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WPT takes Asia by storm

Written by Ben Blaschke

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.

If you’re a fan of poker, no doubt you’ve watched at least a few episodes of the World Poker Tour (WPT) on television. The popular poker tour, which began its first season of events in the United States back in 2002, was among the first to take the game to the world by televising the final table of their tournaments, with viewers able to see the players’ hole cards from the start of each hand and witness how each reacted as the hand played out. First airing on television in 2003, the WPT played a huge role in the global poker boom and despite some bumps along the way has grown from 14 events five years ago to running 70 of various scales around the globe. In Asia, the WPT was among the first to successfully run a major professional tournament in Mainland China when it launched WPT National China in 2012 and have this year added another to the region with the inaugural WPT National Philippines to debut this year from 25 October. WGM’s managing editor Ben Blaschke caught up with WPT President Adam Pliska to talk about these exciting events and what Asia can expect from the WPT in years to come.

Ben Blaschke: Hi Adam, thanks for taking the time to speak with WGM. Over the coming month the World Poker Tour will visit two stops in Asia with WPT National Philippines in Manila and WPT National China in Sanya. First of all, can you tell us a bit about the concept behind these National events?

Adam Pliska: Sure. Five years ago we had 14 events on the World Poker Tour which were our main tour stops, but the problem with the main tour stops were two things. First of all, if you weren’t a professional player necessarily, you weren’t hopping on a plane to fly to wherever those locations might be because they were quite varied in their different destinations. The other problem was that the market entry point was often much higher than a lot of people could afford. There was a demand for it and people had spent years becoming fans of the tour either by reading about it or through television exposure, but the cost of playing in them was a barrier. So what the Nationals – and the Regionals which we created as well – allowed us to do was hold tournaments in locations where people were often driving to them! They were in local areas and it allowed people to play a tournament in their national region. It gave them a WPT event they could participate in, with a WPT structure, but in their local area. The other aspect is that for WPT, what would distinguish us is that we would provide a personal experience. One of the things that is very important to us is that it shouldn’t matter whether you make the final table, whether you cash or whether you don’t cash. We want you to have an experience throughout. That’s our difference. We’re a very nimble company and the reason we’ve been able to expand very quickly is that the management hierarchy is pretty flat and so we want to create an experience that is very personal to people. One way to do that is that we think global but we act local and we always consider, “What does that mean for that player in that region?” There is something special about those National events that always reflects the area around it and the people around it. It’s the players that always influence what an event becomes – not just because they participate in it and respond to the structure but all of the things that go along with it as well.

BB: So why were Sanya, and now Manila, chosen as the first two venues for the WPT to start its foray into Asia?

AP: Well a couple of years ago we started with our partner Ourgame in the Hainan province of China and we wanted to be the first in there. They actually approached us because they knew we had a reputation whereby they could go to government officials and know the event would be properly run and organized. We were comfortable having Ourgame as our partner as well, who have since gone public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The number one thing for the WPT has always been securing high level partnerships. We want the best in the business, the gold standard, and we felt safe with Ourgame for that reason. There were a lot of people we could have worked with but in terms of doing it right and going through the government procedures, players feeling like they’ll be safe and treated fairly, they were an ideal partner. And Sanya is just a beautiful location. Even last year when we were hit by the typhoon that ran through Sanya, up until the typhoon it was just beautiful. One of our goals is to allow more of our players to experience things like this. It’s the same with the Philippines as well. That came about because I was in Japan – my wife is Japanese – and I saw a news article about them being interested in the WPT. So I jumped on a plane and flew over to the Philippines and was exposed to this incredible resort called Solaire. I’d been to the Philippines before but I had not seen Solaire. It is an amazing first class resort like Bellagio or Wynn. It’s a high end resort where the food is great and the gaming facilities … this is a first class operation. The entire entertainment development that they’re creating down there, which is materializing very fast, is going to be amazing. It’s already a wonderful property but it’s still only a third of the size it’s going to be in two years’ time. Once you get a lot more western players realising what’s happening it’s going to be like a thunderbolt because obviously the people speak English there, they’re incredibly warm and welcoming, they’ve got a beautiful facility and you have that interesting mix of players who will take part. There will be everything from some very good pros to amateurs coming into the game as well as business people who are just eager to go in and experience it.

BB: There have been a number of top level poker tournaments held in Manila over the past seven years since the advent of local tours such as the Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) and Asian Poker Tour (APT), but holding tournaments in Mainland China has generally been more problematic. What sort of unique challenges does trying to organize and run a professional poker tournament in China present?

