In 1978, Jimmy Carter was president; Jim Jones led 500 people in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, there were 4.302 billion on the planet, unemployment was at 6.1%, and the average income was $15,064.
It was also the year I learned life from two of my closest friends … and Kenny Rogers.
The lessons I learned about life came from the song, “The Gambler,” which was about an old gambler who used his experiences to teach a young man, not only about how to play poker, but how to live life.
When you’re 15, you think of yourself as an adult, even though you have no idea what life is really all about. You think your parents are lame, and you want to do what you want to do, so you do.
One night, as my friends and I were sitting behind the neighbor’s garage drinking the beers I stole from my dad, “The Gambler ” came on the small radio we had with us.
The conversation turned to poker; how to play it, if any of us had ever played, etc. As I listened to the words, I turned to my friend, Laura, and asked her, “Is that how you play poker?”
She got a strange look on her face and laughed. “How many of those beers have you had, Cindy?”
“What? Why? I’ve never played poker.”
“He’s not really talking about poker,” my other friend, Lori, stammered, trying her best not to bust out laughing.
Laura took another drink of beer and sat back against the garage. “He’s talking about life.”
“How is playing poker like life?” I forced down another drink of the warm beer.
Laura glanced and Lori, and then at me. She smiled slyly. “I guess if you don’t know, I can’t tell you,” she teased.
My friends laughed hysterically, but I honestly couldn’t understand what was so funny. They must have drank their beers too fast, I thought, and switched the topic to boys.
I still think about the night from time to time, and the memory is triggered every time I hear “The Gambler.” Though I don’t play a lot of poker, the song reminds me to live my life the same way I play poker; cautious, but still take risks; don’t hang on to those things that aren’t good for you; and don’t get cocky when you’re winning.
“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
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”
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
He 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 counting
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 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.”