Play your hand, or find another table.
“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 while you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.” Kenny Rogers did not write those words; Don Schiltz did. At the time, Don Schiltz was a no-name 23 year old computer operator at Vanderbilt University. He wanted to be a professional songwriter, but he wasn’t having much luck. That didn’t stop him from knocking on every door in Nashville and trying his best to get someone to take notice of him. Eventually, a well-established songwriter named Bob McDill gave Schiltz a key insight: “You will get ten songs a year from inspiration, but your job is to write 40 or more songs that can get on the radio.” Schiltz took that to heart. According to him, this is how “The Gambler” was written:
“[One day,] I go into to McDill and tell him, ‘I’m blocked.’ And he showed me open tuning on his guitar. It had this great drone to it.
Then I left. It was a hot August day. I lived two or three miles away. I didn’t have a car, and I’m walking home in the heat and carrying my heavy guitar case — and I wrote [“The Gambler”] in my head.... I’m just making up this story song….
When I made it back to my efficiency apartment, I sat down at my dad’s old Smith-Corona typewriter….and wrote it [from] start to finish...without a last verse.
When I was done, I knew it was too long and it didn’t have a love angle, and it wasn’t up-tempo; and it was a pretty linear melody.”
That’s it. There’s no great story here. As far as I can tell, “The Gamber” did not arise out of an amazing moment of inspiration, or from a real-life story that Schiltz had lived through. It came from Schiltz’s good old-fashioned work ethic. Inspired or not, he took Bob McDill’s advice to heart, and treated songwriting as his job.
“The Gambler” was not an instant success by any means. Schiltz would have been justified to simply throw it away. In fact, that is precisely what the song was for Schiltz, at least in the beginning: a throw away:
“Later, I’m hanging out with Jim Rushing and I’m playing him this stack of songs of mine. Song after song. I got down to the bottom one [‘The Gambler’] and I was like, ‘This is too long,’ and I listed for him all the negatives — but I played it for him. And he said, ‘That’s the one you ought to finish.’
….I started playing it at writers’ nights at the few songwriter clubs in Nashville. And people started liking it.
….Audie Ashworth….took it and began pitching it [to artists], and nobody took it. It was too long, too linear.
Then Bobby Bare heard it. He recorded a version of it. But….his record company didn’t think it was a hit so they didn’t release it.
Other people recorded it. But nothing happened….. Then Hugh Moffatt recorded it. And Conway Twitty’s son, Michael Twitty, did a version. We ended up with three versions of the same song on the top 100 at one time, including the one I did.
My version made it to #61. And, at the time, I’m still working as a computer operator! But the song was getting noticed in town. People liked it.
….one morning after work, my phone in my little apartment rings…. ‘They cut your song with Johnny Cash.’ Then, the next morning after work, the phone rings…. ‘Larry Butler cut your song with Kenny Rogers.’ So in two nights, two of the biggest stars in country music had cut my song.
….The song became ubiquitous. It was everywhere.”
Had Don Schiltz “folded,” or “walked away,” or “counted his money while sitting at the table,” then none of us would have ever heard “The Gambler.”
There were many good reasons for the “The Gambler” to flop — it had no love story, the melody lacked variation, it was not really danceable, and the theme could be considered depressing — but the wisdom in the song’s lyrics made all of the difference. Schiltz thinks it was a success because…
“It respected the intelligence of the listener….it wasn’t dumb. McDill once told me, ‘You can’t write country music looking down your nose at it.’ You have to respect your listener. Listeners are smart people.”
Had Schiltz spent too much time and energy second-guessing himself or his song, he could have easily talked himself out of presenting it to the public. The same can be said for you or anybody. Genius and greatness come from ignoring other people’s expectations.
“The Gambler” is a wonderful song because it really does present some of the best possible advice for living well. You should know when to persist with determination (i.e. “hold ‘em). You should know when to quit, because you are not likely to win (i.e. “fold ‘em). You should know when to “walk away” and avoid danger, and you should definitely have no shame when it’s time to “run!” Most importantly, you should never gloat about your success or lament your failure until “the dealin’s done.” In my post from just a few days ago (08-13-18), I echoed this thought by writing that we should “Count no man happy until the end.” You can read hundreds of complicated philosophical and spiritual books, but you will never encounter practical advice better than that given by Don Schiltz in this wonderful song.
I guess that is why someone was inspired to paint this awful (yet somehow awesome) painting of Kenny Rogers as a Zen master:
Interview Source: https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/DonSchlitzInterview.pdf