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Ethics and Morality

The Meaning of "The Gambler"

Kenny Rogers explains the probabilities of life.

Written by David Schlitz in 1976 and made famous by Kenny Rogers in 1978, "The Gambler" is a classic country song about a train, a stranger, and a conversation about poker. Schlitz, a 23-year-old unknown songwriter, later associated the song with getting advice from his father, who had died two years earlier. (Neither man was involved in gambling.) Rogers later related it to life in the Old West, with the risks and rewards of frontier life.

I’ve read what I could in search of interpretations of the song's meaning, but I found little. So I decided to write down what it means to me, a personal reading of course, as is everything artistic.

If understood as counsel about life, the general advice of the song isn’t straightforward. Sometimes you should do one thing (hold 'em), sometimes another (fold 'em). That’s not an ethic of duties or rules. It is similar, though, to a style of ethics most associated with Aristotle—the concept of the golden mean. The idea here isn’t to take the middle path between extremes, but rather to tailor behavior to circumstances. Sometimes storming the barricades is courage; sometimes it’s reckless. It depends on the likelihood of success at the barricade. That’s what makes life tough. We can’t tell our children or ourselves to always act this way or that. Sometimes you have to adjust. There may be a few rules worth doing all the time, but those tend to be the easy decisions: Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Most of life’s dilemmas fall outside these rules. They become a matter of probability—of gambling.

That’s where the song comes in:

Title: The Gambler

Life is a story of probability. All of life is about decisions, for which outcomes are unknown. We make our best guesses that things will turn out more or less one way or the other. Gambling is a game of probability. Every human is a gambler on life. When you have children, the medieval author wrote, you give hostages to fortune.

On a train bound to nowhere

Life is a journey; we are travelers, pilgrims, in the language of religious tradition. But there’s no proof that we’re going anywhere. Nowhere may be the destination.

Boredom overtook us and he began to speak

When you are alone or limited in what you can do, like on a train or during a quarantine, you can't distract yourself superficially, as you do most of your life. You're bored. But it's also a chance to ask the profound questions and replace forgetful living with authentic life.

He said: Son I’ve made a life out of reading people’s faces

Knowing what their cards were by the way they held their eyes

So if you don’t my saying, I can see you’re out of aces

For a taste of your whiskey, I’ll give you some advice.

Develop the ability to have intuitions about others. This isn't your gut technically, but your unconscious mind, talking to you. You can tell something about someone, even if you can’t rationally explain it. Trust that intuition.

The night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression

He said if you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.

Life is a game we are forced to play. We need to learn the best way to play. Our lives are practice sessions, repeated forever, as we learn to play the game right.

You got to know when to hold 'em

Don’t just do something, stand there. Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. Wait, until the right decision becomes clear to you. Engage in creative procrastination. The problem might even go away before you need to fix it.

Know when to fold 'em

Sometimes retreat is the right decision. Don’t fight every battle.

Know when to walk away

When you retreat, sometimes you can do it slowly, gradually, bit by bit.

Know when to run

Sometimes you have to admit defeat all at once, and just get out of there.

Notice that this key chorus is all about how to handle defeat or failure. That's what matters, because life never is all about success. Success usually grows out of failure, if it happens at all. Failure determines who we will become.

You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table

Don’t pause to measure your riches, to see how much you have. Don’t count your awards and seek more. Don’t be greedy. When things are going well, let the winnings come and be grateful, but don’t pay too much attention to the details.

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

When finished with your work, whether when you retire or temporarily at other times, then take stock of what you’ve achieved. Once, maybe twice in a lifetime, when you’ve reached the peak of a mountain, pause and look around. No need to keep pausing and looking as you're ascending. Never call a man happy until he is dead, because only then can you know for certain.

Every gambler knows that the secret to surviving

Is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep

'Cause every hands a winner, and every hands a loser

This stanza is the most meaningful of the song: You were thrown into a world not of your own making, given a certain hand in life. You were born in a certain place, to certain parents, with certain privileges and drawbacks. You deserve no credit for your family's achievements and no blame for its faults. Your parents didn't give you a bad hand; it's good in some ways and can be improved in others. You need to know what to change, and what to keep the same.

You don’t need a better wife for a better life, or better kids or a better car, or a bigger house, or a nicer climate. You have everything you need now to be happy and everything to be miserable. Your start may have been lucky or unlucky, but you can either improve your lot or worsen it. Credit and blame follow upon the direction in which you go.

And the best that you can hope for, is to die in your sleep

In the end, if you succeed, you’ll stay healthy, live long, get old, not get a serious disease, and fade away gradually. That’s success.

And somewhere in the darkness, the gambler he broke even.

There’s an old Muslim teaching that when you come into the world, you come naked and neutral. You neither own anything or owe anything. So, too, when you die, you should be buried naked in a white shroud, and you should conduct your affairs so that at your death, you leave no inheritance and no debts. You should owe what you own. You should break even.

And in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.

More from Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H.
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