AP: The first challenge was to make sure we would get local government support and the right partners. We’re very open to the correct partners. The WPT wants to expand into Asia and we want to expand into the market through very strong partnerships, so Ourgame was great in that regard. Quite frankly, the other challenge was that WPT has traditionally had a lot of western players so we were thinking “Where is Sanya? Is holding this tournament going to be impossible and is anybody going to show up?” Of course now, we had 1,000 players there last year and it’s one of those places where I don’t know if you’re worse off cashing or not cashing because if you don’t cash you just go and hang out on the beach and be in this beautiful environment. So it’s been a wonderful success but explaining to people what it was in the beginning … I’ve been with WPT for 12 years and it reminded me of the early days of the WPT when we had to go to broadcasters and sponsors to try and sell our product. With the broadcasters we literally had to spell out the word “poker”. With sponsors, we might as well have said it was pornography! We spent a long time getting government support and educating players on what a great place Sanya is, that it’s safe and that they would have a structure they had come to expect from a WPT event. The one thing we were confident of though was that the players were about to find out what we had discovered and that was always a very encouraging thing to have.

WPT President Adam Pliska with Beijing Ourgame CEO Frank Ng at last year's WPT National China

WPT President Adam Pliska with Beijing Ourgame CEO Frank Ng at last year’s WPT National China

BB: Can we consider WPT National China and WPT National Philippines to be only the first ventures into Asia? Is the WPT looking to increase its presence across the region?

AP: Absolutely and again, WPT actually did work in Mainlaind China about seven years ago on a project we did in conjunction with the Sports Ministry called Tuo La Ji or “Tractor Poker”. That was a way to expose people to the brand although at the time we weren’t able to do Texas Hold’em. It helped us to learn and it was a very great educational process because what it taught us was that if you’re going to go into a market, especially in Asia, and you’re going to tell that market, “This is how it is, it’s going to look like this and you’re going to do X,Y and Z” expecting that the success you’ve had in the past is going to dictate what happens now, well you’re going to learn a harsh lesson. That very important lesson is that good partners are the key. It is the WPT brand in conjunction with a partner who knows the region, who is responsible and who won’t disappoint you. So absolutely we want to expand and we are always in discussions with partners. We don’t end up doing partnerships with most people but occasionally we find one with great minds and an eagerness to move forward.

MGM Grand Sanya

MGM Grand Sanya

BB: Macau is obviously the gaming capital of the world these days and as such is also leading the way for poker in Asia. Are there plans for the WPT to hold an event in Macau in the near future?

AP: Sure. I can’t go into details. I was just in Macau a few weeks ago and it was very warm! But it was amazing to see and it’s not just the growth – we’ve all heard the growth story – but the enthusiasm of players and people that are coming in and out of the facilities. We certainly have looked at Macau and what I can say is that in most major regions where you could expect poker, you can expect to see the growth of the WPT in those regions in the next couple of years.

BB: The WPT has always been an innovator within the poker industry. Having your events televised was instrumental in the poker boom of the early to mid-2000s. How important is it for the WPT to continue to be a pioneer and to try new things?

AP: It’s probably one of the most important aspects that we have. It’s funny, I was just having a discussion with my department heads and I was telling them that I don’t want to be a company that can’t afford to be wrong because the WPT, just like the WSOP, is a big name and we owe it to the community to try and explore things, be innovators, to push and be pioneers. And that means sometimes you’ll fail. Sometimes it won’t work or it won’t meet your expectations. But if that’s the litmus test for whether or not we try something, we’re going to be in very poor shape and this industry will grow at a much slower clip. So it’s incredibly important for all aspects. I remember only a few years ago the WPT used to only show the final table of our events on television. I used to say it was like God created six people at a final table and he didn’t know how they got there. The downside of that, I compare it to being at the Academy Awards and only showing the stage when you’ve got Angelina Jolie and Jack Nicholson in the front row. You’re missing all of that. When you’re in play-down (the stages just before the final table when players are “playing down” to the final six), there is frustration in those stages, people get angry with each other and you might see another aspect of poker that might not look like the final table you’re seeing. So the idea was to give it a shot because that’s how other sports are. We see other sports and we see the whole journey – the frustration and the fights. The last couple of years our crew have had a workout because we have to bleep some things out, we show disagreements, the people who almost make it but didn’t, those who play for days but bubble and how that can be emotional. It’s less “PR” but I think it’s far more compelling to watch now.

BB: I guess everyone that has played in a poker tournament and reached a final table would appreciate there are a lot of ups and downs along the way. It’s a journey.

AP: Absolutely, and things like showing that journey rather than just the culminaton, those are the risks we take but we’re big enough to take them. You know, we put Tony Dunst on the show who is an online player and does critical analysis for us. Not everyone here agrees with Tony all of the time but that’s his opinion and he criticizes players. He comes out and questions why people would make a certain play but it’s one of our most popular segments. But at the time when we first put him on there was a lot of push back with people saying, “He’s going to be perceived as negative, if he’s criticizing players people aren’t going to like that, people won’t want to play.” Well that hasn’t been the case, although of course it could have been very different!

BB: It’s now well over three years since Black Friday – when the US Department of Justice issued indictments against the owners of the three major online poker sites – put a serious dent in the poker industry. In the months that followed we saw a number of organizations across the industry die a sudden death as a result. What impact did Black Friday have on the WPT and how did you go about limiting any damage?

AP: Well WPT ended up in a somewhat fortunate position. It was unfortunate what was happening but we were in a fortunate position because at the time, a number of poker TV programs had become solely reliant on promoting the online product. We had decided about a year before that we were going to take our social gaming product, Club WPT, and make it our sponsor. We knew our own ratings, we knew the show was doing well and we decided, “Let’s take a gamble and be our own sponsor.” So we did and that decision paid off, but this is where we get to look more brilliant than we actually are. We made that decision because it was a financial decision but with Black Friday happening we were one of the only high-end poker shows that was able to stay on television completely unaltered. As a result, a lot of people then came to Club WPT and it proved to be a big boost for Club WPT. So for the WPT that was important because it helped us. The other thing was that, at that time, we had started to get so much poker television product. WPT is a great quality product but there was some absolute garbage out there and Black Friday shook some of that away. In that respect it was fine and then PartyPoker (the online poker site of the WPT’s owners Bwin.Party Digital Entertainment) was still able to take our product international, so from a business perspective we were very shielded and in fact it boosted our social product. The other thing Black Friday did was knock a bunch of people out of the market so as online gaming has started to re-emerge we’ve been able to build up an audience through them again.

BB: How has the art of televising poker changed from the early days to now?

AP: In the early days, it’s funny – I ran into Shana Hiatt who was our host during the first three seasons and I was telling her that when you look back at those early shows, she was educating an audience. For the first two seasons we had a segment that literally told people what the small and big blind was, what the flop was. It was a segment literally there to educate people! It was a bit of a novelty at the beginning but then over time people started to see that, “Oh, these are real people playing”, so if you ask me what the difference is, I think just like poker in general the audience has gotten a lot more educated. You can’t make a dumbed down poker show now because the audience will reject it. Especially in the US, poker is now so infused into the culture that a casual person is used to playing and they really want to see good competition play out on TV. You’ve got to make sure you’re telling a good story and getting it out there. If you ask me visually what’s the difference? Well the players are a heck of a lot younger! I think the average age of our players is about 25. The other thing is that along with having younger players, it’s a more international cast. When we had 14 events five years ago, only two of them were outside the United States. Now we will have, in Season XII, more than 20,000 people who will enjoy the WPT experience either in the National events or on the main tour.

WPT President Adam Pliska

WPT President Adam Pliska

BB: What can we expect from the WPT in the future?

AP: It will continue to become more internationally diversified. When I was in the Philippines and in China I realized, you’re not only going to see some really great breakout stars there but the players are just hungry. There is this hunger and enthusiasm that I think reignites the reason why we all watch poker in the first place. And so I think that’s where it continues to go. It also makes it tougher. There are only a couple of tours that can realistically afford to have an international footprint but it truly is becoming a global game. The World Poker Tour really is the World Poker Tour. Then the other aspect is, we said a couple of years ago that we want to continue to “mainstream” poker and we want the television product to reflect other sports. The one place we wanted to evidence that was through sponsorship. And this is not just for the WPT – I hope every one of the tours benefits from this and the players as well – but what I’ve seen is now we’ve gone from no main sponsors to big name sponsors. Monster headphones was our main sponsor this year and we’re continuing to add sponsors. Next year will be the largest sponsorship in WPT’s history and we continue to see high demand in that so what that tells me is as a sport, the show has been accepted into the mainstream and you’ll continue to see more mainstreaming of poker as a whole.

WPT television commentators Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten

WPT television commentators Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten