomat Wagon, he drove like he was running late. FAST. We didn't wear seat belts so me and my cousins would get tossed all over those vinyl seats.
  • Seventhmist from 7th HeavenJpgfile: Yeah, what's the "ace that he could keep?" He told him what to know, but gave him no help in learning it.
  • Jpgfile from Galloping Hard On The PlainsEver notice how the old gambler never actually gives him any advice?
    "What can you tell me, friend?"
    "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em…"
    "Yeah yeah, I know that. But WHEN should I hold or fold?"
    "…know when to walk away, know when to run…"
    "When I'm several hands up? Or just a gut feeling?"
    "You never count your money…"
    "Oh, I'll know how much money I have. But when should I fold?"
    "…'til the dealin's done"
    "Look, mister, this is like Tommy Lasorda telling me I gotta know when to pitch to the batter and when to walk 'im. WHEN??"
    "You gotta know when to hold 'em…"
    "You mooched a cigarette, a lighter, and my last drop of liquor, and that's all you can tell me?"
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn October 29th 1978, "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #84; and seventeen weeks later on February 25th, 1979 it peaked at #16 {for 1 week} and spent 22 weeks on the Top 100...
    And on December 10th, 1978 it reached #1 {for 3 weeks} on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart; it was his third #1 record of the year, the other two were "Love or Something Like It" for 1 week and "Every Time Two Fools Collide", a duet with Dottie West, for 2 weeks...
    The song's composer, Don Schlitz, released his own version earlier in 1978; it peaked at #65 on the Hot Country Singles chart.
  • Scott from Bothell, WaAm I the only listener who ever wondered if the narrator murdered the gambler? ;-)
  • Luke from Manchester, United Kingdom- Dean, it's a JUKE Box as in "from a Juke Joint"
  • Shaun from Warrington, United KingdomA grand song and one that has got me through 32 years in an aggressive workplace, by knowing when to duck.
  • Jim from West Palm Beach, FlAn old simple CW tune that speaks to many people.
  • Hank Dahling from Fort Wayne , InThis song is played/ sung on the Hit TV show King of The Hill not once but twice!
  • Pep from Mexico, MexicoJust great one regardless of its meaning as of poker or life. cuts both ways.
  • Shawn from Green Bay, WiI know this is a poker anthem, but this song is not about poker; it is about life. The bridge is the thematic part of the song. It is saying none of us were dealt winner of loser lives. Our lives are what we make of them. You have to know what and who to throw away and what and who to keep. You have to know when to go for it, when to fold, when to walk away, and when to run. Classic song with a great message.
  • Jennifer Harris from Grand Blanc, MiI didn't know The Gambler died in his sleep.that's the way to go in your sleep.One of my favorite songs! It was used in the Muppet show,I want all seasons of The Muppet show,Kenny Rogers,Star Wars,Lynda Carter,Cheryl Ladd,and Christopher Reeve.
  • Dean from Sydney,What a great song to put on the duke box in the pub. A real drinking ditty. P.S. Guy, they don't 'hurry' the last bar, it's a syncopation which I don't think works as well recorded as it would in a live performance.
  • Scott from Boston, MaOne of my dad's friends sings this everytime there's karaoke at a cookout or party and it got me addicted to this song. I'm not a big country fan or a big Kenny Rogers fan, but I love this song. I'm 18 and I sing it every time I play poker w/ my friends and they just stare at me.
  • Jeff from Austin, TxThis song is the reason I started playing poker about 25 years ago. I was a very impressionable 6 yr old
  • Josh from TorontoOnly compared to a few songs in my walk down Memory my Grampa's car which I was in near every day, he would play that too often, and whenever we played cards together. The metaphors in this mean nothing to me-just the beat, the sound and the good memories. Every time I hear this song I just stop what I'm doing and listen.
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaWeird how they hurry the dialog on the very last phrase.
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaFun story song. Replete with evey poker metaphor on earth. Still, kind fun & catchy.
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