THE FAMILY, MAN: The World Poker Tour’s Adam Pliska
Earlier this summer Adam Pliska’s phone rang. On the other end of the call was an executive recruiter. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. They call every now and then. This wasn’t just some cold call gauging the 45-year-old’s interest in looking for another job though – they had a legitimate offer and were hoping to convince the World Poker Tour President and CEO to take his talents elsewhere. Pliska politely listened to the caller’s pitch and then even more politely told him he wasn’t interested.
THE ORIGIN OF IT ALL
Orange, California is about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles and has just about 140,000 people who call it home. Adam Pliska grew up in Orange, the son of a sheriff and a homemaker, and it’s where the foundations for the rest of Pliska’s life come from. He has two sisters, 10 and 11 years older than him, and by the time Pliska was eight years old, they were out of the house.
Family friends probably expected the youngest Pliska to grow up and take on a law enforcement career. Not only was his father a sheriff, but his grandfather was the Captain of the Newport Police Department and his great-grandmother was the first policewoman in Orange County. The first time somebody asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Pliska said he wanted to be a priest – for rich people.
“I was six, and I said, ‘because I believe rich people have problems that other people don’t know that they have’,” said Pliska.
Barely into high school, Pliska inherited a ‘56 Chevy after his uncle passed away. It was going to need gas and insurance. His parents made it clear they weren’t going to be the ones paying for that.
“So, I do what all kids do. I go out and get a job. I literally got turned down at Subway. I got turned down at a place called Spires (a family restaurant),” said Pliska. “I decided, ‘Okay, I better start my own business’. I started printing t-shirts for the sports teams.”
Adam Pliska the brand-building entrepreneur was born.
[figcaption=https://www.pocketfives.com/profiles/admin/albums/article-images/596123-adam-pliska-final-table.jpg]Pliska has been with the World Poker Tour since 2003.[/figcaption]
When the World Poker Tour launched, one of the company’s first full-time employees was a Berkley Law School graduate named Adam Pliska. He served as General Counsel, working closely with founder Stephen Lipscomb to help the company navigate its first few years of existence. The mentality of the company at that time, when poker was booming and money from online poker sites was keeping everybody flush, was very different from the one that exists today. That change was largely driven by the lessons Pliska learned along the way.
“When I started as (general counsel) of the World Poker Tour, I was 30 years old or something like that. You get caught up in ‘this is how you make money and you do this and money flows’. It’s over time that you start to care about people and the brand. I care about this brand,” said Pliska. “You have to think about the long term. So, I spend a lot of time looking at that model and persuading people that over the long term this is what you get; the result is the brand.”
Pliska has quite literally seen it all with the WPT, and he vividly remembers a time when the company wasn’t viewed so favorably by the players. Over the last eight years, and through a pair of ownership changes, he’s worked hard to make sure that the paying customers – the players themselves – feel like the WPT is listening to them and that they ultimately get something out of their experience, whether they’re playing every event on the schedule or just one.
“You’ve got to remember, there are 50,000 people coming to World Poker Tour events. How many of them are not cashing? A lot of people. More than 60% of the people that play in the tournament has never played in a (WPT) main tour tournament. That’s an amazing thing,” said Pliska. “But that’s the whole story of the World Poker Tour. If you just want to go to a big event, go to the World Series Main Event … but there are other things that are important, and that’s what the World Poker Tour stands for – your personal growth in poker. We just want to capture and put it in ways where people walk away and feel like it’s important to them.”
Pliska has overseen international expansion of the tour, including recent WPT events in India, China and Japan, the acquisition and rebranding of the DeepStacks Poker Tour as well as a new TV deal with Fox Sports. Not everything the WPT touched has turned to gold though. In 2010 the WPT introduced the Royal Flush Girls as part of broadcasts and in 2013 they announced the creation of Alpha8, a series of tournaments with buy-ins of $100,000 or larger and in. Alpha8 struggled to find any traction while the Royal Flush Girls concept has been subject to criticism from players and media alike. In both cases, Pliska says he learned more about what the WPT is, and where it needs to be in the modern poker landscape.
“There were successes and there were elements of mistakes. The mistakes were that we didn’t put enough time thinking about our wrangling abilities. We had 50 at one event and we had six in another,” Pliska said of Alpha8. “We’re not great high roller wranglers. Our specialty is to create places where people came at any time in their journey and make sure they feel comfortable and have a good experience.”
