The Poker.org interview: The WPT’s Adam Pliska

Adam Pliska was supposed to go to Washington D.C. Instead, he ended up running a company that is now 20 years old — and he still runs it with a start-up mentality.

Poker.org recently sat down to a virtual interview with Adam Pliska, the man at the top of the World Poker Tour. Pliska, who’s been with the WPT since its earliest days, wears many hats. Since 2019, he’s been the President and Director of the WPT and President and Chief Executive Officer of the WPT’s parent entity, Allied Esports Entertainment.

Pliska, who just turned a youthful 50, settled in for a lengthy chat with Poker.org that was part about his own history with one of the most favorite brands in poker, and part about the resurgence of the WPT in recent years and where the far-reaching tour is extending its focus today. 

As Pliska explained, “I like to say there were four tables that built the World Poker Tour. The first one was that we got on TV. Somebody put us on the air for two hours 20 years ago at the Travel Channel, and it exposed people to poker. The second was casinos that signed up for a 10-year contract with us in those early days when they had no idea what this was. Then of course, [there were] the players, which were the characters that made everything. The fourth leg of the table was definitely the media, which educated the public of why this was. I mean, honestly, for the first six years of my existence with the World Poker Tour, I kept hearing, ‘When is this fad going to end?’ And if it wasn’t for the media, I think we’d still be hearing that.”

Behind the scenes with the WPT at the 2006 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure

Poker.org: Can you tell our readers a bit of the backstory about how you came to be the head of one of the world’s most well-known poker brands? How did you come to be part of the World Poker Tour?

Adam Pliska: I notoriously did not come in through the normal poker channels. I was friends with Steve Lipscomb. I had helped produce a show that he ended up being the producer of. And I helped in the creation of the show that he was producing. We had a mutual mentor that kept us in touch. 

I had just been hired by the Senate Judiciary Committee to lead IP counsel. So, I was ready to go to DC. Then I got a call from Steve. I said, “You have that show you keep talking about, but it’s not on the air.”

It was more of a funny thing, but he said, “No, we got it where [Lyle] Berman’s behind it. We’re getting it on the air, and we want you to come in and just help us out for a while.” So I came in for, I think, three weeks. And then it turned into three months. I called the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and said, “I’m not coming.” 

Everybody [showed] great surprise and said, “What the heck are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m joining a poker company,” which now sounds like the most exciting thing, but back then explaining to your parents and everybody else that you’re going to a poker company.…and this poker company was going to go public. Berman wanted to go public very soon after I’d been there, and that just didn’t make any sense to people at all. But I think one big contributing factor was that it was quite warm here [in California]. And that was nice. So my home was out here, and I knew Steve, and so I joined as general counsel. I helped them go public and did all those initial agreements with the casinos, and the broadcasters, and everything else. Eventually, when Steve was gone, I took on the executive role, and 20 years later, it’s all still here. I’ve gone through five acquisitions and still managed to have fun and stick around.

PO: What do you see today as your largest single responsibility–your stewardship–with the World Poker Tour?

Pliska: By far, the number one thing over 20 years is the selection of talent in terms of humans. We’re a very flat organization. I think people are always amazed at how quickly the World Poker Tour can respond, and that’s just because we don’t have 50 levels; there’s not a lot of bureaucracy. I hired generals to run departments who have a heck of a lot of authority, and I let them make their own mistakes. And you know, management? It’s a benefit. It makes my life a lot easier. Most of the time, they know more about what to do than I do. 

Other than that, it’s like anything else from a CEO’s job. You have capital resources – where are you going to invest your resources? Where is your focus? That takes a lot over many years. It’s taken a lot of understanding of where the temperature of the community is going, of who is who in the ever-changing fan base. 

I was in Vegas last week, and I said that we’re going to do a televised version of the ladies championship event. I actually think this is one of those milestones that no one sees that is actually a milestone. [We’re] very successful in terms of ratings with women’s events, but they were always selected-invite events. This is not that environment. This is an open event, and it is leading to a televised final table. 

Think of how much that means. It means that the women in poker have grown so much that you can have an open event and be 100% comfortable that that final table is going to be as exciting or more exciting than any other event, and that the audience is going to respond to it in the same way. I just think that’s a positive thing.

PO: You mentioned how flat the WPT is, and that kind of leads into this question. Being flat that way, it gives you mobility but it also creates some unique challenges in that you don’t really have a true casino home base. You’ve got a bit of one in Vegas now, but overall, what are some of the challenges that you face?

Pliska: I don’t necessarily think it’s a challenge as in the idea that we would necessarily change places. We’ve done most of our final tables with a sports arena for many years, and this one is going to be special, as we have 20 days at the Wynn. We’re going to go back to that so that people can enjoy the festival and come directly into the same casino to see the tour. But you know, that was a question early on. We were more nomadic. We were all over the place, and now we’ve centralized final tables, but that’s allowed us to challenge it. To answer your question: what happens when people are sitting there and they’re waiting? Are you going to keep the enthusiasm going? 

Like anything else, I think it creates. It’s caused us to make these final tables spectacular. I mean, you go, and there’s a pre-show. It’s fun. The people in the audience have fun. One of the biggest challenges came during COVID. I mean, what do you do when you have 65 events around the world? And suddenly you’re doing five? Oh, well, now you’re online. And we went online. 

We created events. We created television shows online with Jose Andres and Jason Alexander, Paul Gasol, Kelly Slater, Jon Hamm. We never went to their house. We literally sent equipment because it was in the middle of COVID. It caused people to be very creative. I was very impressed in the industry in general about how creative people got during COVID, to keep things going and alive and keep things interesting. 

So that’s it. I do think if you asked me what the biggest challenge is, it is that there’s a lot of poker out there these days. And how do you continue to keep your brand relevant and important when you’re in a sea of opportunity? How do you keep that special thing that we’ve been able to hold for 20 years? And that’s the thing that keeps you up at night.

PO: Some years back, the WPT did go through some phases where it seemed a little aged and tired. But that’s changed now at age 20. The WPT really appears to be resurgent and a very strong brand. What do you credit for that most?

Pliska: I do feel like we’re a little bit of a 20-year-old startup and, and being able to keep that mentality does help. But you know, we probably had five different chapters, starting with the pre-going public, and the fact that after that the market was flooded with television shows, and many were not very good at the time. It kind of brought the level down of the things that were actually out there. 

But, you know, at 20, we’ve matured enough to understand our place in the community. We understand what the WPT stands for, and what its brand is. And so we’ve been, we’ve attracted investors who believe the same. We can take a little bit more in terms of risks, and we can express ourselves more. We know our place is to make sure that people – no matter where they are in poker – have a place that they can enter and get on the train, and have fun. 

What happened is that over 20 years, we also became a solid business. I remember in the first few years, every time every April would come around, we’d wait to see if we were going to get picked up on television. I think many of us assumed we’d just wrap up if that was the case. And so over time, as we’ve stabilized the business, we can really not worry about [that anymore]. 

It’s really about innovation in the last few years, and I hope this year will be the very best we’ve been able to bring, now that we’re far more global. We have far more ambassadors, we reach more people through our ambassadors, and we’re trying new things. For years, we never did cash games, and now we’ll do cash games, For a long time, and people forget, but for the first seven years, we never had an event that was under $10,000. Well, that can’t exist now. But think of the world that opened up with the WPT Prime events, which have allowed people to play seriously all over the world and feel that excitement in that they would have that WPT main event. Yhose kinds of things I think have contributed to a lot of the resurgence of what’s going on.

(Author’s note: The WPT was forced onto a revised ownership track when its former Asian ownership group, the prominent Chinese gaming company Ourgame, was in essence forced to leave the poker industry.)

PO: Did Ourgame’s exit from [WPT ownership] free up the WPT to pursue more opportunities globally?

Pliska: I think Ourgame would have been a wonderful partner had it not had the financial issues as a result of legal things in China. But ironically, Ourgame then had a substantial interest in the resulting SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Company) when it was purchased. The World Poker Tour then went into a SPAC, and they were still the majority shareholder. They were still incredibly supportive during that time. 

At the time, the building of the eSports Arena was going on. That was really the place I think we got a sense of the World Poker Tour as a business. [It] started to take off even more because we brought in people who understood distribution; we started to really expand in terms of the audience. And, financially, it was good for us. 

