Kenny Rogers, King of Country, has died at the age of 81.
I come from a big card-playing family and Rogers’s song The Gambler was something of an anthem for us. When I read that he’d died, of all of his songs that I know, that one came to mind first. It’s associated with so many happy memories.
My five brothers and I all learnt to play cards when we were small. I remember our lovely gran being there and playing with us (for many years my gran lived with us from Monday to Friday and helped looked after us so that my mum could go back to the teaching job she loved). We’d gamble using matchsticks and then two pence pieces – “coppers”, my gran would say. She was English; no-one in Glasgow used that word.
We kept playing as we got older, and we moved from coppers on to silver – and worse! Once we all started leaving home – and in some cases leaving Glasgow and Scotland – we’d make a real effort to arrange a card school at our parents’ house whenever we knew all six siblings were going to be back in Glasgow at the same time.
These card schools were always a big deal (see what I did there?).
My mum never played for money so it was always my dad, my five brothers and me.
Sometimes just the seven of us would gather. Or we’d play after big family gatherings such as at Christmas. On those occasions, anyone else who was around as things were about to get going would make themselves scarce.
My then partner (and now husband) and my sisters-in-law were more than happy to go. They were fine with the jokes and teasing and laughter but they couldn’t stand all the shouting and arguing that also went on as well. Fair enough. Any children that were there would be desperate to stay but were made to leave because we didn’t think it was right for them to see us gambling for money! There was the odd exception – like in the photo, when our younger boy as a baby had conjunctivitis and just wanted to be with his mummy. If I recall correctly, it didn’t occur to me not to play! I thought of that photo when I read some years ago that now writer, television presenter and poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell had learnt to play poker sitting on her grandad’s lap.
I was the wimp who would always fold first. I’d rarely win much because everyone knew that if I stayed in for long, it was because I had a good hand. I’d only manage to fool them on the odd occasion.
We’d play for hours. If we got too loud or it was getting very late, mum would bang on the bedroom floor upstairs. That would quiet us down for a bit then, as it got later, we’d hear it again, and again. Finally, at two or three – or sometimes four – in the morning, mum would come downstairs in her nightdress and say “it’s time you lot were all going to bed”. We’d play on for a while, and that would be it, until the next time.
I moved from Glasgow for good when I was 22 or 23 – first to Madrid, where I’d already previously spent two years, and then to London. I regularly went back home and in the early days I used to joke that it had been a good trip if I’d won the cost of the coach ticket at cards!
The Gambler was released in November 1979. I would have been 16 then, at secondary school, and I have no idea whether I know the song from then or from later. That really doesn’t matter. I only know that – along with many other country music classics (that’s Glasgow for you) – it’s part of my life’s soundtrack.
Like in the song, we learned never to count our money when we were sitting at the table. Some of us tried but every time someone started to stack their coins into piles of ten, someone else would reach over and knock them down – and then quote from the Kenny Rogers song. I found it so annoying at the time, but I did also see the funny side.
When I read that Rogers had died, my mind went racing back to all the card schools we’ve had over the years.
It also went back to this photo of us all, from just a few years ago.
I love this photo for so many different reasons. My dad died just a couple of months after it was taken. It was taken in November or December 2015. It’s one of the very last photos of all eight of us together and it’s just so appropriate that we’re playing cards. I love the fact that my mum’s in it. We must have persuaded her to come and sit at the table for a family shot. My dad’s not smiling but he never smiled in photos; it was a standing family joke.
There’s another reason I love this photo. I had only recently finished chemotherapy for the primary breast cancer I’d had and I was due to have to my big op just before Christmas. I must have gone up to Glasgow for a few days thinking that I wouldn’t be up for a good while after that.
It was such a happy occasion. I was wearing a wig. Underneath, I was completely bald. Not long before or not long after this photo was taken, we’d all been rolling around laughing as some of my more idiotic brothers and some of my younger nieces and nephews had been throwing the wig around and trying it on! We weren’t to know then that I’d be up again just over a month later for, as I wrote at the time, “the saddest of reasons”.
I honestly don’t remember but I can say with absolute certainty that this song would have been played at the get-together after my dad’s funeral. Here’s the chorus: “You gotta 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 sitting at at the table; there’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealing’s done.”
Good advice for life in general.
Thanks for the memories, Kenny. We’ll toast you the next time we play.