While Alpha8 quietly went away after filming just one episode in what would have been its third season, the Royal Flush Girls concept is still part of the WPT, but it has undergone a transition since the press release announcing the creation of the RFG described them as “sexy, fun and approachable”. The group is now known as the Royal Flush Crew and includes a male member, Brenden Johnson. And rather than serving as eye candy, the crew is being integrated into broadcasts and live events in a much different way.
“The thought process at the time was we should be more like sports and sports have cheerleaders and those kinds of things, but yes, I have really positioned that differently over time,” said Pliska. The current plan calls for the Crew to bring value to the broadcasts and live events that all players can take advantage of.
“What do (the Royal Flush Crew) you do besides be a face that people go, ‘Oh, I can go up to you and take pictures?’. We all have to ask ourselves, what are we giving? The players are giving us their time – what are we giving back?” said Pliska, who expects the Crew members to have an area of expertise that they can share with players. “So now we’re looking for people who can bring something. Maybe you can do yoga. Maybe you can do some workout. It doesn’t have to be physical.”
Pliska points to planned TV segments on getting in shape, healthy eating and even mental health, all hosted by members of the Royal Flush Crew who carry a passion for the subject matter as well as opportunities for players to attend events during WPT tournaments geared around the same concepts. He likens the redevelopment of the Royal Flush Crew concept to other elements of the WPT.
“Raw Deal wasn’t exactly what it was before. The anchor position started off in one way and evolved a little bit over time,” said Pliska. “I actually see this really taking a future and really representing the family element in a way I’m really happy about.”
[figcaption=https://www.pocketfives.com/profiles/admin/albums/article-images/596122-adam-pliska-wpt-standing.jpg]Pliska has overseen two ownership changes and an evolution of the TV product since taking over as President and CEO in 2009.[/figcaption]
While in high school, Pliska had a small part in Teahouse of the August Moon. That piqued his interest in production, so he signed up for a stage production course at a local community college. As that course was wrapping up, he agreed to be an usher in their stage production tribute to Lassie. A number of Hollywood heavyweights came to the show. Dee Wallace Stone, who was starring in E.T. at the time, got a little lost so Pliska helped her out.
“I walked her into the green room and I saw this guy, Al Burton,” said Pliska, who was impressed by the way everybody in the room reacted to Burton, a TV show producer. “He was such a likable person and all of these people liked him and they got along well. He treated them with respect. They enjoyed being there. It wasn’t about egos. I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could be a part of this’.”
A security guard told Pliska he had to leave. Thinking quickly on his feet, Pliska told Burton, who was the producer of TV shows Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, that he was with the school newspaper and asked for an interview. Burton agreed and told Pliska to come to his office later in the week. There was a problem, though. Pliska wasn’t actually with the school newspaper.
“I remember the day I went there. Leonard DiCaprio was there, he was on Lassie at the time. Scott Baio had been in and I was so nervous, (Burton) said ‘What can I do for you?’,” remembered Pliska, who told Burton he had just three questions for him. Burton was one step ahead already though and Pliska remembers the next few minutes vividly
“You know what? I”m going to take a guess, and I don’t want to offend you, my guess is that you’re not necessarily associated with the school newspaper, you just wanted to get in my office and you wanted to make a connection and if that’s true, tell me,” Burton said.
Pliska copped to it and told Burton he just wanted to get his foot in the door somehow. The ploy worked and Pliska started working with Burton right around the time he began producing Charles in Charge. Burton eventually became a mentor to Pliska.
“He gave me so much of my foundations of the business world, because my father was a civil servant, so I really had no context,” said Pliska. “Al Burton used to have this expression, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll exploit you for your own good’. And he did. I got paid very little money, but I learned so much.”
Along with learning about business, being mentored by Burton also introduced Pliska to futurist Alvin Toffler and eventually to doing business with one of the world’s richest people, Carlos Slim. Now that he’s in a position to do so, Pliska works as a mentor to multiple people.