For Ourgame itself, first of all, I will always be grateful, because they brought us into Asia in a significant way. You know, I think they were hoping to hold the company forever. They hoped so, but it didn’t work out that way. But [the WPT] went into a SPAC that allowed us to. So two times, I’ve been a part of a public company. The downside of being a public company is you’re a public company. You spend all your time recording. You do all of these things. Everything is for shareholder justification. But the good thing is it really does make you always look at your business models and justify them all the time to a board and to shareholders. It does make you better, so I think it probably made us stronger. With the last acquisition, I think we’ve been in a good place, and I think the brand is in a good place.

PO: The WPT appears to have a strong focus on identifying players and celebrities that can independently attract an audience online and help focus growth through that means. Can you offer some additional comment on your vision for that type of marketing?

Pliska: Sure. I ride horses, and if you go into a Hermes store, you look around, and there’s amazing things in there. But you know, one can sometimes forget that that store started as an equestrian store. [Today,] I’m sure that the equestrian part of that store does not bring in that much, but they still have the best. I mean, it’s just beautiful stuff. And when you look at the World Poker Tour, its dedication to making great tournaments and great television shows has never wavered. 

What has allowed us to do that is our WPT interactive brand, because we can now reach people 24/7. You can be there at three in the morning playing ClubWPT, and ClubWPT is a real business to us. It’s helped us greatly. Then we have our partnership with WPT Global internationally.

Take the event that’s coming up in the Wynn. They’re going to be bringing hundreds of seats to the Wynn. This is spectacular. I mean, the World Poker Tour has never had that level of support. 

These parts of the business allow us to still make sure that things like the meet-up games that we’re having are fun and exciting, and that the average player can come in and have a phenomenal time and feel like, “Wow, this is a really great event.”

I always said we were trying to be the Apple of the poker world. You know, I’m sure there’s a much bigger market for PCs. But the thing is, we want to win the affection of our customers; we care about every single one. We want to make sure all those events are fun and exciting. 

I just went to one of the meet-up games over at Bellagio just to see everybody hanging out and having a good time and feeling valued no matter where they are in their poker journey. That’s why we’re here. That’s ultimately how we want to delight the customers. We fortunately have a good business in terms of our interactive and our distribution and our content. That is in our partnerships. Those things help pay for us to make sure that we keep true to the idea that if you come to a WPT event, you’re going to have a great time, and we’re going to make sure you feel like it’s more than just an average poker event.

PO: The WPT has launched several new initiatives in recent years, such as instruction-focused LearnWPT. Tell us more about that.

Pliska: LearnWPT is becoming more and more essential. We look at this as the poker journey for players–just like having access to ClubWPT–when you might not have a casino down the street. Being able to watch the shows is great to get inspiration. But then what happens, when you want to get a little bit better? You want to study more; you want to improve. 

LearnWPT is a phenomenal resource. I say this, of course, being connected to it, but I have a lot of pride in saying that when you or somebody you know goes through one of the boot camps or online courses. I mean, I remember I took a boot camp, and I walked out feeling the substance there. So, if you’re on your journey, and you want to challenge yourself, what a great way to do that. If you think about it, it all leads together. You have people who learn in their spare time they’re playing on Club. They come to an event, and they’re well prepared. 

At each of these stops, you’re being part of the World Poker Tour community. So you’re learning, you meet some people from Learn, and you meet some people from Club. ClubWPT has what’s called the Stream Team. You go to a physical event, and many of these players and Clubs show up and it’s great. They’re the greatest players in the world, and they’re the most wonderful people. They believe in the brand, and it’s lovely to have people like that to be around. That’s what we try to do. I think LearnWPT is an important part of that community and an important part of a person’s journey as they’re getting better.

PO: Let’s go digital. Let’s talk about your partnership with Theta Labs and products that implement NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

Pliska: We’re very sensitive to being very deliberate when we go into something so that I don’t have to [repeat] that experience in the first six years where people said, “How long have you been with that fad that’s going on?” We took NFTs quite seriously, and we looked at it and asked, “Well, what do we have?” We have 20 years of the greatest players and people that are interested in this community. 

So if you look at our NFTs, it really resembles collectibles where you are collecting a little piece of history of the World Poker Tour over many, many years. And I think that’s why that’s worked for us. Sometimes there’s a lot of NFT promotion; some of those things were valuable, and some of those things kind of disappeared in the world, but I think our underlying offering is real.

We didn’t make it up. We didn’t say, Oh, here’s some wacky art, and we’re going to put it in there, and hopefully you take it. I mean, I think art is a wonderful way to do NFTs, but we didn’t force it. We used the underlying principle of what we had, and we tried to make a product that was valuable in terms of what people collect and what people will associate with us. I think we’ve done a good job there. Then we made sure that the players got some benefit as well. Pplayers are part of the four legs of the WPT table. It was important for us to be collaborative with the players.

PO: In recent weeks, the WPT has placed its marketing focus on December’s WPT World Championship. Those marketing efforts include the creation of a satellite-entry structure including the largest number of seats awarded to the event. How much risk and effort is involved in pulling such a huge project together?

Pliska: Well, I hope the risk part is going down every day, because it’s the entire focus of the company! I will say this: we still have three phenomenal events coming up [in 2022]. We have Japan next week, and then we have Taiwan. And then we are back at Seminole right on the 25th. We’re doing double duty right now. We’re making sure that those great events get the love they deserve because they’re phenomenal events. 

But what you’re referencing is that this 20-day festival is something that we’ve never done before in terms of our commitment. First of all, we’re working with Wynn, and they’ve been so great. You know their commitment to it, if you if you’ve been anywhere at the Wynn, or Encore lately you walk through and [the WPT] is all over [the place]. You’re going down the Strip and you’re seeing the WPT sign up there, and they are so well organized. 

With WPT Global, I think they’re giving away a seat today, and they’re giving away at least eight on the weekend. This is happening over and over and over again. In our ClubWPT, I think in total ClubWPT players, which oftentimes means social players, that’s probably 60 seats between Prime and the main championship there. And you have our other funnel program, where you have basically casinos all the way around the world sending players in. And then on top of all that you have all the award winners from the last season who are coming into this. 

So in terms of players and EV and feeling like, “Oh my gosh, when is the last time the World Poker Tour has been able to offer that many satellites in?” The answer is never. In the past we’ve had a 500 series that had, you know, quite a number of qualifiers from Zynga in the past, and we had some qualifiers from Party, but never at the magnitude that we have here. 

Then there’s the entertainment that’s going to be there, the off-the-felt activities. We have a party that is going to really be a celebration of 20 years, and we have some of the historic people coming back. I was just on the phone with Steve Lipscomb who created the World Poker Tour. We’re also trying to say thank you to some of the people that were behind the scenes that people didn’t see, like a friend of mine who helped in the early days of WPT merchandising, getting all of that out, building all of that business– probably $30 million of a merchandise business in the early days. Some of those people we get to come back and say thank you, and for the players, it’ll definitely be the best thing we’ve ever offered. Having just been there all last week and taking the tour, it’s gonna look phenomenal. It’s gonna be great.

PO: Here’s where we get to toss you the mic. What part of the WPT story, that we haven’t touched on here, would you most like to share with our readers?

Pliska: I just want to share that the World Poker Tour right now is just focusing all of its effort to bring together the people that come online and the people that come to our events. The biggest step we’ve ever had is to make sure that these 20 days are an example of what the World Poker Tour will be in the future. Our meet-up games are going to be filled with celebrity players that we’re very surprised to have; the off-the-felt activities are going to be great.

There’s a lot of online players that are coming in there. There’s a lot of players from Club, and the Club players are going to be excited because they’re going to get to see the pros, and that’s what they love. The Wynn has been such a great partner for us that we’ve been allowed to do a lot more things. This is going to be a very different-looking 20 days. 

On top of it, it’s been many years since you’ve been able to finish a tournament and then go right in and then watch three WPT tapings that are going to be, I think, quite, quite special. We’re doing some collaboration with Daniel Arsham, who is one of the world’s great contemporary artists. We have entertainment that I’m going to save so that people can see [the announcement], but it’s going to be great. 

But more than anything, I think this is going to be one very fun reunion of people and [the WPT] way. I want to say we have a theme for our company about what these 20 days are, and it is “Thank you, players.”

What we are trying to do to say thank you for 20 years of support, to make sure that we recognize that we know that we wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for players, and not just the high-roller players and not just the big names, but also the Players Club and the players that are on League and the players on Learn and all of the people who come in and support us and our our partner WPT Global.

And so we’re going to make this as special as we can.

Featured image source: World Poker Tour

Author: Kyle Butler