Kenny Rogers or Bobby Bare: Who Sang 'The Gambler' Better?
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Kenny Rogers or Bobby Bare: Who Sang ‘The Gambler’ Better?

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For those belonging to a certain generation of fans, Kenny Rogers‘ 1978 hit, ‘The Gambler,’ stands as the epitome of country music. It’s difficult to envision Rogers’ illustrious recording and acting career without the iconic chorus that begins with, ‘You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em.’

However, before Rogers immortalized the song, ‘The Gambler’ had a noteworthy journey. Don Schlitz penned the song in August 1976 at the age of 23. What might now seem like a surefire hit for anyone in Nashville or Los Angeles remained unrecorded until Shel Silverstein persuaded Bobby Bare to include it in his 1978 album, ‘Bare.’

Bare, a master storyteller, did justice to ‘The Gambler,’ but his version remained a commendable deep cut rather than a signature song. In the same year, Schlitz recorded the song himself, achieving a modest hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

>>RELATED: Kenny Rogers’”Lady” Has A Funny Backstory That You Should Know About

As 1978 drew to a close, two icons were gearing up to feature ‘The Gambler’ on their albums. Rogers, obviously, had it planned as the title track of an LP that also boasted another No. 1 hit, ‘She Believes in Me.’ Around the same time, Johnny Cash released a lesser-known version on his album, ‘Gone Girl.’

While Cash’s rugged interpretation faded into a footnote in country music history, Rogers and producer Larry Butler’s reimagining of ‘The Gambler’ not only dominated the country charts in the short term but also left an enduring mark on Rogers’ legacy. In the 2006 documentary, ‘The Journey,’ Schlitz praised Rogers and Butler’s tweaks to the song, acknowledging, ‘they added several ideas that were not mine, including the new guitar intro.’

Elevating a good song to greatness expanded Rogers’ mainstream appeal. As the singer of ‘The Gambler,’ Rogers graced The Muppet Show, took on multiple roles in The Gambler TV movies as the character Brady Hawkes, and clinched a Grammy award (Best Male Country Vocal Performance, 1980). Casinos even featured slot machines themed around ‘The Gambler.’

In 2018, Schlitz’s story-song earned a spot in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its ‘cultural, historical, or artistic significance.’ Following Rogers’ passing on March 20, 2020, the song ascended to the top of Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart, with the Dolly Parton duet, ‘Islands in the Stream,’ securing the second spot.

With all due respect to Bare and Cash, it was Rogers—the specific legend—that propelled ‘The Gambler’ and, consequently, country music into the 1980s.

“The Gambler” Lyrics

On a warm summer’s evening
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

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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 my sayin’
I can see you’re out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice”

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 face lost all expression
Said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right

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

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”

And when he’d finished speakin’
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
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

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

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em (when to hold ’em)
Know when to fold ’em (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

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

>>READ ALSO: The Story Behind Kenny Rogers’ Holiday Song “Mary, Did You Know”

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