"If I'm alive, I'm going to the World Series of Poker this summer!"
While the words may seem melodramatic on the surface, for Warren "Grumpa" Griffith, a 69-year old poker player, it was simply a promise he made to himself.
It almost didn't happen. Griffith (best known as "Grumpa"), is from Bourne, Massachusetts, and nearly died before he got another chance to play. After developing a severe case of pneumonia that landed him in the intensive care unit last year, Griffith fell into a coma. After the first two days, his physicians put him on life support and prepared his wife for the reality that he probably would not survive.
They told her to call his children to let them know and they, along with Griffith's grandchildren, flew from all over the country to pay their respects and to say goodbye. Even though his grandchildren chose his endearing nickname "Grumpa", because of his notoriously grumpy moods (which all of his friends immediately co-opted), they all loved this man.
But Griffith simply wasn't ready to go.
After a week and half in a coma, Griffith miraculously recovered and slowly regained his strength. As the doctors explained to him how lucky he was, and gave him a five-month rehab regimen to get back to health, his first question to them was, "When can I get back to the poker table?"
An early love for poker
Defying the odds has become old hat for Griffith. The 69-year-old is a survivor, plain and simple; he has had 11 heart attacks, nine strokes, and two leg amputations above the knee over the past three decades. Through it all, poker has helped keep him driving forward.
"I shouldn't be alive right now," exclaimed Griffith.
Long before any of the medical challenges, playing cards was an integral part of his life.
Born on June 6, 1948, in Somerville, Massachusetts, Griffith, his parents and his four siblings bonded over card games. When he was in elementary school, his father taught him the strategies of cribbage, gin and forty-five (a variation of bridge). His father, who previously worked as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, was a heavy drinker and smoker, and suffered his own health problems.
When Griffith was a toddler, his father suffered a massive heart attack, which confined him physically to a chair. A few years later, blood clots and a deteriorating heart forced Griffith's father to retire from his job as a truck driver. The silver lining was that homebound, the man was able to bond with his children by sitting around the table and playing cards.
"As a family, we all played cards from a very early age. At four, I can remember my father teaching me cribbage and gin. My mother loved playing cribbage as well. But it was poker that made us very close," remembered Griffith.
Among the innumerable card playing lessons that carried over to his life, Warren Griffith was taught at a very young age that poker was a game with financial consequences.
"My father told us that if we were going to learn the game of poker, we would have to play for money," said Griffith. "He never wanted you to just play without the risk of losing money. We would play penny ante and we would all save up our pennies to play."
In high school, Griffith continued to develop his poker game by playing at the local barbershop. Right after school, Griffith would head down to the shop with some friends to play against some of the local townsmen. Although technically an illegal game, the chief of police was a regular player.
"It was a game where I held my own, but I learned a lot about poker and life," recalled Griffith.
Health issues begin at a young age
Even during the vibrant days of his youth, Griffith's health issues began to manifest.
At 17 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, but as a teenager, Griffith was not a good patient. By disregarding the advice of doctors, Griffith suffered many of the physical ailments that came later in life. It was all exacerbated by the fact that Griffith had picked up more than card game strategy from his dad at the table -- he also inherited some of his father's vices.
"When I younger, I was stubborn and also a very heavy drinker," admitted Griffith. "Even after I was diagnosed with diabetes, I didn't listen to my doctors ... I was probably the worst diabetic patient ever when I was a young man. The combination of feeling invincible and the irresponsibility of being a drunk led to my carelessness in not taking care of my body."
During this time in his life, Griffith became smitten with a young woman from Pembroke, Massachusetts. They married in 1967, and had two daughters over the next four years -- Lisa in 1968 and Tara in 1971.
From the beginning, Griffith admits, he was a horrible father and husband; he'd binge drink for several months at a time. In 1969, he'd leave his family behind for the first time, consumed by alcohol. Vodka and Ronrico Rum 151 were his loves. Even as Griffith would go through cycles of sobriety, when he'd return home, he'd ultimately succumb, time and again, to the temptation of the bottle; he'd leave his family again, and chase the only things he knew to bring him joy.
"On the weekend, I would sit for hours drinking and playing poker after we bowled," said Griffith. "We would play seven-card stud and five-card draw. I would be better at five-card draw, as it was easier to figure out hands since I didn't have to read other people's cards, which is not easy when you are drunk."
After over a decade of this pathological pattern, Griffith's body and mind finally had enough. He recalls the date vividly, as it was the moment he finally made a conscious decision to get better.
"After drinking so heavily for so many years, I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wasn't close to my kids and I was a terrible husband. So, on June 2, 1982, I was reborn, as I quit drinking forever."
Griffith diligently went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but couldn't reconcile with his wife. They divorced in 1985, but he was gradually able to rebuild his relationship with his children. His daughters reluctantly attended Alateen, a group that educates children with alcoholic parents.
