Just before the sun set on last year’s Farm Aid, Jack Johnson, the surfer-singer-songwriter, took the stage in a faded tee and some basic jeans to debut new song he composed just for the event. The song was about Willie Nelson, the legendary country singer and one of Farm Aid’s organizers. This is how it began:
Willie got me stoned and took all my money
I was 50 dollars up and then my mind went funny
It didn’t really help that I didn’t know the rules of the game
And it probably didn’t help that I couldn’t remember my name
After Willie got me stoned and took all of my cash
One high-low split and then he kicked my ass
The song is not a work of fiction; it’s based on one of the poker games hosted by Nelson, where he invites celebs and others over, smokes them out, and proceeds to (often) take their money. These games have become Hollywood folklore, and they’re attended by some of the biggest names in showbiz.
It should be noted that Nelson has a legendary relationship with pot. This is far from a secret. He apparently took his first hit in the mid-40s, when he was 11 or 12. He’ll be 83 later this month. And while there were a few weed-free years in there, there were far more filled with multiple joints on call. We mean, this is the guy who smoked weed on the roof of the White House. This is the guy who Snoop Dogg says is the only man to ever smoke him under the table. This is the stoner.
It should also be noted that Nelson has a long-standing relationship with Texas hold ’em. Long before the game surged in popularity in the early 2000s, the outlaw country star was playing the game with other musician friends. When Waylon Jennings was inspired to write the 1971 hit “Good Hearted Woman,” he worked on the lyrics with Nelson over a game of poker. Nelson even met the late Merle Haggard, a man who would become one of his closest friends, during a poker game in 1963. Nelson knows his way around a card table.
Today, the games take place at Nelson’s home in Paia, an area on the northern coast of Maui. Rumor is they take place every Monday night at his oceanfront pad, and when the weather is nice, which is often the case in Hawaii, they take the table outside. Games are cash-only and all debts must be paid at the table. Woody Harrelson was once down $40,000 to Willie, and the country star required that money before Harrelson left for the night, even though the actor lives right around the corner. Friend or foe, debts must be paid, and reports are some games have become heated over the years because of these stipulations.
Aside from the aforementioned Woody Harrelson, other frequent guests include: Owen and Luke Wilson, Matthew McConaughey, legendary basketball coach Don Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, country singer Jamey Johnson, and a few others. Some celebrities show up less frequently, perhaps realizing the game is a bit rich for their blood. Some are invited but opt to skip, as is the case with Michelle Monaghan, who turned down the invite while she was pregnant and fearful of giving her unborn child a contact high, along with country star Toby Keith, who learned his lesson smoking with Willie once in Texas, which inspired Keith’s song “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again.”
How does Nelson manage to do so well in the games? Well, it’s probably two-fold. For starters, he plays very aggressive, according to Merle Haggard, who said he always knew Nelson was going to call him on a bluff and play it all the way through. It’s Willie’s style, and it changes the mindsets of the other players. Another thing that changes the mindset of the players? The massive amount of weed being smoked. An in-depth profile of Nelson in NY Mag recently described the singer’s marijuana intake as “stratospheric” and his tolerance “supernatural.” The piece even claimed Nelson could “smoke 30 or 40 hits in a session and then play a flawless two-hour show.” So, yeah, like Jack Johnson said, it won’t be easy to take Willie’s cash when you can’t remember your own name. Just stop by Monday night and find out for yourself.
Header image is “Nellie’s Poker Room” by John Woodruff. You can purchase your own here