You got to know when to hold ’em

Did you ever think of Kenny Rogers as a business guru? No? It didn’t occur to me either. (The Kenny Rogers Roasters chain notwithstanding, he would probably be horrified to be thought of in such a way.) But he’s pretty good at business advice. Listen up, folks.

The trick here is to see opportunities in everything that people say (or sing). It gives you an insight into how people think. And if you understand how your potential customer thinks, it takes you a further step forward on your path.

On a warm summer’s evenin’
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with a gambler
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin’
Out the window at the darkness
The boredom overtook us, and he began to speak

That’s nice as an intro. It’s the prelaunch phase before we get going on the sales pitch. Get everyone relaxed and wait until they’re asleep (or dying) to hit them with your pitch. They’re more likely to trust you if they’re relaxed. (That’s the first button pushed.) I lurve Kenny Rogers (and I hope he doesn’t sue me for taking his name in vain—I just want to show the words of wisdom in his song).

However, it seems odd that they had to take turns at staring out of the window. Why? Was the window very small or something?

(Sorry if I appear a little bit pedantic at times but my training taught me to question everything.)

He said, “Son, I’ve made a life
Out of readin’ people’s faces
Knowin’ what their cards were
By the way they held their eyes
So if you don’t mind my sayin’
I can see you’re out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice.”

This is an interesting bit. See how the Gambler establishes his authority and seniority with his very first word—“son”. He moves seamlessly on to establish his credentials as an expert in his field. Staking this claim early is crucial, as it forms the basis for his casual observation that the mark has a problem (for which he happens to have the solution). Masterful use of sales psychology, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Note also that he doesn’t identify what that problem is. This is no doubt deliberate. A detailed diagnosis would be impressive, but it would also be disastrous if he got it wrong. And in any case, who of us likes to have their failures picked over by a complete stranger? So he wisely opts to move straight to the offer: he’ll share his valuable advice for the token consideration that’s due from acolyte to master.

Nevertheless, all may not be quite right here. Notice that he’s interested in whiskey. As any discerning Scot would tell you, whisky is better, even if you have an Irish surname. (God bless Ireland and thanks for making me a citizen. Thanks also for the passport, at least I’ll have somewhere to run if the “new Scots” decide the future of my country.) Indeed, unless this “train bound for nowhere” is running from Ballymote to Collooney it’s far more likely that the line’s somewhere in the States and that the whiskey in question is bourbon. Yuk!

So I handed him my bottle
And he drank down my last swallow

Opinions are divided on whether this is sound business strategy. You could argue that the Gambler is being short-sighted here by fleecing the mark of everything all at once. But I think he’s actually taken the attitude that there’s only limited gain to be made and that he might as well strip that particular asset all at once rather than adopting a longer-term investment strategy. Besides, as we’ll see, there’s more than just whiskey at stake.

Then he bummed a cigarette
And asked me for a light

This part has got me a bit more worried now. Why would anyone want to take advice from a loser? Take the whiskEy into account, and it’s obvious that’s what the Gambler is, isn’t it? I’d not really think of him as a mentor but rather a sad old man who tried and failed.

Ah! Lightbulb moment. This is in fact the “Have you got any other credit cards?” tactic. Having cleaned out the liquid assets, he’s digging deeper to see how much money the mark really has to burn.

And the night got deathly quiet
And his face lost all expression
He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right.

The tension builds up to the big reveal. Note again the use of authority and seniority to reinforce the importance and potency of the Gambler’s advice. Note also the shrewd use of ambience and timing for the launch, with the silence of the night adding to the atmosphere of hushed reverence. OK, Gambler, hit us!

“You got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

This is surely sound business advice. Knowing when to act is crucial to success. Knowing when not to act is sometimes even more important, and a delicate skill that requires great strength of character in the face of all the external and internal pressure to make your move. And sometimes you just have to cut your losses and walk away.

(I’m not so sure about the running, though. Is our Gambler a man of unimpeachable business ethics, or something of a fly-by-night?)

“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’m not quite sure what the Gambler’s getting at here, but I assume it’s a suggestion that you shouldn’t make it too obvious that you’re raking in the money from the people you’re dealing with. No point in rubbing their noses in it, is there?

“Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep

More sound advice from Mr Rogers. There comes a point in every business’s affairs where the management have to decide to discard wasting assets rather than pumping more investment into them to try to revive their fortunes. Don’t throw good money after bad.

“’Cause 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.”

The first two lines appear almost Zen-like in their inscrutability. But they seem to be a reminder that every business has potential—it’s up to us and our decisions whether that potential is ever fulfilled.

Then comes the bleak but salutary warning that we shouldn’t set too much store by claims of potential. For most businesses, a peaceful and orderly winding-up of their affairs is about the best outcome available, compared to the alternatives of filing for bankruptcy or being wound up by court order.

And when he finished speakin’
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep

This is a somewhat unorthodox approach compared with most business gurus. Usually there would be some sort of trailer for the next instalment of the guru’s advice, or maybe even an upsale. But no—the Gambler eschews these shoddy attempts to screw even more out of the mark. Perhaps the idea is to enhance his mystique and thus his authority. The Master has spoken; meditate on the wisdom of his words.

And somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even

This oblique reference is perhaps a veiled suggestion that business gurus are maybe not as successful as their public image suggests. Ignore the promotional videos shot in luxurious homes or sports cars; they’re all rented. The reality is that the gurus are all travelling on public transport and just about keeping their heads above water.

Or else it’s just that the Gambler’s died. You decide.

But in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep

Kenny reminds us that it’s always nice to have an ace up your sleeve.

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 sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
(When to hold ’em)
Know when to fold ’em
(When to fold ’em)
Know when to walk away
And 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

You’ve 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 sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

The threefold repetition of the advice is a common rhetorical trick intended to ensure that the message is retained. Think of the estate agent’s mantra of “Location, location, location”—shamelessly but effectively borrowed by Tony Blair as “Education, education, education” before the 1997 general election that made him Prime Minister.

Now listen to Kenny Rogers for yourself and learn how you too can make the most of the business opportunities that come your way!


Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS