There is something about the rock n roll lifestyle that is the perfect match for poker. Perhaps it is the hard living, cards on the table approach. Maybe it is the risk taking nature of the game. Or maybe rockers are really all old romantics at the end of the day, drawn to the diamonds and hearts and the parallels between the game of poker and the game of life. Whatever the reason, card games have been a rock standard for artists for years, with poker a clear favourite of many bands.
The ultimate poker tracks
There can be few more obvious poker rock anthems that the legendary motorhead classic ‘Ace of Spades’. Thrashed out at a speed that gives you all the adrenaline of a tense high-stakes table, Lemmy spends the track longing for ‘the only card I need’ to get ‘the dead man’s hand again’. Nonetheless, he carried on regardless, ‘pushing up the ante’ in his search for that elusive ‘ace of spades’ that will turn his fortunes around. But at least he is resigned to his fate, shrugging that ‘you win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me’. An attitude to life we could all do well to adopt.
While not exactly a rock song, Kenny Roger’s classic track ‘The Gambler’ is a lesson in how to play the game, as well as a lesson in life. Covered by the Smashing Pumpkins in 2008, in one of their more melodic moments, the song explains that you have to ‘know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run’. Good advice for any budding poker player, especially in a rough backstage game, and reasonable advice for life in general if we’re being honest.
Poker in popular culture
Aside from these obvious, and less than subtle, classics, poker rears its head in a wide range of songs. As Martin Harris discusses in his book ‘Poker and Pop Culture’, card games have been a huge influence on rock music for decades. From Elvis Presley’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’ to the Eagles’ ‘Desperado’; from Ray Charles ‘Losing Hand’ to The Clash’s ‘Card Cheat’, poker has never been far from the mind of singers and songwriters.
The Grateful Dead’s ‘Deal’ comes filled with sage advice and life lessons drawn from the card deck of life, while Garth Brooks sees himself in a good hand with his better half as ‘Two of a Kind’. Even Steve Tyler, Aerosmith frontman and father of the gorgeous actress Liv, is proud to be in a winning pair with his lady, especially when ‘Deuces are Wild’. That said, Allman brother, Gregg, may have sung about his second wife as his ‘Queen of Hearts’, but he still ended up folding his hand on his way to a total of six Mrs Allmans.
It’s not always on the cards
Of course, not all songs that first appear to be about poker have anything at all to do with the game. For example, AC/DC’s hard rocking anthem, ‘The Jack’ has more to do with her line of work than the cards she is holding. Similarly, Steve Miller Band’s ‘The Joker’ is not about the fifty third card in the deck.
Of course, other songwriters take the opposite approach. Taking things way too far the other way, tantric Geordie, Sting, beats the card metaphor to death in his song ‘Shape of My Heart’. He gives each suit a dramatic meaning in his life, with clubs and spades described as weapons of war, and describes the deal as a meditation.
A timeless theme
From trippy hippy Bob Dylan to the mystical Stevie Nicks; from blues legend Robert Johnson to journeyman rocker Bob Seger, cards ‘n’ poker have always gone hand in hand with rock ‘n’ roll. And as long as bands continue to be stuck for hours on tour busses criss-crossing the country, and holed up in hotels for days in unfamiliar cities, it will continue to be both the rocker’s favourite pastime and their song writing inspiration. After all, what image better sums up the life of a rocker than a smoke-filled room with a single light above a green baize table, covered in cards and poker chips?