Written in 1976 by Don Schiltz, ‘The Gambler’ tells the story of an encounter with a mysterious man on a train who deals in life advice through gambling metaphors. The song was recorded first by Bobby Bare and then Schiltz himself but it failed to catch on, with even Johnny Cash unable to give it a mainstream success after including his cover version on the album Gone Girl.
It was left to the inimitable Kenny Rogers to popularise the song in 1978, reaching the top of the US country charts and 16th on the US ‘Hot 100’, which was no mean feat in an era where country music rarely achieved popular recognition. But why did Rogers succeed where several others did not, and what was the cultural impact of the song?
Schiltz had originally struggled to persuade record companies to make the song with some suggestions being that the song was too long and unconventional in the sense that there was no love story whatsoever. Music Row, however, had greater faith in the song, and it made its way into the hands of Larry Butler, who was the producer for Kenny Rogers. Their version of the song had a ‘catchier’ rhythm than its predecessors, which relied heavily on Rogers’ melody and vocal depth to seep into the public consciousness. The jaunty chorus ‘You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,’ still gets caught in an internal loop in people’s minds to this day. Rogers landed a Grammy for ‘Best Male Vocal Performance’ in 1980 to underline the contemporary pull of this song.
Its impact on modern country still resonates to this day with one of its younger stars, Josh Thompson, stating ‘I’ve never heard a song that painted a picture so clearly. It’s like you’re in the train with them.’ Meanwhile, another recording artist, Jason Jones, described how his mother hung a portrait of Kenny Rogers in their home, such was his iconic status as a result of the song which would become ‘a three-minute party’ every time it came on their family radio.
Its impact was so great that it spawned a series of made-for-TV movies starring Kenny Rogers as ‘The Gambler’ himself. In total five movies were made and proved to be a ratings hit for its parent channel CBS. It is clear that people related not just to the song but to the figure of Kenny Rogers himself, who combined amiability with quiet stoicism. In the more modern iGaming sector, the song also inspired various slot machine games amongst a range of other slots inspired by popular culture, a host of which can be found when looking at sites that offer a casino bonus on such games. For just one song, its cultural impact has been enormous and represents a rare occasion in which a song became so synonymous with a singer that Kenny Rogers was often referred to simply as The Gambler.
Kenny Rogers passed away this year in the knowledge that he had inspired and earned the respect of people globally. The Gambler will continue to live on, over 40 years after his release, as a legacy of Rogers’ charm and soulfulness.