Poker & Pop Culture: Top 10 Most Popular Poker Songs
Poker's central place in the culture is well supported by its frequent appearance in typically "non-poker" contexts like films, stories, novels, plays, television and radio shows, paintings, and elsewhere. Indeed, one of the more notable ways poker finds its way into the mainstream is via popular music, with many examples of poker-themed chart-toppers over the decades.
Below is a "top 10" list of the most popular poker songs ever, all of which achieved significant notice not just within the subculture of card players, but generally speaking. Indeed, in at least a couple of cases these songs achieved a level of popularity that didn't just transcend the game, but became cultural phenomena in their own right.
Though necessarily arbitrary in some respects, the list is more or less restricted to songs that achieved significant, contemporary commercial success. In other words, there are several memorable and much-loved poker songs that don't appear below — songs like Ray Charles's "Losing Hand" (1957), Bob Dylan's "Rambling, Gambling Willie" (1962), the Grateful Dead's "Deal" (1971), AC/DC's "(She's Got) the Jack" (1975), or O.A.R.'s "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker" (1997), to name a few.
You might think of others as well that could be considered worthy of cracking this list of popular poker songs — share them in a comment below. Meanwhile, take a look at this attempt to create such a list:
1. Bert Williams, "The Darktown Poker Club" (1914)
Starting off this chronologically-arranged collection poker-themed songs is one we've already discussed here in the "Poker & Pop Culture" series, "The Darktown Poker Club" by the Vaudeville performer Bert Williams from just over a hundred years ago.
The first black American to star on Broadway, Williams co-wrote the song for the Ziegfield Follies, the inspiration for which in part came from Henry Guy Carleton's stories about the fictional Thompson Street Poker Club from the 1880s.
The song's title character sings of his intentions not to let others at the club cheat him with their bottom dealing and hidden cards, noting that from this point forward he's "not gonna play this game no more according to Mr. Hoyle — hereafter, it's gonna be according to me."
The comedian Phil Harris would enjoy a hit with a cover version in the 1940s, as would the actor and country star Jerry Reed with a version titled "The Uptown Poker Club" in 1973.
2. Fanny Watson and Al Jolson, "Who Played Poker with Pocahontas (When John Smith Went Away)?" (1919)
A couple more stars of the stage were involved in the next big poker hit on our list, one that took liberties with the story of the explorer Captain John Smith and his encounter with the Native American Pocahontas at the Jamestown colony.
While there's a lot of debate by historians over the nature of the pair's relationship, the song "Who Played Poker with Pocahontas (When John Smith When Away)?" — recorded separately by Fanny Watson and Al Jolson — is mostly a fiction, probably inspired by the consonance between the name Pocahontas and the card game.
Written for the musical Monte Cristo Jr., the song (like other reimaginings of the story) not only assumes an affair between the title characters, but has Smith having taught Pocahontas poker, then after leaving and returning being surprised to find her having played and won from others.
"Every time that John came back," goes the song, "he found her with a larger stack" — suggesting a bit of innuendo here as though Pocahontas might be cheating with others (and not at cards).
Not that we care too much about historical accuracy here, but it would be another couple hundred years after John Smith and Pocahontas lived before poker would come to be.
3. T. Texas Tyler, "The Deck of Cards" (1948)
The country singer and songwriter T. Texas Tyler had a string of hits during the 1940s and 1950s, with his spoken-word track "The Deck of Cards" being his most famous.
The song — which reached No. 2 on the country charts in 1948 — tells the story of a soldier getting caught playing cards in church and facing punishment from a superior officer. The soldier then pleads his case, telling how in fact he wasn't about to deal a hand of poker, but was rather reaffirming his faith with the cards.
"The ace, it reminds me that there is but one God," he begins, then goes on to connect the trey with the holy trinity, the four with the four apostles, the six with the six days of creation, and drawing other parallels.
Some of the connections become a bit uncanny, in fact. "When I count the number of spots in a deck of cards, I find 365, the number of days in a year," he says, also connecting the 52 cards with 52 weeks, 12 picture cards with the 12 months, and so on.
Later Wink Martindale — who would go on to host a number of TV game shows — had an even bigger hit with his 1959 cover. Tex Ritter also had a hit with it, as did Phil Harris (mentioned above for his cover of "The Darktown Poker Club").
Here's the original, with a video helping show visually how the soldier's pack of cards served him "as a Bible, an almanac, and a prayer book":
4. Elvis Presley, "Viva Las Vegas" (1964)
Elvis Presley was already a pop music icon and international celebrity by the time he starred in the 1964 musical Viva Las Vegas, his 15th film. The film's theme song, co-written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, well suited Presley's character, Lucky Jackson, celebrating the nonstop thrills of Vegas and their appeal to him.
Wishing "there were more than the twenty-four hours in the day" to enjoy "blackjack and poker and the roulette wheel" — not to mention the "thousand pretty women waitin' out there" — the song's catchy rhythm and breathless pace is somewhat irresistible. (Seriously, is it possible to read this without bopping your head just a little as you remember the song?)
The song was a double-A sided hit for Presley along with "What'd I Say," affecting the chart status of both tracks, each of which cracked the top 30 in the Billboard Hot 100. Of course it subsequently became one of Presley's best known hits and much-used theme song for Sin City, turning up in countless films and television shows and being covered by a wide range of artists including Engelbert Humperdinck, Nina Hagen, The Stray Cats, ZZ Top, and Bruce Springsteen.
