Most of the country songs about the archetype of the noble, old-timer card player leave out things like quadruple bypass surgery, type-1 diabetes, double amputations necessitated by gangrene, and life-threatening, pneumonia-induced comas.
Then again, most sob stories about life-threatening comas don’t include things like illegal games of five-card draw played with local policeman or multi-month drinking binges.
But ESPN’s Bernard Lee has made it clear that Warren “Grumpa” Griffith is no two-dimensional archetype, and that the 69-year-old life-long poker player’s tale is no sob story.
Poker, life, love and hardship have been intertwined for Griffith almost since his birth in Somerville, MA on June 6, 1948. His father taught him cribbage, gin, and forty-five (a variation of bridge). But, Griffith says, “it was poker that made us [meaning not just him and his father but his entire family, which included four siblings] very close.”
Griffith’s father, a Vegas blackjack dealer, was not one for low stakes games.
“My father,” Griffith recalls, “told us that if we were going to learn the game of poker, we would have to play for money. 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.”
Grumpa’s father knew something about what was at stake in life, and what one had to lose. A heavy drinker, he suffered from a host of medical issues throughout Grumpa’s childhood, including a “massive heart attack” which left his body confined to a wheelchair.
Which, in turn, left him plenty of time to stay at home and teach his son the game of poker. It was a game Grumpa never forgot, though it took him some time to learn what was at stake.
At 17, Grumpa was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, but he was too busy with booze and barbershop poker games to care all that much. “I didn’t listen to my doctors,” he says, “… 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.”
Which, in turn, led to a myriad of health problems later in life. More immediately, though the “combination” Griffith mentions led him to binge drink for months at a time, leaving his family for his second homes: the barroom and the poker table. The former left him at a crossroads which might in another story be called an abyss.
“After drinking so heavily for so many years,” he says, “I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wasn’t close to my kids and I was a terrible husband.”
At his crossroads, in 1982, Grumpa stopped drinking. A year later, his daughter Lisa gave him his one year sobriety medallion.
But Griffith had been playing a high-stakes game for quite a while, and sooner or later, the house goes on a winning streak. In June 1986, the then 38-year old had his first heart attack, which was followed by a second heart attack that necessitated quadruple bypass surgery; a stroke that left the right side of his body paralyzed for over a year; and a case gangrene that forced amputation of his legs.
All that was followed, in turn, by a pneumonia-induced coma, which left Griffith on life support. The doctors told his wife to prepare for the worst.
So, when Griffith regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by his wife, his children, and his grandchildren, all of whom had come to pay their respects to a man who is still very much alive. He had only one question to ask: “When can I get back to the poker table?”
ESPN’s Lee says only two things matter at this point in Griffith’s life: family and poker.
“Although I am suffering though numerous health issues,” says Griffith, “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.”
These days, Grumpa knows the stakes, and he is grateful to be playing the game.
And as for the question he asked upon recovering from his coma, Griffith answered it himself: “If I’m alive,” he said, “I’m going to the World Series of Poker this summer.”
The World Series of Poker Main Event is underway, and Grumpa is in attendance.