"It meant the world to me that Lisa gave me my one-year medallion. She and I were not very close when she was growing up. Afterward, I dedicated myself to developing good relationships with my kids, and later found out how proud they were of me," said Griffith. "I finally realized that I didn't actually start living my life until I stopped drinking."
During this period of sobriety, Griffith met his current wife, Ann, at a job interview, and it was love at first sight. They married in November 1986, but even as his life became brighter, Griffith's sins of the past crept back.
Griffith suffered his first heart attack June 1986 just prior to his second wedding. In 1993, he had his first major stroke, which paralyzed the right side of his body for over a year. He's had frequent smaller strokes ever since, and his unmanaged diabetes and heavy smoking habit ultimately led to gangrene and the amputation of both legs above the knee. Another massive heart attack required a quadruple bypass and a pacemaker.
Through it all, Ann was by his side. The couple moved to Vermont, where Griffith became a park ranger, but the itch for poker never truly left him. In 2000, when he decided to move back to Massachusetts, Griffith sought competition and found it in local games. By 2003, the game he loved had exploded worldwide.
Griffith's 'poker wife'
"When I watched Chris Moneymaker on ESPN, I became obsessed with poker again. I wanted to learn this 'new' game called Texas Hold'em and ended up meeting my best friend, Ken Tilden, at his home game."
Tilden, the now-74 year-old former deputy director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, lives in Brockton, Massachusetts and is a fanatical poker player and fan in his own right.
"I met Grumpa at my weekly home game in 2004. One night, we needed another player and someone suggested Grumpa," said Tilden. "After he played that night, a few weeks later, I bumped into him at another home game and thereafter, we became fast friends."
The two retirees hit it off right away as their yin and yang personalities meshed well. The two buddies often playfully bicker like a married couple, but they couldn't be much closer. During Grumpa's 2016 pneumonia recovery, Tilden visited Griffith in the rehabilitation facility at least couple times a weeks to play cards and discuss poker.
"Grumpa is an amazing person. With all of his ailments, he never lets his disability get in the way of his personality, [he's] always happy and upbeat about life," described Tilden.
He jokingly calls Griffith his poker "wife", and the pair often travels to tournaments all over New England. For the past decade, they've played up to five days a week -- in home games, at Foxwoods, and local card rooms in New Hampshire. They've even taken to playing on the Eastern Poker Tour, one of the largest pub poker leagues in the country, and each makes an impression wherever they go.
The dream of the WSOP
At this moment in Griffith's life, family and poker are the only things that matter.
"Although I am suffering though numerous health issues, I live every day right now for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Every day is very hard to get through, but poker makes my life so much better," said Griffith. "My mind is moving constantly, the people I look forward to seeing and the competition drives me to get better and work harder."
Even though he played poker all over New England for more than a decade, Grumpa still had one unfulfilled poker dream -- to play at the World Series of Poker. In 2015, that lifelong dream finally became a reality. Participating in a poker tour group called Blaycation, Griffith, along with his best friend Tilden, finally made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas. For Tilden, it was the first time he he had flown on a plane since his Army days back in 1960.
"Ken and I talked about this trip every day for a month before we left," Griffith recalled. "When I finally got there, the WSOP was bigger and better than I had ever dreamed. To see and meet all of these great players and to play with so many great people made it a trip of a lifetime and truly a dream come true."
With his animated personality and joyous attitude, Grumpa became a favorite among the tour group and even caught the attention of the WSOP media machine.
After surviving last summer's pneumonia scare that had him on the brink again, Griffith swore he would return to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino for the summer of 2017. He even made a bold guarantee.
"All I know is that I'm destined to win the 2017 Colossus," declared Griffith. "I figure if I'm going to be out there for six days, I might as well play every day. After I win, I plan on staying out in Vegas all summer and playing in all of the tournaments including the main event."
Returning to the WSOP, many people were happy to see Griffith make it back to Las Vegas. The community as a whole rallied around him, and his impact on everyone he meets is infectious. Long-time PokerNews reporter and video personality Sarah Herring was particularly touched.
"Grumpa is always so grateful to everyone. You can feel his joy at having this experience of coming to the WSOP and that joy is really contagious," said Herring. "Running into Grumpa really reminds me not just about what makes poker great, but really what makes being alive great."
In the end, Griffith couldn't put together a run in the 2017 Colossus event. Despite his guarantee, it was never about the victory; just being able to make it out to another WSOP was an achievement for Grumpa. With no guarantees for the future, the moment wasn't lost on him either.
"With all my medical problems, I might not make it back again," admitted Griffith. "But I'm so glad that I made it out here at least one more time. I can't feel more alive than I do right now.
"Without poker, I'm not sure if I would even be alive today."