Since taking the reins of the World Poker Tour in 2009, Adam Pliska has taken the WPT global, introduced countless new initiatives and helped negotiate a massive $35m-sale to Ourgame International.
In a time where many international poker tours have struggled or been shuttered entirely, the WPT is wrapping up its 15th season.
You could argue the product is more compelling than ever with a season that included long-time host Mike Sexton winning his first WPT and Ema Zajmovic becoming the first female player to win an open event.
The brand has expanded to include a wildly popular low buy-in WPT500 series as well as several social gaming applications.
Pliska, who serves as president of the WPT, is no fly-by-night operator, however, and he has long-term visions for poker that would benefit not just the WPT but the entire community.
PokerListings had the pleasure of catching up with Pliska for an in-depth chat during the WPT’s flagship Tournament of Champions at the Seminole Hard Rock in Florida.
PokerListings.com: How has the WPT been able to stay relevant for for all these years?
Adam Pliska: It starts with the people. We have people who are absolutely committed to pushing the brand forward. I always say one of the greatest parts of running a business with this group is that I have a bunch of very non-defensive people.
You can’t be defensive in our group because we call it the WPT family and we mean it.
Usually people associate that with all the happy parts and the fact that you’re close but we treat each other like we’re a family and we’re very honest. We push each other.
We’re very candid and you can only do that when you trust each other and let your defenses down. That, I think, is what continues to push us.
We have a system. Everyone can participate. We have a very flat management structure. We don’t hire anyone who’s not important.
We’re always trying to see if we can top the last thing we did.
PL: Obviously it’s been a huge year for Mike Sexton. How important has he been for the WPT family?
AP: Mike Sexton is the spiritual glue for the WPT. Mike Sexton is not only a great player, he’s a good man.
He not only believes in the World Poker Tour, he believes in poker. He believes in what it means.
He’s as gracious to someone if it’s their first day playing poker as he is to someone who has won multiple titles.
We’re just so proud to have him. He sets a standard.
I used to work in production for many years so I’ve always worked around celebrities.
When the person who is there at the top sets a standard where you see them out there working hard to promote what we’re trying to do and the spirit of what poker can be… I assure you no one else is going to do a bad job when they have that to look up to.
PL: In your mind what differentiates the WPT from competitors like the WSOP and the PokerStars Championship?
AP: First of all, I want to say that I think each of the major tours contributes something to this industry.
Years ago I used to get questions about whether I minded if the WSOP was playing on TV. I said I didn’t mind at all because it was good quality TV. What I mind is bad quality poker TV.
We all need to promote this market. There was a period where there was bad stuff in the market. Most of it has died off. The good stuff has remained.
I think the WPT’s unique contribution is that we are very heavily narrative-based. We really want to make sure it doesn’t matter where you step on the train… there’s a place for you.
We have the WPT500 series, social gaming for free players, high roller events, the main tour and the DeepStacks.
You don’t have to make the final table. You don’t have to cash. We want to make sure you have a story to tell. That you went to the event, you went to the party, you met some of the crew.
We want to provide the canvas for that story to happen.
PL: How did the Tournament of Champions come to be and what are your plans for the future of the event?
AP: We were doing the WPT Championship, which was an open buy-in event. Everyone who won a tournament on the main tour also got a buy-in.
What it created was the hardest field in poker and it was very expensive. The numbers were a big issue. To me it was unimpressive. That concerned me a lot.
At the time we were building up the idea of the Champion’s Club and why it was important but there was nothing that only champions got to play. It just seemed incongruent with what we were trying to do.
We made this change — Mike Sexton created the original Tournament of Champions many years ago — and we went back to that concept.
We immediately got criticism that it was a closed event but that happens. When it was an open event no one showed up; when it turned into a closed event then everyone wanted to play.
The [TOC] is great. It attracts great sponsors and it’s a unique opportunity for us. When you play an event like this it reminds you that you are part of a community.
PL: Could you talk for a minute about the WPT500 and the recent explosion of low buy-in poker tournaments?
AP: It’s incredibly exciting. In the beginning we thought we’d put on this 500 series and it would be another stop where players could get on the train but what’s nice about it is how many pros like to come in and play.
It’s enabled everything we want in poker. We want amateurs. Amateurs are quite often drawn into the game because they saw someone on TV and that player was their hero.
They get to actually play against those players in the WPT500 and they might even win. I think it’s a terrific experience.
PL: The WPT places a large importance on sponsors. How important are strong sponsors for the WPT and poker in general?
AP: It is very important but it’s also important how those sponsors are integrated. Back in the early days of the poker boom, we’re talking 14 years ago, people would give you money to put their name on anything related to poker.
I’m not going to point any fingers but some things just didn’t make sense. We were guilty of that too.
Finally one year we just stopped. We felt it wasn’t worth it. We took a year off.
We tried to think about what we were doing wrong. We decided we needed to give the sponsors a lot more information. They need to see that they’re reaching people that actually care about what they do.
Then we thought about why we actually wanted sponsors. Sure there was a financial component but it wasn’t our largest financial component by any means.
There had to be something more. Part of it is because it has a degree of prestige. It gives people the feeling that they are in a true sporting environment.
In the end we decided we weren’t going to take sponsors that didn’t make sense. As soon as we closed those doors we had sponsors coming out of the woodwork.
