An open letter to Don Schlitz: Please, sir – save my family from our Gambler problem

Dear Mr. Schlitz,

You are the only one who can save my family. Because we have a Gambler problem.

•••

For our other readers, Mr. Schlitz, I should mention that it was back in 1976 when you wrote The Gambler. Mr. Kenny Rogers recorded your song in 1978, and it became a huge hit, an instant classic. And for good reason – that song you wrote was catchy as all get out, with a great story and gritty, poetic lyrics. It became a cultural touchstone for everyone who lived through that era, including  our Minnesota family.

I remember my brother wearing out his Kenny Rogers - Greatest Hits tape, rewinding and fast-forwarding it on the family’s cassette deck to play The Gambler over and over. We other kids would listen and sing along. Sometimes, our sister would make us dance to it. Those were golden, carefree, innocent days ... lost to us now.

 Because, of course, we had no idea of what awaited us. How could we? But it was true.

The Gambler, a song we all loved, would one day tear us apart.

•••

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for nowhere...”

A younger man shares a train car with an older man, the Gambler. After a long silence, Gambler offers him advice in exchange for whiskey (and a smoke), then tells him what life’s about: knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em, when to walk away and when to run. He says that the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep....

Because 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.

Then Gambler turns to the window, puts out the cigarette and fades 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.

•••

Mr. Schlitz, I should also tell you that this story has something to do with a batch of home-brewed cider. You see, every summer our family gets together for a few days at a rented cabin. For this particular vacation about a dozen years ago, my brother and brother-in-law made two batches of beer and one of cider. The beer was good; the cider was almost undrinkable. However, on our last night at the cabin, all the other beer was gone, and you know what? After a glass or two, that cider didn’t taste half-bad.

That cider, we realized later, was also a bit on the strong side.

We were playing Hold Em, as we do, and drinking this cider, and somehow transformed from a group of fairly rational adults into raving, emotionally fraught idiots.

No one is quite sure how the subject of The Gambler came up. But one of us probably mentioned that someone was surviving in the poker game like the Gambler, and then someone else said that’s cool but the Gambler, of course, dies in the song.

No, he doesn’t, someone else responded.

And this is where our particular train bound for nowhere went off the rails. A boisterous discussion raged into the night. And we woke up with unforgettable, skull-rending cider hangovers and an argument that lasts until this very day.

•••

Let’s break down the disagreement into its component parts. On the one side, the Alive-ists (let’s call them) believe that Gambler survived beyond the events of the song, while the BreakEveners believe he died on the train.

The BreakEveners say that there are clear references to Gambler’s death in the song. Gambler said, “the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”  This statement is described by the young narrator as Gambler’s “final words.” Gambler then fell asleep, and while asleep in the darkness he “broke even.” Though it’s not explicitly stated, the listener is meant to understand that Gambler has passed beyond earthly considerations.

The Alive-ists say that this was just part of the conversation between the narrator and Gambler and argue that it doesn’t really mean anything. We all go to sleep every night. What kind of pessimist would think that Gambler is dead?

But then, the BreakEveners respond, what do you think Mr. Schlitz meant when he wrote, “... The Gambler, he broke even?”

The Alive-ists shrug. “Who are we to interpret the words of a master songwriter?”

The Alive-ists also point to the existence of the multiple Gambler films starring Mr. Kenny Rogers in which our friend Gambler is very much alive. The BreakEveners note that the first of these films didn’t come out until 1980, years after the song was written, and that the films are described as being only “loosely based” on the song.

The Alive-ists declare that there is no visual reference to Gambler’s death in the original video of the song. This is true. But that brings us to one of the most remarkable (and hilarious) twists in our saga, and that is the existence of the Oct. 18, 1979 episode of “The Muppet Show” on which Mr. Kenny Rogers appeared and performed The Gambler, on a set built to look like a train car, in a duet with an elderly Muppet clearly meant to be Gambler who sings Gambler’s lines. In that video, two minutes and 36 seconds into the song, Gambler dies. That’s right – the Muppet Gambler dies. Then a ghost version of the Muppet Gambler gets up and dances around.

Anyone who has not seen this video may be skeptical that it exists, or may not believe it is possible that I am describing it accurately. I don’t blame them, because it’s, well, darn unusual. But just Google ‘Muppet Gambler’ to find it. It’s also at this link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNnrTNFWcsg

The Alive-ists have two counter-arguments to this piece of Muppety evidence:

1. This video is all just a dream.

2. “Muppets schmuppets.”

•••

Mr. Schlitz, I’m a BreakEvener, but I will admit – there is a hint of ambiguity in the lyrics. You left some room for the listener. I may be misinterpreting things, and I am fully ready to admit that I have been wrong all these years if you say so.

Because you created The Gambler. The story took shape in your head, and was given form in your brilliant, memorable words. Mr. Rogers delivered a masterful performance of it, but it is your song, and you are the only person in this whole wide world who can truly settle this, once and for all.

So please, please, Mr. Schlitz, tell us. At the end of your song, “The Gambler,” is Gambler dead? Or is he alive?

•••

Mr. Schlitz, I may have overstated the conflict this has caused in our family for dramatic effect. We love each other very much, and we treasure our time together. But this argument started 12 years ago. In that time, the next generation has grown up. And, Gambler help us, we have dragged them into our terrible dispute. Siblings are turning on each other. Cousins are taking sides. This has gone too far.

Mr. Schlitz, I know you’re a busy man, with a lot more important things to do than talk about a song you wrote more than 40 years ago with the editor of a small-town newspaper in Pine City, Minnesota. You’ve had a remarkable career since that time with 15 number ones on the country chart, two Grammy awards and a well-deserved induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

But Mr. Schlitz – can I call you Don? – I don’t ask you to do it for me. I’m asking for our children, and our children’s children. Also, having watched a few interviews with you, you strike me as the kind of guy who might think this is all pretty amusing.

They say our country is divided right now. That’s true. And so is our family. It’s going to take a lot of small things to bring us back together. It’s going to take love and hope and healing. But most of all, we need the truth. Please, Don, in this one thing ... can you give us some advice? I know it’ll be an ace that we can keep.

Very sincerely,

Mike

Mike Gainor is the editor of the Pine City Pioneer. Contact him at editor@pinecitymn.com, at 320-322-5241 or by mail at 405 2nd Ave. SE, Pine City MN 55063.

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