Game nights are a popular event at the Johnson household. As his kids were growing up, Rob Johnson, his wife Lynne, and their six children regularly broke out the cards and game boards for some heated competition at their home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That even continued as the kids grew older with their spouses now joining in on the fun.
Rob played poker for years and taught them the game as part of the card-playing festivities. They’d learn the basics and watched the World Series of Poker Main Event on television with their dad. He told them about the importance of the tournament and the big money on the line – noting that competing one day was on his bucket list. Years later, his son Robby Johnson remembered that conversation. With Rob’s 60th birthday approaching, Robby reached out to siblings with an idea in 2017.
“I said if we all start saving up money and we put it aside, by the time dad turns 60 we can save up the $10,000,” he says. “We can help him cross off that bucket list item and we can fly him out to Vegas and let him play in the World Series of Poker.”
The Johnson kids even held several Zoom calls to fine-tune their financial planning. Rob’s birthday is Oct. 26, but the Johnsons decided on delivering the gift on July 4 to give their father a year to prepare. Rob is now seated in the Horseshoe for Day 1 of the Main Event after quite an unexpected surprise.
“I was in disbelief,” he says. “It was crazy.”
Beyond simply giving their father a Main Event seat and a trip to Las Vegas, the children presented the gift in dramatic fashion and that involved a bit of poker as well. The Johnson children live in different locations and all flew into Grand Rapids to surprise their parents last Independence Day.
“One by one we started coming into their condo, and they're like, ‘What is going on?,” Robby says. “And we're like, ‘We thought we'd have some fun.”
The crew added to the surprise by showing up at staggered times so their parents had one new visitor throughout the day. When everyone finally made their way home, things inevitably led to some poker. Everyone received 10 chips for a quick blitz just for fun, but Rob only received nine. When he protested the short-changing, they produced a $10,000 WSOP chip custom painted by his daughter Ellie.
“First of all, the day had just gone so completely off the rails in the sense that they all said they weren't coming in for the Fourth of July,” Rob says. “And they choreographed where like every 10 minutes somebody would walk through the door. Then I was upset when they shorted me the one chip. And so Sally just leaned in and said ‘It’s right here dad’ and so I read it.
“As I was reading I was just flabbergasted. It was just remarkable, first of all that they thought about it and then second of all that they actually planned it. These kids are great.”
The big day only got better. The kids surprised Lynne with her own 60th birthday gift as well, a trip to Scotland in 2024.
After the first break, Rob felt good about his play so far. He grew up playing poker with his brothers and has loved the game ever since. Most of his time at the tables, however, has come against friends and family so being on such a large stage is a different experience. As the WSOP approached, Rob’s kids had yet another surprise in store.
“He was getting nervous at home, I could tell,” Lynne says. “The date for the Main Event was getting closer and we were going to just come out together. And they called us up and said, ‘What's going on? Dad hasn’t been talking about the World Series Main Event.’ Then they surprised us by saying ‘You think we're not going out there beforehand?’”
Now the entire Johnson family and spouses are in Las Vegas to lend their support. Inside the Horseshoe, the family members are all sporting yellow T-shirts with a photo of their dad reading: “I Paid! Dad Plays! Happy 60th Papa Rob!”
Back in Grand Rapids, Rob works as a trial attorney and Lynne works as a chief marketing officer of a credit union. He’s now taking on the role of poker player and has used the last year to prepare. That has included watching poker training videos to work on his skills. What’s his strategy for Day 1?
“Play my normal, which is fairly aggressive,” he says. “Figure out the opportune times to be over aggressive and pick the times to just kind of sit back and let it come to you.”
There’s been some joking among the kids about whether they have a percentage of his action. Negotiations on that front seem to have ceased at the moment however.
“They actually don't know this, but I prepaid for all their college education and this is their way of paying me back,” Rob jokes.
There are numerous first-timers in the field during the Main Event and Rob is enjoying the experience. He has reasonable expectations and knows the massive task ahead.
“I tell you what, just playing is pretty cool,” he says “If I make day two, that would just be like a cherry on top. Beyond that would just be so surreal. I wouldn’t even know what to think.”
The head of the Johnson clan does know what to think about his children and the amazing experience they’ve given him.
“The unbelievable love that we all have for one another is evident not just in this,” he says. “This is just sort of a microcosm of what they do for each other and they do for us. So we've been very blessed to have six amazing kids and then more importantly, to have significant others that have joined our family that are just all top notch. I just certainly couldn't couldn't ask for better.”
Robby then adds some thoughts fitting for the entire group of Johnson kids: “All of us are just reflections of these two. We’re the lucky ones. And so we're excited for you dad. We’re very blessed.”