You can find articles that attempt to break down the play of the hands. Typically, such analyses will dismiss the first few verses as “vamping” or “pure poetry.” But as Guy Clarke so succinctly put it, as a lyricist Townes Van Zandt “is a smart son of a bitch… He knew what he was doing.” And it’s these verses that hold the secret to understanding what this song is really about.
Because, you see, it’s not a song about men playing cards. It’s a song about cards playing men. And that matters a great deal.
A Greek tragedy
The title of this article is a lie, by the way. What I’m about to show you isn’t any kind of “secret.” In fact, it’s staring you right in the face every time you hear the tune. But I’ve yet to find any analysis of the song that acknowledges it.
Let’s start with the first two verses:
Well, the wicked king of clubs awoke.
It was to his queen he turned.
His lips were laughing as they spoke.
His eyes like bullets burned.
“The sun’s upon a gambling day.”
His queen smiled low and blissfully.
“Let’s make some wretched fool to pay.”
Plain it was, she did agree.
They key to this song’s meaning is right here. It’s something like a Greek tragedy in which the gods play with mortals’ fates without their human playthings being aware of the gods’ plans. And in this case, those plans do not bode well for the object of their amusement.
He sent his deuce down into diamond,
His four to heart, and his trey to spade.
Three kings with their legions come.
Preparations soon were made.
They voted club the day’s commander.
They give him an army, face and number,
All but the outlaw jack of diamonds
And the aces in the sky.
In these third and fourth verses, the king of clubs sends his suit’s two, three, and four as emissaries to the other three suits. The respective kings respond by rallying their suits to the club king’s side and preparing for the foray, choosing the club king as high commander of the venture. But just like the deities of ancient myth, the card-gods don’t always get along with each other, and in this case there are five holdouts, the trickster jack of diamonds and the lofty aces, who decline to participate.
Well, he gave his sevens first instruction:
“Spirit me a game of stud,
Stakes unscarred by limitation,
Between a man named Gold and man named Mudd.”
Club filled Gold with greedy vapors
Till his long, green eyes did glow.
Mudd was left with the sighs and trembles,
Watching his hard-earned money go.
Flushes fell on Gold like water.
Tens they paired and paired again.
But the aces only flew through heaven
And the diamond jack called no man friend.
The card-gods inspire two men, Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd, to play a game of stud. And they make sure the greedy Mr. Gold has a winning streak, beating the “wretched fool” Mudd hand after hand. But their plans are soon to go awry.
The diamond queen saw Mudd’s ordeal,
Began to think of her long-lost son,
Fell to her knees with a mother’s mercy
Prayed to the angels every one.
There is dissent in the ranks. The queen of diamonds, whose son is the wayward jack, feels a mother’s compassion for the doomed Mr. Mudd and prays to the aces for his deliverance.
The diamond queen, she prayed and prayed,
And the diamond angel filled Mudd’s hole.
And the wicked king of clubs himself
Fell face down in front of Gold.
The aces hear the diamond queen’s prayers, and the ace of diamonds appears among Mudd’s two hole cards. In an attempt to thwart this affront, the king of clubs places himself among Gold’s down cards.
Now, three kings come to club’s command,
But the angels from the sky did ride —
Three kings up on the streets of Gold,
Three fireballs on the Muddy side.
The king of clubs commands each of the other three kings to appear in Gold’s up-cards, giving him four kings. But the remaining aces also respond to the diamond queen’s plea and are dealt face-up in front of Mudd, giving him four aces.
The club queen heard her husband’s call,
But, Lord, that queen of diamond’s joy
When the outlaw in the heavenly hall
Turned out to be her wandering boy.
On the final card, the queen of clubs is dealt to Gold and the jack of diamonds is dealt to Mudd.
Now, Mudd, he checked and Gold bet all.
Mudd, he raised and Gold did call.
And the smile just melted off his face
When Mudd turned over that diamond ace.
Being first to bet with his trip aces on the board, Mudd checks. And it’s here that we discover that Mudd sat down with a lot more cash than his opponent did, because despite Gold’s winning streak, Mudd still has more money than Gold does. The card-gods had intended to give it all to Gold.
At this point, Gold believes he probably has Mudd beat with his four of a kind, even if Mudd has a flush (assuming Mudd’s fourth up-card is not a diamond) or more likely a full house. He can only lose if the ace of diamonds is among Mudd’s hole cards.
Gold could keep himself alive, even if Mudd does have the fourth ace, by calling the check. But he decides to play the odds and bets, representing a flush — assuming his fourth up-card is not a club — or a full house or four kings. (We have to presume that “bet all” does not mean “all in” here, or else Mudd could not raise behind him. Either that, or the men defied the gods and played a limit game. This is the one point where Van Zandt’s lyrics get sloppy.)
Mudd raises the bet, however, also representing the flush, full house, or four aces against Gold’s visible three kings. Gold believes his opponent has a boat, or possibly a flush, and calls the raise, losing the hand and presumably the game when Mudd turns up the fourth ace.
Van Zandt then delivers what is supposedly the moral of the tale:
Here’s what this story’s told:
If you feel like mud, you’ll end up gold;
If you feel like lost, you’ll end up found.
So, amigo, lay them raises down.
The addict’s eye
What is crystal clear right up until the final stanza is that Mudd and Gold are both utterly in the hands of the fates. The cards control the men rather than the other way around, giving them the urge to gamble in the first place and deciding who will win and who will lose.
And when you think about it, the “wicked king” was going to get his way no matter what. Despite the diamond queen’s intervention, in the end he made “some wretched fool” pay after all, even if it wasn’t the one whom the sevens had set their sights on. If anything, Mr. Gold’s loss was all the more crushing in light of his preceding wins, the “fall from on high” at the heart of every classic Greek tragedy.
And yet, after describing all this, the narrator comes to precisely the opposite conclusion than the one which, by all reason, he should reach. It’s the gambler’s fallacy, the notion that a losing streak mean’s you’re “due” and you should keep taking risks no matter how much you’ve lost.
I remember playing poker in Vegas many years ago, when an off-duty croupier sat down at the table and started chasing hands, openly calling on the poker gods to grant her “that bad beat.” It made me want to leave the table, and after a while I did. It’s no fun watching somebody do that to themselves, even if it’s to your benefit.
Townes Van Zandt’s friends and family must have felt much the same way, only more so, as they watched him continue to tempt fate and push his luck beyond the breaking point with his various addictions, which dealt him his final hand on New Year’s Day, 1997, at the age of 52.
As much as I love this song, I can’t ever listen to it without hearing the trumpet of its author’s own doom, written as it is with an addict’s eye, on the one hand asserting our helplessness against the powers of fickle gods who hold all the cards, and on the other insisting we can prevail if we simply keep raising the stakes long enough.
At the same time, it’s a prime example of Van Zandt’s undeniable brilliance as a lyricist. It should be plain as day that the cards are the main characters here. But almost everybody misses it, because that’s not what we’re expecting, especially in a flatpicking tune from a Texas songwriter. Townes was simply on another level, and if the phrase “deceptively simple” applies to anyone, it certainly applies to him.
A resurgence in interest in Van Zandt’s music was just beginning when Townes died. Artists who had cut their teeth on his songs were recording covers and wheedling him to record and perform with them, despite his failing health. I’m glad he got at least a taste of that before we lost him.
Good night, sweet prince, and flights of aces sing thee to thy rest.