Last weekend the entertainment world lost a legendary figure with the passing of Kenny Rogers at age 81.
As a musician, Rogers had a prodigious career with over 120 singles on both the country and pop charts. Though primarily associated with country music, he was a true “crossover” performer who worked in multiple genres and appealed to an especially wide audience. During the height of his fame in the 1970s and 1980s, Rogers was a ubiquitous presence on American television where he could be seen performing his music and also starring in a number of popular movies.
In other words, pretty much everyone knows Rogers and his music. And pretty much everyone has been a fan, too.
Many in the poker world have noted how Rogers was a friend to the game as well, his link to poker being forever cemented by his iconic worldwide 1978 hit, “The Gambler.”
The song was written by Don Schlitz and recorded by several different artists including Johnny Cash. But it was Rogers’s version that became the most famous, eventually becoming a signature song for him as well as poker’s unofficial theme song.
Both Rogers and Schlitz won Grammys for “The Gambler.” As an indication of its historical importance, in 2017 the song was selected for preservation by the National Recording Registry for “its indelible place in popular culture.”
Producer Larry Butler was the one who introduced the song to Rogers, knowing how well suited he would be to deliver Schlitz’s tale of an older gambler spending a train ride delivering poker-inflected life lessons to a younger listener.
“I got a funny feeling that if you do this you will become the Gambler,” Butler said to Rogers when they were recording the song.
In a way Rogers did become identified with the song’s older character, and the connection was made even more permanent after he made five made-for-television movies loosely based on the same character.
I wrote here about the first of those movies, titled “Kenny Rogers as The Gambler.” First airing in April 1980, it starred Rogers making his acting debut as an Old West gambler named Brady Hawkes — and unsurprisingly featured Hawkes playing some poker, too.
Some poker players may not realize just how much “The Gambler” pushed poker into the mainstream, with several genuine poker lessons ably delivered in its verses and sing-a-long chorus. Indeed, the advice that “you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” has been quoted so often — both in and out of poker — it has become a kind of cliché.
Even so, it remains a bit of transcending wisdom. After all, everyone can benefit from understanding when to keep battling and when to give up — the “secret to survivin’,” as the Gambler says.
Incidentally, when Rogers — who was born in Texas — sings about having to “hold ’em,” he isn’t specifically referring to Texas hold’em, but rather to any poker game in which a player remains in a hand, holding his cards rather than folding them.
Even so, for many at the time, the mention represented a kind of introduction to the game of hold’em, which wouldn’t pass draw and stud to become the most popular poker variant for another 25 years or so.
The song was first released in November 1978, and was on the charts for several months into 1979. Even ardent poker enthusiasts may not realize that Rogers actually performed the song the following May at Binion’s Horseshoe at the 1979 World Series of Poker. I wrote an article here commemorating the 40th anniversary of that year’s series in which I mentioned Rogers being there: “Remembering the 1979 WSOP Main Event.”
I also wrote about “The Gambler” in Poker & Pop Culture — indeed, the song earns a special section in the “Poker in Music” chapter. When putting the book together, I was pleased to get permission to use a photograph of Rogers singing “The Gambler” at the WSOP.
CBS aired edited coverage of that year’s Main Event final table, and suitably opened the show with “The Gambler.” In fact, right before heads-up between Bobby Hoff and eventual winner Hal Fowler begins, host Frank Glieber briefly interviews Rogers, asking him how the song came about.
“I always look for songs that have a little hook to it or something that people can relate to and identify with,” Rogers says. “And the great [thing is when] you can find a song that while its statement is literal, it still can be used in general.”
“The statement itself — ‘know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em’ — that doesn’t just necessarily have to apply to gambling. And people have attached themselves to that statement all around.”
The conversation continues, with Rogers explaining how everywhere he went, people would recite that line to him over and again. He then adds how when it comes to poker, actually following that advice is perhaps easier said than done.
“I keep thinking about how many times I’ve sat down at these tables and didn’t know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em!” he grins.
You can read more about Rogers’s amazing life and career here.
Photo (top): “Kenny Rogers performs at the Frontier Fiesta in 1991 at the University of Houston,” public domain.