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Playing his Cards Right

When the gambling business took a hit, Adam Pliska did more than survive. His World Poker Tour thrives as Pliska eyes the long game.

Adam Pliska
Cindy Yamanaka

Among Adam Pliska’s many distinctions are these odd facts:
He happens to look a good deal like President Barack Obama, a resemblance that draws comments in poker rooms from Las Vegas to Paris and even as far afield as China’s Forbidden City. “Happens all the time,” says Pliska, who, oh by the way, proposed to his wife in the Rose Garden of the White House.
He also has a drink named after him – “The Pliska” – at a tony bar at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, where, on a mild Friday night, Pliska is one of four nominees for the poker industry’s “Person of the Year” award.

The lean, 43-year-old Pliska, outfitted in a dark suit and white shirt, disdains a tie as he awaits the banquet, chit-chatting in an amber-lit corner of the bar. Like Obama, he too is a president – of the Irvine-based World Poker Tour.

The job befits a man of great energy and worldliness. When Pliska is not home in Newport Beach, gliding around the shorefront in a white Mercedes-Benz convertible, dining on pumpkin ravioli at Cucina Alessa or savoring a breakfast pastry overlooking the waves at Montage, he spends half the year on the road, making deals, promoting televised poker tournaments and trying to lift the WPT into the same prominence as its long-running rival, the World Series of Poker.

He is just back from China, where he signed a deal to extend poker tournaments throughout much of Asia.

“I can get you Pliskas,” he calls out as colleagues filter into the bar. The $18 cocktail, infused with blackberry and Islay Mist, is served in a globe-like glass with a float of liquid nitrogen. Smoke billows above the rim as from a witch’s cauldron. The drink represents a dubious honor for Pliska – and not because of the distinctive berry taste or its deceptive wallop.

“It’s so smooth you’re like, ‘I could have five more of these,’” Pliska says, laughing. “But you can’t.” The trouble is that Pliska, who no longer drinks, feels compelled to treat everyone around him because the libation bears his name. “It’s the most expensive gift nobody ever gave me,” he quips.

The irony of a pricy cocktail being named for a non-drinker comes with another surprise: He’s not a poker player, either, aside from an occasional home game with close friends. Pliska owes his position to being a lawyer and ex-TV producer – he’s won an Emmy – as well as an inveterate entrepreneur. He started a T-shirt company at age 16, putting names on athletic jerseys, and now does most of his gambling weighing the risks and rewards of prying open new wagering markets on far continents. His broad goal, he says, is to “make the world safe for poker,” an industry often at odds with government regulators and moralists.

Although billions of dollars are at stake, Pliska, who says the push to spread legalized poker is “not life or death,” does not seem particularly burdened by the pressure. He comes across with affable dignity, quick to laugh or throw in a touch of self-deprecating humor. Keeping his own unhurried pace in a society – and a poker culture – obsessed with winning, Pliska is a bit of a contrarian; he puts a higher priority on infusing quality into his life.

Each morning he meditates, clearing his mind, he says, and preparing himself to appreciate the people and challenges confronting him. After work, he lifts weights at the Equinox in Irvine while listening to audio books about a wide range of interests: biographies of John Wayne and Nelson Mandela, science books by Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, politics, public speaking, various tomes on business.
Pliska, whose T-shirt enterprise paid his tuition at USC film school, still likes the movies. For a while, he says, he was watching a documentary every night. He dabbles in photography, shooting portraits and travel photos of exotic cultures. He is an avid connoisseur, especially of Asian and Italian cuisine. Pliska raves about the sashimi and fresh uni – the sea urchin – served at San Shi Go in Newport Beach, noting that he and his wife, who is Japanese, named one of their Yorkshire terriers Uni.

“When he was a puppy, he had a black body and an orange head,” Pliska says. “He looked like little piece of uni sitting on a seaweed roll.”

The other Yorkie is Kumi, which means “bear.” Often, the Pliskas take the dogs to Plum’s Café in Costa Mesa and sit outside for breakfast. “You’ve got to go over there and try the raspberry pancakes!” Pliska says insistently. “It’s transformative. It’s life-transforming.”

A one-time paperboy for the Register, Pliska grew up in Orange, where his father, a longtime deputy sheriff, and his mother, a housewife, set a strong example of class and humility. “My parents were grateful no matter what,” he says. “As silly as it sounds, they were grateful they could live in this country, gratefulthat my dad had a job.”

Early on, Pliska showed a propensity for achievement. He was thought to be the youngest Eagle Scout in America when he completed all of his merit badges before turning 14. He taught himself to play piano and violin. He served as a field announcer at Orange High School baseball and football games. He played varsity water polo.