Those who were in the Amazon Room at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino at the start of the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event might recall Wayne Newton helping kick things off with a rendition of the song, aided by a group of dancers and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas marching band.
5. The Eagles, "Desperado" (1973)
The Eagles dominated FM radio in the 1970s, with their second LP Desperado and accompanying tour helping confirm their status as leaders of the country-tinged soft rock being produced by many of their contemporaries.
The album is comprised of a number of Old West-themed tracks, with the title song telling of a weary card-playing cowboy whose tribulations seem to mirror that of a road-exhausted band. In fact, as Paul McGuire details in a feature for the PokerStars blog titled "Life in the Fast Lane: Poker and the Eagles," the band was playing a lot of poker those days, too, even inventing a game called "Eagle Poker."
Though not released as a single and never charting until after Glenn Frey's death earlier this year, the song has long been a staple of "classic rock" radio. It is only challenged by "Tequila Sunrise" as the most recognizable track from the Desperado album which ultimate achieved double platinum status by selling more than two million copies.
6. Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler" (1978)
By 1978, country star Kenny Rogers had already had more than 15 hit albums and several "crossover" hits landing him on the pop charts. But the title track of his 1978 album The Gambler (written by Don Schlitz) gave him what would prove the biggest hit of his career, and perhaps still the most famous poker song ever recorded.
Told from the perspective of a younger man who meets up with an older card player, various life lessons are imparted, all inflected with wise-seeming poker strategy. Having "made a life out of reading people's faces and knowing what their cards are by the way they held their eyes," the Gambler ably distills his best advice into the memorable, sing-along chorus:
You 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 sitting at the table --
There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done.
The song topped the country charts while giving Rogers another mainstream hit as it went all the way to No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rogers performed the song at the 1979 World Series of Poker (pictured up top). A string of five television movies starring Rogers as the Gambler would further solidify the connection between the singer and character.
7. Motörhead, "Ace of Spades" (1980)
The title track from the English rock band Motörhead's fourth album proved the band's biggest hit, becoming an anthem of sorts for them and easily the band's most recognized song. The single peaked at No. 15 on the U.K. charts while the album of the same name made it to No. 4.
Clocking under three minutes, lead singer Lemmy roars through the verses over a speed-metal soundtrack, describing himself as a fearless gambler who knows he is "born to lose, and gambling's for fools — but that's the way I like it baby."
Having co-written the song with two other band members, Lemmy once explained how even though he wasn't much of a card player, the subject matter required all of those references to the title card, the "joker," the "dead man's hand," a directive to "read 'em and weep," and the like.
"I used gambling metaphors, mostly cards and dice," Lemmy wrote in his 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever. "When it comes to that sort of thing, I'm more into one-arm bandits actually, but you can't really sing about spinning fruit, and the wheels coming down."
8. Juice Newton, "Queen of Hearts" (1981)
Country-pop artist Juice Newton enjoyed the biggest hit of her career in the early 1980s with the Hank DeVito-penned "Queen of Hearts."
The song was first recorded by Dave Edmunds who had a hit in the U.K. with it in 1979. Then after performing it live many times Newton recorded it for her 1981 album, Juice, and it soared all of the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the single selling over a million copies.
The song shows up in several feature films such as Salvador (1986) and Boogie Nights (1997), and has been covered multiple times since as well.
A couple of years earlier, the Australian group The Little River Band had enjoyed one of its biggest hits with the song "Lonesome Loser" from First Under the Wire. That song asks the musical question "Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the queen of hearts every time?" Indeed, "Queen of Hearts" did beat "Lonesome Loser," as the latter peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100.
9. Garth Brooks, "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House" (1991)
From the time of his 1989 self-titled debut LP through the early 2000s. Garth Brooks wasn't just the biggest country star, but one of the biggest musical acts ever, with numerous "diamond platinum"-selling albums (i.e., more than 10 million), several sold-out tours, and his own major-network television specials.
Relatively early in his career Brooks enjoyed success with the poker-themed single "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House." The song was co-written by Dennis Robbins, Bobby Boyd, and Warren Haynes, with Robbins having originally recorded it in 1987.
The singer — referring to himself as a "wild card man" — tells of his relationship with his "lady luck," one free from the sort of hardship or conflict one finds in other country songs. As you might be able to imagine from the title, the well-matched pair are looking to start a family, as unsubtly suggested by the card-playing metaphor.
Brooks recorded the song for his second LP No Fences, and it would be the third of four from the record to top the country singles charts.
10. Lady GaGa, "Poker Face" (2008)
Finally, perhaps the biggest poker-related hit on this list is Lady GaGa's dance hit "Poker Face" from her 2008 debut LP The Fame. With sexually-charged lyrics and an earworm chorus, the song helped catapult Lady GaGa to international fame, topping the charts in over two dozen different countries including the Billboard Hot 100 where it remained on the chart for 40 weeks.
Writing for PokerListings in the spring of 2009, author Owen Laukkanen discussed the song's popularity as it related to the still-yet-to-fade poker "boom" of the 2000s. "Until Tiesto remixes 'The Gambler,'" wrote Laukkanen, "it appears the YouTube generation has found its de facto poker anthem."
Speaking of, here's the racy video via YouTube, only viewed over 360 million times since it was posted in 2009:
Which of these would you take off this list of most popular poker songs ever? Which songs not appearing here should be? Let us know below.
Photo: Gambling Times.
From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.