You have to have the discipline to say, 'On a personal level I like your product but we don’t think that’s going to translate to our audience and we don’t think that our audience will be helpful to you.'
These days all of our sponsors get a deep dive and we figure out how we can integrate them. It has to be integrated with the players somehow.
For example Wyndham is giving away vacations, Royal Caribbean gave cruises, Hublot is being generous to contribute to the prize pool, Audi is giving a car… and the players want the car!
Sponsors are important because they help magnify what we're doing.
PL: What accomplishments are you most proud of since becoming WPT president in 2009?
AP: Number one is that we became global. Six years ago we had just one event in Europe. I used to joke that we were the “World Poker Stop” instead of the World Poker Tour.
Now we have 65 events and we’re everywhere. I’m leaving for China next week. We’re in South Africa right now. We’re about to go into Latin America. We’re all over Europe.
The globalization and effective approach of working locally and creating a product organically is a big thing.
Secondly, the WPT survived without becoming reliant on real-money gaming.
I’m all in favor of legalization of real-money gaming. I want the real-money gaming sites to succeed greatly. But as we know it has been up-and-down, up-and-down for the last 10 years.
That’s why you have poker tours that pop up, sound really good, and then fizzle out after a year.
That happens because a law changes and you think, “Uh oh, pull back the marketing, end the tour.”
At the World Poker Tour we’ve managed a business model that allows us to create a professional league that says, “If it happens: great. If it doesn’t: We can still have a long-term vision.”
Thirdly, on a personal level I’m exceptionally proud of the assemblage of the team. We have a very flat management structure. We are very honest with each other. There is no one at the WPT who is not important. Everyone is absolutely committed.
The respect they show each other. I do not believe that you need to exploit the people who work for you to run a successful company. On the contrary.
PL: You could argue that PokerStars live events have struggled since ditching the EPT brand, do you see an opportunity to acquire potential costumers?
AP: First of all, in regards to PokerStars, when you’ve been around as long as I have, you realize these things go up-and-down.
We once did a $200k buy-in Alpha8 high roller in the Philippines with 50+ entries. Then we went to Florida and had six.
Time has shown me to not be too hasty in those judgments.
What I do think is that the World Poker Tour used to have a parent company [partypoker] that was in the real-money gambling business. Now we don’t.
We only have our social gaming business. Because of that we have an opportunity to fill in holes that other companies are not filling.
We’ll be in Amsterdam shortly. Most of the other online sites don’t have stops there because you can’t do real-money gaming in Amsterdam.
We’ll continue to do that but I’ll put out the red carpet to online gaming sites if they want to work with us. We’ll absolutely do it. We can be agnostic in that way.
I’ll say this about PokerStars. We all have an interest in the promotion of poker.
I look at how much dollar-value in poker promotion goes out every year and I would say the #1 promotion value comes from PokerStars because they spend the most money.
I would be silly to think that I don’t benefit from them spending money to say, “Poker, poker, poker.”
The second group in that list is the WPT. It’s not because we spend a lot of retail dollars but because we have a TV show that reaches 100 million annually. It just plays over and over again.
Somewhere in the USA, Europe or Latin America there is someone watching the show and they are reminded about how much fun poker can be.
Will 100% of those players come to the WPT? No. Some of them will go play on PokerStars or partypoker or 888. It’s OK.
I don’t want to become shortsighted. I absolutely know there is a positive effect in doing that. It’s only bad when you get the kind of knockoffs that are not fully committed.
PL: Where is poker headed the next 5-10 years?
AP: For many years people have asked me about the time when we were experiencing the poker boom. I say, 'I never stopped seeing the poker boom' because it just kept going all over the place. In Asia or Latin America. It’s just incredible. The magnitude there is even more than it was in the USA.
It’s so exciting to see people lined up outside of poker rooms waiting to play.
It is globalizing. It’s diversifying. We have different levels, we have ClubWPT, we have social gaming. The players on each platform don’t necessarily cross over but that’s OK.
This umbrella, which is poker, is a wide one. We just need to be patient. We don’t need to force everything. We shouldn’t force a social player to play real-money if he/she doesn’t want to.
We also shouldn’t force live tournament players to go to social gaming sites.
We need to be able service a wide group of players. The concern is that you have to keep up standards. I think that’s going to be the issue. Outside of the USA, poker is growing so quickly.
You’re going to see many people coming and saying, “Can I make a quick buck?”
Fortunately we have an investor in OurGame now so that we can have a global company. We have 40 employees in China. We have employees in London and here.
We will all need to hold the industry accountable to make sure that the standards stay high because if people start getting bad experiences it can atrophy. We forget that.
We’ve gotta continue to treat the new player in a way that’s respectful and not just look at them like they’re fish.
Social gamers are not all fish. Some of them aren’t out to win, they’re just having fun. What’s the big deal?
In the future we need to continue to think about showing the proper respect and try to fulfill each player's needs.
The industry puts too much in one basket. That happened with real-money gaming, for instance. That goes the same for social gaming or tournaments. Let’s just take a long-term approach.
If we continue to hit doubles and triples we will serve this community. At the World Poker Tour we’re going to continue to try and hit doubles and triples going to Latin America. We’ll continue to expand social gaming to bring more people into the game.
We're also going to combine some things with eSports and poker in the future as well.
Every day we’re going to ask ourselves, 'What can we do to be better?