Know When To Hold ‘Em…

How Songwriting And Poker Are Not As Different As You Might Think


I remember one of my first poker games very clearly.  The two cards in my hand were a pair – a low pair, but a pair nonetheless – and I was ecstatic.  The cards that hit the table didn’t improve my hand – in fact, most were higher than my pair – but it made no difference. I was committed. It was my first good hand, and come hell or high water, I was not laying it down, no matter what.

This is a classic mistake of both new poker players and new songwriters. Let’s stick with the analogy for the moment and say you’ve got a good song, maybe the best song you’ve ever written.  As the cards hit the table, they’ll help determine whether you’ve got trash or treasure – and it’s completely out of your control. Think of it like the industry – most of us don’t have any influence on who is cutting right now, what the current trends are, etc. Maybe you get lucky and the pair you have in your hand turns into a full house. Maybe  the cards do nothing for you, and you’ve still got your pair but you know it’ll probably get beat. The wise player looks at the cards on the table, reads the other players, and assesses the situation. The novice looks only at the cards in their hand – entranced, perhaps by the fact that they are of the same suit. They don’t realize that the suit that they have isn’t reflected on the board – it doesn’t matter. You’re going to pry that 4 of spades from their cold, stiff, fingers.

In poker, as in songwriting, you’re not just playing against the board (or industry). You’re playing against the people sitting across from you. What do they have in their hands? Does their song (or cards) match the market better? Wise poker players know when to play their hand to the hilt, and when they are probably beat. When I started studying poker – really studying it – I noted that smart players were even willing to lay down a pair of Aces if the situation warranted. A pair of Aces, as even non-poker players know, is the absolute best pair you can have. So why would they lay it down? They read the board. They looked at the other players, and deduced that they were beat. They folded. A lot of us in town have been in a situation where another writer has written our hook better. I have a song right now that is killer – a pair of aces, you might say – but there’s a hit song on the radio that’s just a little too close to it. It hurts, but I need to backburner it for a bit.  I also know hit writers with amazing songs – brilliant, moving, beautiful songs – that they can’t get cut. Why? Because the industry has changed – maybe there isn’t really an artist out there anymore that could cut it, or story songs aren’t in vogue, or it’s too slow for radio, or whatever. They keep it in their back pocket and play it in writer’s rounds, and hope for a time when it can be pitched. They read the cards on the table, and wait.

Also like poker, pro songwriting is a game of odds. That’s why it’s so important to really take everything in. Perhaps if you take a step back and get objective, you’ll see that you have zero chance of making that flush you think you’ve got. It might not be the time to go all in (say, spend $1,000 on a demo) and save those chips for when you’ve got a killer hand to play. But – and this is what draws in the novice – you can get lucky. You’ve got a marginal hand, and the cards on the table aren’t in your favor, but you muster up all your vim and vigor and bluff your way through. It happens! But your odds are significantly less than if you’re playing with solid strategy and great cards. Call me a realist, but I prefer having the odds in my favor.

Here is one area where poker and songwriting are not similar – and this is a very, very good thing for all of us. In poker, when you fold your cards, it’s over. But as a songwriter, we keep those cards, and as the board changes, sometimes we get to play them. That killer ballad you couldn’t get cut years ago? Well, maybe now the industry has changed, and ballads are in demand. Maybe that authentic country song that’s gathering dust in your drawer ought to have an updated demo and be pitched. Maybe there’s a publisher looking for a great story song. So play those cards. But be objective, and pay attention to the board when you do.


What are some of your experiences? Can you relate to this analogy?


  1. Excellent article and great comparative between two different strategizing games. I am a writer (books) who has only began learning more about lyric development and this article was a great way for me to gain insight using tactics that are somewhat familiar to me. Thanks for the great blog!

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