Unveiling The Extraordinary Story Of ‘The Gambler,’ Made Famous By Kenny Rogers
This timeless country classic was penned by Don Schlitz and wound up in the hands of the great Kenny Rogers.
Kenny Rogers; Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
“The Gambler” has been a country classic for decades and decades, but after being recorded by several artists – prior to landing in the hands of Kenny Rogers in 1978 – its origin story is anything but ordinary.
Who Wrote “The Gambler?”
Don Schlitz – the songwriter behind smash hits like “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis and “When You Say Nothing at All” by Keith Whitley, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and more – wrote “The Gambler” in August of 1976 at just 23 years old.
“I wrote it in August of ‘76 while walking home from a meeting with my mentor, Bob McDill. I walked from his office over on Music Row to my apartment, and in that 20 minutes, I wrote most of it in my head. I didn’t write a last verse. I had no idea what was gonna happen. I thought it was an interesting story but it was a throwaway,” he shared in a statement, prior to admitting that the song circulated around Music City for two years before landing in the hands of Kenny Rogers.
How Did “The Gambler” Get In the Hands of Kenny Rogers?
Recorded by stars like Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, and even Don Schlitz himself, Kenny Rogers picked up the tune in 1978, despite feeling as though his musical journey was coming to a close after the popularity of “Lucille” started to dwindle.
The Texas native did not expect his iteration of “The Gambler” to achieve such great success, earning him a GRAMMY Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980, rising to No.1 on the country charts, and even making its way onto the pop charts during an era in which genre-bending was hardly heard of. By proxy, Don Schlitz garnered quite a few achievements for “The Gambler” as well, most notably winning a GRAMMY Award for Country Song of the Year in 1979.
To top it all off, “The Gambler” was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” in 2018, just two years before the death of Rogers.
The Meaning Behind “The Gambler”
As for what the song itself entails, “The Gambler” tells the story of the narrator – a role that is most popularly played by Kenny Rogers – meeting a gambler while riding on a train one evening. Throughout the track, the gambler notices that the narrator is struggling with something, ultimately offering him his greatest advice in exchange for a sip of whiskey and a cigarette, to which the latter obliges.
After the narrator agrees to this deal, the gambler gives his greatest advice while using a series of poker metaphors, making for a track that is truly one of a kind. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away, 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,” Rogers sings in the chorus.
As for what the gambler’s advice actually consists of, he essentially told the narrator that the key to a happy and healthy life is recognizing what is worth it, refraining from dwelling on losses, picking your battles wisely, and more. To conclude the song on a rather somber note, the gambler falls asleep and passes away, leaving the narrator with nothing but his wisdom.
Inspiration Behind “The Gambler”
On the American Top 40 radio program in February of 1979, Schlitz shared how he managed to create such a complex story, admitting that he “had no idea where the song was coming from” at the time.
“Something more than me wrote that song. I’m convinced of that. I really had no idea where the song was coming from. There was something going through my head, which was my father. It was just a song, and it somehow filtered through me. Six weeks later I received the final verse. Months later it came to me that it was inspired by, and possibly a gift from, my father,” the Texas native explained, reminiscing on his father who had passed away the same year that he wrote “The Gambler.”
Impact of “The Gambler” on Sports and Popular Culture
“The Gambler” had quite an impact on sports and popular culture as well, with Rogers performing the tune on The Muppet Show in 1979 alongside three of the most beloved characters in The Muppets franchise, as well as making an appearance in TV shows and movies like King of the Hill, The Office, Monday Night Raw, American Dad, King Richard, and more.
As far as sports go, the Houston Gamblers – a team within the United States Football League – were named after the song, a Major League Baseball pitcher named Kenny Rogers was nicknamed “The Gambler” after sharing the same name as the country hitmaker, the Men’s Hockey Club at Edinburgh University coined the tune as their anthem, and more.
Despite being nearly 50 years old, country music lovers can still listen to “The Gambler” on their favorite music streaming platform today.
Melanie has been writing for Country Now since August of 2023. Originally from Southern California and currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee, she graduated from Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma in 2023 with a BA in Journalism. During her free time, she loves going to concerts and music festivals, binging her favorite TV shows, spending time with her friends and family and cheering on the Oklahoma Sooners (of course).