“To me, mentoring is so important because it absolutely has a chance to not just change one person, but an entire family. It completely changes trajectory (and) allows people to think,” said Pliska.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Considering his tenure with the company and his position at the very top of the corporate ladder, it’s surprising to realize that in this era of tireless self-promotion, Pliska isn’t the face of the company. That’s by design. Mike Sexton, Tony Dunst, Vince van Patten and Lynn Gilmartin have all held visible positions in the broadcasts. Matt Savage has been out front within the poker industry as the person players can talk to about operational issues. Being in the position he’s in now allows Pliska to drive the vision while allowing his staff to execute.
“Steve Lipscomb and I are still incredibly close friends. We talk about this all the time, that one day, no one will know who you are,” said Pliska. “But this brand will mean a lot to people for a long time because it touched so many people. So Adam Pliska doesn’t need to have that brand, but feeling like you made an impact and you helped shape a culture, that’s incredible.”
Being the CEO of a poker company and not being a poker player – now or ever – isn’t the only way in which Pliska is a walking contradiction. The SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills has a cocktail named for him, but he doesn’t drink. To be fair, he did drink when chef José Andrés created it, but a milestone birthday and a chance encounter with a poker player at a WPT event changed all of that.
“At 40, I got this point where I said my motto, which is ‘life is edited’. You want a good script? Edit it. You want a good story? Edit it. If you want good friends, edit that too,” said Pliska. “I took my own advice. I was 40 and I said, ‘You know what? You’ve got to live a healthier life and I did. I just cut (alcohol) out. I started to exercise, started to try to maintain my energy level and I think it helped.”
Eight months before his 40th birthday, young poker pro Thuy Doan walked up to Pliska at the Legends of Poker and asked for some advice.
“She came up to me and said, ‘I’m starting to get some attention. Would you mind helping me with some media stuff and how to present myself?’,” said Pliska. “I said, “Okay, why don’t you come to Borgata?”
Doan went to Borgata and while there slipped and ended up in hospital. Pliska met her there and was bedside with her when the doctor told her the fall wasn’t random, the cancer she thought she had beaten had returned. And it was aggressive.
“I’m sitting there with this 20-something-year-old girl, her step-father is driving seven hours from Virginia. It was one of the most impactful things of my life,” recalled Pliska. “I became friends with the family. I ended up staying at their home several times. On my birthday, she asked me to come in. She knew I’m a history buff, so she checked herself out of the hospital. They took me to Monticello. That was the last time she went out. It was my best birthday ever.”
Doan passed away in September 2011 and her death had an immediate impact on Pliska.
“I did a lot of reflection after she passed away and I looked at the things that were extraneous and I decided to cut it out,” said Pliska. “You know what? It is the greatest thing. It just makes you clear on what it is that you love. So I attribute a big part of that to a lot of lifestyle changes for me.”
[figcaption=https://www.pocketfives.com/profiles/admin/albums/article-images/596121-adam-pliska-wpt-family.jpg]Pliska often refers to the WPT employees under his charge as the “WPT family” and uses that as a guiding principle in running the business.[/figcaption]
Growing up in Orange, California, working in Hollywood for a powerhouse producer, traveling the world while running the WPT and a life-changing friendship with a poker pro have all helped Pliska frame how he runs the company.
“I think to me, the family approach is the only way I know how to run a company,” said Pliska. “That means you’ve got to be honest with each other and when you’re falling, you’ve got to be able to go, ‘Hey, I gotta talk to you’. We do that with each other.”
It’s not the lovey-dovey approach that it might sound like. For Pliska, it helps build a sense of personal responsibility and accountability within the walls of the WPT offices. It also allows those entrusted with doing right by the business, to make a mistake once in awhile and know it’s not going be the end of the world.
“You have to put an element that’s in real families. You’ve got to make people feel like if you screw up, if you make a mistake, you’re still here. Because of that, we can really get people to be at their very best,” said Pliska.
The phone calls from recruiters are going to continue, especially as the business he runs now continues to grow, but they’re likely wasting their time. Pliska seems intent on continuing to serve as the leader of the WPT family and hopes that, more than anything, becomes his legacy.
“If I go back 14 years or so, and I look back and what’s the most important thing, if someone says what did you do with your career? I hope somebody will say I showed that you could be serious about business and respect your colleagues that work there.”
Photography courtesy of the World Poker Tour, Joe Giron and Patrick Ecclesine.