While attending Santa Ana College, Pliska smooth-talked his way into an internship with Al Burton, a television producer who helped  develop “The Jeffersons” and “Charles In Charge,” and became a producer himself, racking up an Emmy for his role in shaping Comedy Central’s quiz show “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” For a while, Pliska collaborated with famed futurist Alvin Toffler in a television project for Carlos Slim, one of the world’s wealthiest men.

Ever ambitious, Pliska eventually put aside TV to study law at UC Berkeley. He scored another internship, for then-Gov. Pete Wilson, and was offered a high-salary job in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – a likely path to power that he turned down, choosing to avoid East Coast winters. He wound up, instead, accepting a temporary gig in 2003 as legal counsel for the fledgling World Poker Tour.

Steve Lipscomb, the poker tour’s retired founder, credits Pliska’s integrity for keeping the organization out of trouble in the heady days when Internet poker first came along. Other companies rushed to tap a goldmine even as Congress moved to ban online gambling in the U.S. Pliska’s guidance sent the stock price of the World Poker Tour into the tank while rivals got rich.

“One of the hallmarks of Adam’s personality and executive acumen is to play a long game, not a short game,” Lipscomb says.

By 2009, the company was reeling and Pliska negotiated its sale, for $12 million, to London-based gambling conglomerate bwin.party Digital Entertainment. Lipscomb cashed out and left, and Pliska took over as president. His vision was vindicated two years later, when the U.S. Justice Department cracked down on illegal online poker, putting several major firms out of business.

In the five years Pliska has run it, the World Poker Tour has expanded from 14 tournaments to 70. The staff of nearly 100 includes Tony Dunst, a young, glib television analyst who is a part of Pliska’s strategy to add a critical edge to poker telecasts. Describing Pliska’s management style, Dunst says, “He’s the boss, but you would never really know it because he has a very light touch. In my five years, I’m sure commands have come down that I should do this, or not do that, but I could never tell you that it came from Adam.”

Pliska is big on his employees taking workday breaks and forgiving of mistakes. Every May, he makes a pilgrimage to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, to hear the address by one of the leaders he most admires, Warren Buffett.

“It’s like going to a religious service,” Pliska says. Buffett and Bill Gates, who is also on the board, spend time joking and playing pingpong. Their groundedness, Pliska says, “reminds you it’s about the journey, the enjoyment along the way.”

Contrary to any image of a poker executive who mingles with the gamblers in vast cardrooms, Pliska quietly makes time for real-deal religious services, driving up to Los Angeles on Sundays to sit in the back pews at St. James Episcopal Church. He listens and reflects. “It’s my two hours, when I’m in town, to just take a break,” he says. “It’s a personal moment for me where I don’t think about numbers and strategy.”

American culture teaches us to place far too much emphasis on winning, Pliska says. A lesson offered by poker is that most of the time you lose. When speaking at colleges, Pliska talks about the importance of losing. Be comfortable with losing, he says, and you can prepare yourself to win.

“When you lose, you need to be able to reflect, get your mind together,” he says. “When you lose, be gracious. When it’s your time to win, go all the way.”

Pliska scored a win two years ago by striking a deal with Fox Sports 1 to televise a series of “ultra-high-roller” tournaments featuring $100,000 buy-ins. He believes he’s going all the way again this year in Asia, where the tour’s partner will be a company called Ourgame, a Chinese firm that, like Zynga, specializes in digital, non-wagering games. Its 80 million users will “create an ecology of very casual players,” who will compete at poker for fun, Pliska says. In turn, that will breed a wave of serious tournament players, feeding new tour events.  

“That is how you have a poker boom. There’s tremendous potential,” Pliska says of the seven-year licensing arrangement. “We want to franchise our model – be managers of a global brand – similar to the way that Disney does with its partners in France, Japan and now Shanghai.”

Poker people respect him. “He’s the best. He’s one of the nicest, most genuine men I’ve ever met,” says John Griffo of the Commerce Casino, which hosts an annual tournament where 500 players buy in for $10,000 apiece. “Adam is one of the innovators.”

Two hundred people crowd into the ballroom where the poker awards are being presented. Players and officials greet and hug Pliska as he makes his way to a table populated by colleagues from the World Poker Tour. The night drags on until finally, in the big moment, Pliska is announced as the industry’s Person of the Year, causing him to rise and take the stage and speak humbly about what an unexpected honor it is.

Returning to the table, he smiles like a gambler who’s beaten the dealer on a bluff. His colleagues – all of them employees who work for Pliska – raise their glasses in a toast, and Pliska grins.

“Any time I get to take credit for all the good work that all of you have done,” he jokes, “I am happy.” ✦

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