Lauren In Tokyo

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Gambler

The Gambler, originally written by Don Schlitz and made popular by Kenny Rogers, is one of those songs that sticks in your head like an oil stain on a white dress shirt yet doesn't make you want to stick a coathanger in your ear like the ever-despised Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega. The song is nominally about the singer meeting an old gambler on a train and receiving some poker advice, but it is clear that the poker game is a metaphor for life. Many people have discussed the "know when to hold 'em" lyric to death, and I will do so here in this post too. However, I think there are many pieces of meaningful imagery and metaphor that Schlitz put into this song that makes it one of the most memorable songs of the 20th century.

On a warm summer's evenin' 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
'til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.


The scene is set in the summer, or rather, it is set in the summer of the singer's life. He has passed from the youthful spring phase of his life and still has much of his life left to look forward to. We learn later that the gambler himself is in the winter of his life, though from the singer's point of view the year isn't yet half over. As will be the case in the rest of the song, the setting and feelings felt are all personal to the singer and the gambler's feelings and thoughts remain fairly opaque.

We learn that it is a warm evening and each traveler is alone. The evening setting is clearly a metaphor that the singer's life has reached a dark point. What happened is not clear, but the warmth of the evening can be taken to mean that his face is warm with tears.

The train bound for nowhere is a great image. Why a train? Riding a train is to not be in control of where you are going. Each passenger is imprisoned on the train until his stop arrives or he takes a jump from the moving car. Schlitz uses the train to represent Life. The singer finds himself barreling down the road of life, but there is no destination that he can discern. He's reached a point where nothing excites him, not even the sights of the country he can see through the window. The window separates him from the outside which must contribute to his feeling of alienation.

The singer sees the gambler looking out the window and assumes that the gambler is also in the same frame of mind, tired and bored of what he's seeing out the window of life. There is no indication that this is the case in any of the subsequent lyrics, so it must be that the singer is projecting his own pain and depression onto his traveling companion. It's interesting how the singer assumes that the gambler strikes up the conversation out of boredom.

He said, son, I've made a life out of readin' people's faces,
And knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.
So if you don't mind my 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 face lost all expression.
Said, if you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.


Not out of boredom, but instead a sort of paternal affection compels the gambler to begin the conversation. He uses the singer's whiskey as a means of breaking the ice. The whiskey metaphor is a carefully layered device that adds real depth to the gambler and the singer. Obviously the whiskey implies that both men are "real men" drinking manly drinks. They are grizzled and hardened and the whiskey is there to highlight that. Though the gambler "breaks the ice" by asking for a drink, there is no actual ice to pour it on. They are not men "on the rocks", instead there they face each other "straight" without any need to break the ice between them.

The gambler makes a connection between his ability to read faces in poker with the ability to read faces in general. Astutely, he recognizes the singer's situation by the look in his eyes. The singer is judged to not have any more cards of value, which in turn means that he's still "sitting at the table" with the bum hand. Who wouldn't be depressed if he was still in the deal with a bad hand? The gambler uses this as his jump off point to his primary (and most famous) point.

Before the gambler begins his lesson, Schlitz foreshadows the gambler's passing by noting that the "night got deathly quiet". The gambler also puts on his "poker face" which betrays no emotion, clearly the gambler is about to begin playing another hand. His not-so-disguised metaphor of Life as a game of poker is begun by his admonishment to the singer that to play the game it is important to learn the rules and correct behaviors.

You 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.


Life, he implies, is a series of hands dealt to you. You've got to know when you've got a good hand and when to run with it, but you've also got to know when you've got a bum hand and have the character to throw it away. This is the gambler's first lesson. Holding winning cards is important, but tossing losing cards is just as important. The opposite is also true, you've got to be careful not to hold losing cards too long, nor throw away a good hand in hopes of something better. The parallels to life is clear. Don't throw away a good thing that you've got, but don't stick around in hopeless situation. Knowing the difference is difficult, but experience is the way to learn.

His second and third lessons diverge from the Life == Poker Game metaphor a little. One can't walk/run away from Life, so the concept that life is one long poker game doesn't work. He seems to equate the whole game as one episode of life. However in the rest of the song he considers each episode of life as a hand dealt by life. The difference is miniscule and the point is understood, but there is a discrepancy here that bears mention.

One ought to walk away from the game in either of two situations: you've accumulated enough winnings or you've been on a losing streak. Don't be greedy, the gambler says. If you've got enough, learn to walk away and leave the game with some goodwill so that you can play again later for more winnings. On the other hand, cut your losses. If you've dug yourself into a hole, have the strength to call it a day and don't dig yourself in any deeper. There will always be another game another day so there is no need to play frantically, which can only lead to bad play and loss in the long run.

The gambler's third lesson is to "know when to run" away from the game. You would normally be on the run for either owing a very large debt or winning a very huge hand against a dangerous opponent or for getting caught cheating. It is interesting to note that the gambler doesn't advise against cheating, but only advises that if you get caught to get out of town. Cheating, he seems to imply, is part of the game.

Of all the lessons he gives, the third lesson is the most problematic. The general moral consensus is that it is important to stand one's ground or take duly-deserved punishment. However, the gambler's opinion is that it is better to run away from such problems any time the situation gets hot. In some respects, this establishes the gambler as a sort of anti-hero, someone who lives life on the wrong side of the tracks and is not unwilling to break a few rules when the situation calls for it.

The fourth lesson flies in the face of all modern pop-psychology. He tells the singer to "never count your money" at the table. Is he really saying that one shouldn't take stock of one's life? His advice is that you'll have plenty of time for that when you're dead, so just keep playing the game. Taking stock only tells you how far up or down you are at that point in time, but the game is going to continue until the last hand is dealt and the only figure that counts is what you walk away with at the end of the game.

Now ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
'cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.


The gambler repeats his original lesson that knowing the difference between a good and bad hand is key to "survivin'", but adds a decidedly Buddhist bent to it. The key is not actually in the knowing the difference between good and bad hands, but in knowing that any hand can be a winning or losing hand depending on how it is played. The old adage, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" is roughly analogous to the gambler's lesson. The way you walk the path is the important factor in whether you succeed or fail, not in the path itself.

The gambler then discards the metaphor and speaks directly to the singer, saying that in the end none of it matters because we all die eventually. The best you can hope for is to die comfortably, but we will all die at some point. His death is foreshadowed again. The gambler's anti-heroism is on full display here with Schlitz showing him to be ultimately a nihilist with regards to life. The attitude is not incorrect, but it is distinctly dark.

So when he'd finished speakin', he turned back towards 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.


Thus ends the gambler's lessons and he goes back to gazing out at life.

Before extinguishing the gambler's life, Schlitz has the gambler extinguish the borrowed cigarette. He goes to sleep and is granted the "best" he could hope for.

The singer, a little wiser, recognizes the tragicness of the gambler (whereas previously his impressions were unfounded) and realizes that the life of the gambler was destined to end up with more marks tallied in the loss column than the win column. The lessons the singer has received are the result of a lifetime of gambling at life as well as poker, and the end result is someone who has a lot of good ideas but also a lot of ideas that aren't quite right.

The singer says that the ace he finds comes in the final words of the gambler. Does he mean the entire conversation of the dying man, or the last lesson about life resulting in nothing? Both sets of lessons contain gems, but the gambler hid much of the lesson in metaphor. Only the gambler's last lesson, that life ends in death and that death washes away all the winning and losing experienced in life, is said plainly and without any metaphor. In fact, the last lesson is the only lesson that is absolutely true.

You 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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