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kenny rogers

In late March this year, legendary country music singer Kenny Rogers passed away, peacefully sliding away in his sleep with his family around him. The six-time Country Music Awards winner sold more than 50 million albums during his 60-year singing career. Some of his better-known hits include “Lady,” “Lucille,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and “Through the Years.”

Probably his best-known song, though, is “The Gambler,” the 1978 tune that inspired several movies, some he starred in. When you think of Kenny Rogers, you probably picture him talking about waiting to count your winnings until the game is over.

If you were alive and kicking in the 80s and 90s, you had have heard the lyrics:

You've got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away, 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.

I can’t tell you how many times I sang along with Kenny on drives from Los Angeles where I was living in the late 80s to Las Vegas where several of my family members lived.

Rogers’ gravelly baritone would melt those words right into your bones. I can’t tell you how many times I sang along with Kenny Rogers on drives from Los Angeles where I was living in the late 80s to Las Vegas where several of my family members lived. Good company for that long, tiresome drive through the Mojave Desert.

They say Kenny Rogers wasn’t much of a gambler himself, that he actually didn’t know when to fold’em, that he regularly dropped thousands of dollars chasing his losses at the poker table. His four marriages would indicate that he lacked at least some self-control—though with my three marriages, I’m hardly one to talk.

Knowing When to Fold ‘Em

A few years after “The Gambler” hit the radio dial in the late ‘70s, I considered learning how to become a casino dealer. I had been making good money working construction for several years, remodeling apartment buildings into condo complexes in several towns on the outskirts of Los Angeles. But when a sharp economic downturn called “stagflation” hit the country, interest rates soared, sending a chill through the real estate market that put the company I had been working for out of business, at least temporarily. I was out of luck.

Out of luck—but not entirely. I had some money saved up and no bills to speak of, so I could enjoy a bit of a rest, doing some too-long neglected reading and roller skating up and down the strand in the South Bay for hours on end to stay in shape. But reading and skating will only take you so far, especially when the bank account starts getting thin.

At breakfast one morning at the IHop down the street from my apartment, Roxie—the shapely morning shift waitress who was my favorite along with every other guy’s—slipped in across me at my booth to tell me that she and several of the other waitresses were going to school to become casino dealers.

“The classes are practically free,” she told me excitedly. “Up on Century Boulevard, near the Bicycle Club. Daytime classes or in the evening.”

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I had driven by that casino more than once, but had done all my gambling on my family visits to Henderson and Las Vegas.

“I’ll make a ton more money than slinging hash here. Trish and Bobbi, too” she said. “You ought to try it, at least until construction work picks up.”

“There’s guys in the classes?” I asked.

“A few,” she said, but I knew by the way she wobbled her head and paused before answering that it was time to “fold ‘em” right there.

“They’re looking for hot numbers like you—and Trish and Bobbi, right?” I said. “Not some ruffian with gnarly hands and a sour disposition like me.”

“You’re not so sour,” Roxie said and brushed my hand with the towel she always carried to clean up spills. “You’ve got your points, plus I know you know how to gamble.”

“Well, I’ll give it some thought,” I said.

But I didn’t. That wobble of her head was Roxie’s “tell.” I could probably figure out how to be a dealer, but nobody would want to hire me because nobody would want to play at my table. I just didn’t have the right look, not close—and anyway, I hooked up with a new construction company before the month was out.

And Trish and Bobbi didn’t make it either. Trish married the night manager at the IHop not long after that conversation with Roxie--and Bobbi started getting regular work as an extra up in Hollywood, hoping against hope that she’d be the next Halle Berry.

big dave

Roxie, though, was made for dealing. Just as you wanted her for your waitress at the café, you wanted to plop your chips down at her table. Win, lose, or draw, you were bound to have some fun.

And for several years afterwards, I would see Roxie tootling around town in the Cadillac convertible the tips at her blackjack table had bought her, the biggest smile on her face, a Kenny Rogers tune blasting on her radio, and the loveliest wave of her hand as she passed me by.

Dave Price