Darren Johnson Brings the Smiles from Saskatoon to WPT Montreal

Darren Johnson, a 57-year-old retiree from Saskatoon, is now living his best life as a dedicated recreational poker player. I first met Darren at our inaugural Mixed Game Festival back in October 2021 but only recently did I get to know him better, while hanging out at the mixed game tables during the WPT Voyage a few weeks ago. When Darren walked into the big tent housing the main tournament area at Playground, I couldn’t help but notice him. After all, he was literally wearing a shirt with my name on it! At that moment, it was clear to me that I had to have a proper conversation with him and learn his story, and what brought him out to participate in the WPT Montreal festivities.

Darren Johnson

A Lifelong Passion for Poker

Darren’s journey to the poker tables is as interesting as his approach to the game. His first exposure to poker occurred when at a tender five years old he learned Razz from his grandfather. Ever since, he’s been a die-hard lover of mixed game poker. Now living in the largest city in Saskatchewan, his poker odyssey has brought him to Playground ever since it opened in 2010, despite living a good 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) and a three-hour flight away.

“Usually, I come once a year for the big events hosted by PokerStars or partypoker,” he said, “but the WPT brand is just awesome – when that brand comes here, I could not miss it!” His enthusiasm for the WPT is palpable: “The WPT is a top-rate tour as far as I’m concerned, and Playground is the nicest run straight-up poker venue in all of Canada.”

Darren sold his car wash business and retired two years ago. These days, he dedicates about 25% of his time to studying poker, a sharp increase from his pre-retirement days when work and family left little room for such pursuits. Married with four children, Darren is also looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.

Darren Johnson and Robbie

Darren and I hanging out at the Bimini Beach Club in the Bahamas, during the WPT Voyage

The Permanent Smile on Darren’s MUG

A couple days back, the World Poker Tour and WPT Global hosted a well-attended meet-up game here, with over half a dozen company ambassadors in tow. Darren’s experience playing in it was quite memorable. “We had a blast!” he exclaimed. “I got to play with a bunch of pros, including Brad Owen, Vince Van Patten, and Jon ‘Apestyles’ Van Fleet. What makes a MUG fun for me is that everyone who comes to play is happy! Everyone is having fun, and I was there wearing my colorful shirt from Grand Cayman with the intention of having a good time, splashing around, and having a few drinks.”

An Unbridled Love for the WPT and Playground

There’s plenty else that Darren appreciates about the World Poker Tour, too, beyond the MUGs. “I love the structure of WPT tournaments. I love the 12.5% payout instead of the typical 15% that other mainstream festivals seem to have switched to.”

As for why he’s so gung-ho about taking a 3-hour flight across the country to play poker, even though he’s just a 45-minute drive away from his local room in Saskatoon, it’s pretty obvious. “You get treated SO well here at Playground,” Darren noted. “The rake is a little high (10% up to $14), but you get such great value. If you’re playing $1/3 NLHE, half the dining menu is free; at $2/5 and above, the entire menu is free! All the drinks are free; it’s great. That’s not something you get anywhere else in Canada – not even close, even though the rake elsewhere is similar.”

Specifically, Darren appreciates the fact that Playground is primarily a poker venue. “In Western Canada, poker is secondary; many venues only have it because local governments mandate it along with other games like slots. And sure, I’ve been coming here for 14 years ever since this place opened. I’ve seen it expand from when it was just a small metal structure. I love it even more now! It used to be just one giant poker room, and even though the expansion has seen the advent of electronic gaming, that hasn’t diminished Playground’s poker-first focus.”

He also appreciates the service-oriented environment at Playground. “As soon as the Uber drops me off at the front door, the doorman recognizes me and asks, ‘How’s it going today? I think I saw you earlier this week.’ They make the effort to remember you here, and that’s the biggest plus as far as I’m concerned.”

Texas Hold’em’s Popularity Means There’s More to Poker Than Mixed Games

As a recreational player, Darren’s decision to make a 10-day trip out to WPT Montreal is driven by his love for the game and his desire to improve. While mixed games will always be his first love, Darren understands that they can rarely be found north of the U.S. border. As such, since retiring he’s plowed himself full throttle into No Limit Texas Hold’em. Thus far, he has attended a couple of LearnWPT seminars and has been making a concerted effort to get better at Game Theory Optimal (GTO) play. “I don’t know if it’s working, but I’m trying. I play poker because I enjoy it,” he shared.

Besides the aforementioned MUG, Darren has participated in several cash games, took a shot in the WPT Prime event, tried his luck in a few Championship event satellites, and hopped into a $300 NLHE tournament. “Every time I bust in a tournament, I take notes on a few hands. When I get home, I run them through a solver and ask myself, ‘What can I do better?’”

Having played at Playground many times over the years, Darren notes that the competition is significantly tougher when the WPT is in town. “More regs and pros who follow the tournament circuit are around, but that hasn’t discouraged me. After all, you don’t learn by playing against worse players!”

While Darren’s results in Multi-Table Tournaments (MTTs) haven’t improved as much as he’d like, he finds that the skills he’s learned have been beneficial in cash games, where his win rate has increased significantly.

Darren Johnson’s story is a testament to the joy of playing poker for the love of the game and the continuous journey of improvement. His enthusiasm and dedication to poker are lovely to behold, making him a cherished member of the poker community.



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Written By.

Robbie Strazynski

Robbie founded in 2009. A veteran member of the poker media corps, in addition to writing and video presenting, Robbie has hosted multiple poker podcasts over the years, including Top Pair, the Red Chip Poker Podcast, The Orbit, and the CardsChat Podcast. In 2019, Robbie translated the autobiography of Poker Hall of Famer Eli […]

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