Music

'The Gambler:' From Bobby Bare Deep Cut to Iconic Kenny Rogers Hit

AP Photo/Peter Kemp and AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

For fans of a certain age, Kenny Rogers' 1978 hit "The Gambler" exemplifies singalong-friendly country music. In fact, it's hard to imagine Rogers' music or acting career now without the familiar chorus which begins: "You've got to know when to hold 'em/Know when to fold 'em."

Yet just as Rogers found chart success before cutting songwriter Don Schlitz's "The Gambler," the song had a brief yet eventful life before Rogers made it a decade-defining hit.

Schlitz, a future Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, wrote the song in Aug. 1976 at the age of 23. What in retrospect seems like a slam dunk for anyone in Nashville or Los Angeles seeking an overnight hit sat unrecorded for nearly two years until Shel Silverstein convinced Bobby Bare to cut it for his 1978 album Bare.

Bare, an all-time great storyteller, did a fine job with "The Gambler," but his recording was just a really good deep cut, not a signature song. That same year, Schlitz cut the song himself, but he only scored a minor hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.

Fast-forward to the end of 1978, and two icons were plotting albums featuring "The Gambler." Obviously, Rogers had it in the works as the title track of an album which also featured a second No. 1 hit, "She Believes in Me." A lesser-known recording by Johnny Cash came out around the same time on his album Gone Girl.

While Cash's rough-around-the-edges interpretation became yet another footnote in country music history, Rogers and producer Larry Butler re-wrote the country charts in the short run and Roger's legacy for posterity. In the 2006 Rogers documentary The Journey, Schlitz praised Rogers and Butler's tweaks to the song, saying "they added several ideas that were not mine, including the new guitar intro."

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By making a good song great, Rogers upped his mainstream appeal. As singer of "The Gambler," Rogers appeared on The Muppet Show, starred in multiple The Gambler TV movies as the character Brady Hawkes and scored a Grammy award (Best Male Country Vocal Performance, 1980).

Schlitz's story-song got added to the National Recording Registry in 2018 by the Library of Congress because it's "culturally, historically or artistically significant." Following Roger's March 20, 2020 death, the song topped Billboard's Digital Song Sales chart, with Dolly Parton duet "Islands in the Stream" ranking No. 2.

Looking back, "The Gambler" wasn't the type of great song that just needed a legend to sing it. It specifically needed Rogers to go from a well-written story that suited Bare and Cash well enough to an instant classic, capable of pushing country music into the 1980s.

"The Gambler" Lyrics

On a warm summer's eve
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with the gambler
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin'
Out the window at the darkness
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak

He said, "Son, I've made a life
Out of readin' people's faces
Knowin' what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes
So if you don't mind me sayin'
I can see you're out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I'll give you some advice"

So I handed him my bottle
And he drank down my last swallow
Then he bummed a cigarette
And asked me for a light
And the night got deathly quiet
And his faced lost all expression
He said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right

You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away
And knowin' what to keep
'Cause every hand's a winner
And every hand's a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die
in your sleep

And when he finished speakin'
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep
And somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even
But in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep

You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done

You've got to know when to hold 'em (when to hold 'em)
Know when to fold 'em (when to fold 'em)
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done

You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done

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'The Gambler:' From Bobby Bare Deep Cut to Iconic Kenny Rogers Hit