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
The first stanza sets the scene. The characters are succinctly described and their motivations identified. Much like the first chapter of a novel or first paragraph of a short story, the train (metaphor intended) chugs into motion as it stirs our curiosity about these characters and the potential interactions they might have. What will the gambler say? We know it will be something interesting. Here is a person who lives by his wits, fickle luck, and the foolishness of those less experienced. What adventures he must have had, and now we are raptly attentive.
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”
Stanza two answers some questions about the characters introduced in the previous stanza. Our gambler is older than the narrator, seasoned, grizzled perhaps, in his lifelong meanderings on chance’s highway. He is in a position to provide advice from his experiences, in exchange for a nip from the bottle. Are thees his only motivation, a taste of spirits and a bit of tongue-wagging to pass the evening? Our narrator is younger, fallen on hard times, bereft of money but not currency. Is the price of the advice fair? It is one more gamble the narrator will have to risk. The stanza compels us to continue, in hopes of learning what the gambler will disclose.
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
Suspense is prolonged in stanza three. We learn the cost of the gambler’s advice. He ups the ante, demanding a cigarette in addition to his quoted price. It’s not just a sip, but the last sip, of the narrator’s whiskey. The value is increased by the laws of supply and demand. The stakes are higher now, and the narrator has already paid, already invested the precious commodities and received relatively little, except the promise of something greater, something to be revealed in the chorus, and perhaps some foreshadowing.
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
Finally the much anticipated advice passes from the lips of the sagacious master to the ears of the anxious neophyte, and it is disappointing in its simplicity. What can it mean? There must be more, something deeper, something worth the price paid. “Tell me something I don’t know,” we imagine the narrator yelling. Secrets can’t be revealed too early. Sure there needs to be something dangled to satisfy curiosity, but one can’t reveal his cards until stakes have been raised to the maximum dared by the gambler’s instincts. Or until the very next stanza, to keep the song moving.
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
Explanations and clarifications at last begin to satisfy our narrator’s yearning for understanding. Gambling is a skillful art, where success is determined by knowledge and understanding of the odds, the tells of one’s opponents, one’s own tendencies to be too bold or too cautious. There is only one certainty: death. It seems the gambler’s real lesson isn’t about gambling. Here his motivations change and he redefines himself in his cautionary tale. Our narrator is confronted with the realization that his life is in the balance of his decision to pursue Lady Luck’s favor or abandon her for a safer, more peaceful living.
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
In the last chapter, er… stanza, our sage exits the stage. Having passed his learning to the narrator, he is freed of his burden. What knowledge he had accumulated during his life of uncertainty and danger has been conveyed to the best of his ability. It is up to the younger version of himself to learn from this wisdom or ignore it at his peril. The narrator realizes it for the treasure it is, but will he push his luck or fold into a life of stability? We are left to imagine the path he will take.
I believe there are writing lessons to be gleaned from Kenny Rogers’ famous song, especially for the type of adventurous genre fiction I like to write. There are nuggets to be mined pertaining to plotting and pacing. There is a reminder that secrets are best revealed slowly, letting anticipation grow. The lyrics also leave us with uncertainty, like some of the best endings in my most treasured books. Perhaps there are even lessons about writing itself, in its parallels to gambling. You’ve got to know which stories to shelve and which stories to submit. Never count your earnings, ’til you’ve reached the end of your royalty cycle. Well, not very lyrical, but the message it still there.
“The Gambler” is one of my favorite stories in song. I hope to find others to share as writing lessons, as my blog continues this year. Here’s hoping 2019 is the year of your greatest hand yet. Leave me a comment, and let me know about your winnings so far.
Lastly, of course, credit where credit is due for these meaningful lyrics:
Songwriters: Don Schlitz
The Gambler lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC