- April 23, 2020
Kenny Roger’s rendition of the Gambler is one of the greatest country songs of all time. It was released over four decades ago and to date, remains the signature hit song at any respectable karaoke session.
The Gambler tells the story of a chance encounter on a late-night train between two strangers: a nameless man (the narrator) and a poker player (the gambler). Whatever is weighing on the narrator’s mind must be heavy; he is sitting on a train bound for nowhere, downing a bottle of whisky.
The two men sit in silence for a long time and it is the gambler who breaks it. He tells the narrator that after many years of playing poker, he has learned the art of reading people’s faces. From the look on the narrator’s face, the gambler deduces, “I can see you’re out of aces”. If the narrator is willing to part with some whiskey, the gambler will offer him some advice. The narrator complies and the gambler begins to speak.
When he’s done saying what he needs to, the gambler turns to the window, crushes out his cigarette and falls into a deep sleep, never to wake again.
The narrator is left alone, staring out the window and contemplating the gambler’s words which keep replaying in his head. At some point in the dead of the night, something about what the gambler said clicks. The narrator understands what he now needs to do.
Going by the lyrics and tune, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a song about poker. It’s not. The gambler only uses poker metaphors to teach us about the delicate balancing act of life- the choices we make, the ones we don’t.
With the recent passing of Kenny Rogers, I was taken back to this song and made an attempt to decipher the message the gambler was conveying. Here is my loose interpretation:
Lesson #1: Every gambler knows the secret to survivin’ is knowin’ what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep
In the game of poker, circumstances are always changing: The value of your cards. Your position at the table. The size of your chip stack relative to that of other players. The action that has occurred before you act. The one after you act. Your impression of other players. Their impression of you…
Amid these ever-changing circumstances, you are required to make decisions. These decisions are what determine the outcome of the game.
And so it is in life. There is no playbook specifying what you should do in every changing circumstance. But for every circumstance, you must make a decision (not making a decision is also a decision). The sum total of your decisions will, ultimately, determine the course your life takes.
Lesson #2: ‘Cause every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser
In poker, every hand has the potential to win and every hand has the potential to lose. And yet, no one can determine the hand they’re dealt. At this point, it’s purely a game of chance. But as the game progresses, skill comes into play and the game can go either way. The key question then becomes whether one element (chance) dominates the other (skill).
If chance dominates skill then poker is a game of chance, but if skill dominates chance then poker is a game of skill. This is what researchers, Rogier J. D. Potter van Loon, Martijn J. van den Assem and Dennie van Dolder set out to determine in this study.
They found that poker players who ranked in the best-performing 10% in the first six months of the year were more than twice as likely as others to do similarly well in the next six months. Meanwhile, players who fared badly from the start continued to lose and hardly ever metamorphosed into top performers.
When it comes to poker, the study concluded, performance is predictable. But to get to the level of predictability, the researchers found that there needed to be a tipping point: skilled players did better than their relatively unskilled counterparts after 1,471 hands had been played. Poker becomes a game of skill after around 1,500 hands. Which is to say, the game demands and rewards genuine proficiency, and in the end, mastery trumps blind luck.
How does this co-relate to real life?
Well, as in poker, you can’t control the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes, it’s a great hand (a well-connected family, good health, loving parents) and sometimes it’s a crappy hand (poverty, physical disability, an abusive home). But in the final analysis, it usually comes down to what you do with your hand.
My book Different Paths, One Journey, offers a great illustration here. I have captured the stories of some exemplary individuals’ life journeys and share the nuggets of wisdom they have picked up along the way. What comes out clearly is that the path we take in life has little to do with the cards we were dealt at the beginning. Some of the people profiled in this book had what could be termed as winning cards, others had what could be termed as losing cards. Where they are in life today comes down to the decisions they have made. Their stories teach us that rather than asking for ‘winning cards’ in life, we can, just as well, create our own ‘luck’.
Lesson #3: And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep
This lesson really goes back to the gambler and the narrator’s encounter on the train that night. Nothing to do with poker.
That night, the gambler died. Peacefully. In his sleep. I believe he died happy in the knowledge that he had bestowed his wisdom onto someone else, a complete stranger at that. And the stranger would live to appreciate it. We are not told much about the gambler. He may have got many things wrong in his life, but on this night, he got something right.
Since we all die eventually, we would also hope that in the best case scenario it will happen as peacefully as it did with the gambler. Hopefully, we will also leave our own indelible mark in one way or another. And hopefully, we will go unencumbered by any “what ifs” and “if onlys” from the lives we led.
Lesson #4 You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
In poker to hold means to stay with the cards you’ve got and not take any more. Why? Because you have a good hand and believe you stand a good chance of winning. Same thing with life. It’s the contentment that stems from the fact you know your abilities and skills will get you there. That is not to say you are resting on your laurels and waiting for magic to happen. No. What you are doing is plugging away. Quietly. Confidently. Undistracted by external forces. Because deep down, you know you’ve got this.
Lesson #5: Know when to fold ‘em
Folding your cards means you are withdrawing from the round being played because you know your cards are no good and you suspect you won’t win. You are not giving up or leaving the game. Rather, you recognize that at that point in time, you are vulnerable. You need a breather. So you wait for a better hand to come along and then get back in the game. It is far better to fold than to raise a “weak” hand. We can’t after all, always be on top. And that’s ok. Sometimes the best thing we can do is sit things out and use that time to replenish our energy, regroup, and come back stronger.
Lesson #6: Know when to walk away
This one is about knowing to quit while you’re ahead (or behind). To walk away is to leave a poker game. You might leave because you’re on a losing streak and want to cut your losses; but you could also walk away if you’ve done very well, are ready to cash in and do not want to risk your wins. It is essential to have a feel for the right time to leave the game. This is what sets the amateurs and the professionals apart. Undoubtedly it is a skill best acquired by playing many games of poker and recognizing the signs, but more importantly, it is about understanding your limits.
In life, when you understand your limits, you can evenly assess when a situation is not right for you. And before that situation gets a chance to do some serious damage, you walk.
Lesson #7: Know when to run
Running has a whole different connotation to walking away. Walking away would just be, “I am done with the game”, running away would indicate you are in some kind of danger and need to get the hell out. Sometimes in life, we hold, we fold, or we walk from situations we ought to run from. When you sniff danger, any kind of danger, do yourself a favour and RUN.
Lesson #8: You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table
In poker, the money you had at the beginning of the game isn’t necessarily going to be there at the end of the evening. You assume nothing. Not in poker. Not in life. You can plan for the future but you won’t necessarily see what’s coming.
Gloating over what you have is a severe lack of personal discretion. Complaining over what you don’t have is a severe lack of foresight. Appreciating what you have while realizing its all transient, now that’s wisdom.
Lesson #9 There’ll be time enough for countin’, when the deal is done
It’s when the work is done that you can take a step back and gain perspective. Count your gains. Count your losses. What worked? What didn’t? If the experience was a net loss, learn from it and move on. If the experience was a net gain, also learn from it. And move on.
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