June 29, 2016

Meet Adam Pliska: Champion of the unexpected

If we summed up Adam Pliska by his greatest accomplishments, some might think the stars were perfectly aligned for him. Not only is he a self-taught musician, but by the age of 16 the young Pliska was also a successful entrepreneur, selling personalized towels and T-shirts to local high schools. With a film degree from USC, Pliska crafted a high-profile career as a producer in Hollywood, mentored by none other than the legendary Al Burton. With a J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law, Pliska landed an externship with famed judge Alex Kozinski, who presided over the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. And at the age of 44, Pliska, who lives comfortably with his wife in their custom-built home in Newport Beach, California, currently sits as the president and CEO of the World Poker Tour, where he oversees a multi-million dollar organization.

But Pliska’s success was never serendipitous. The stars were not aligned for him; rather, he shot for the stars. The son of a sheriff and a homemaker and the youngest of three children, Pliska grew up humbly in the suburb of Orange in Southern California. Resources were always limited for the family, but he never allowed himself to focus on what he didn’t have. Guided by an Aristotelian philosophy that success is what you make of the circumstances you are given, Pliska, before even knowing who Aristotle was, did just that.

“I was a curious kid,” Pliska explained. “I look back and know that we didn’t have enough resources, but I didn’t feel that. I always felt like there was a million things to do. I never felt deprived, and then you realize being deprived is a relative thing. You know there is always someone who has more than you have, more access, more connections. If you look at the world like that, you’ll miss out on a lot in life.”

So let’s rewind. Pliska studied and mastered the piano, violin and cello on his own, not because he was a musical prodigy but because his parents could not afford lessons. And his flourishing garment business? That too was born out of necessity after Pliska inherited a ’56 Chevy at age 16 but could not afford the insurance. He not only earned enough to keep his car, but he used his earnings to pay his way through college. As for Al Burton, who he briefly met when the “Lassie” producer spoke at his community college, it was through sheer persistence and a record number of phone calls to Burton’s receptionist that Pliska landed an interview with the producer. That interview led to an internship, which led to a mentorship throughout Pliska’s time at USC, a job at Castle Rock Entertainment and, till this day, an ongoing friendship. 

It wasn’t until 2013 that Pliska connected with the Tiger Woods Foundation. Under his leadership, the World Poker Tour teamed with TWF on Tiger’s Poker Night, an exclusive night of high-stakes poker during Tiger Jam weekend in Las Vegas with all proceeds benefiting the foundation. From the beginning, Pliska was all in when it came to the foundation and the work TWF did to provide education to disadvantaged students.   

“Adam Pliska and the World Poker Tour have been exemplary in their commitment to the Tiger Woods Foundation,” Michelle Bemis, TWF’s VP of events, said. “Adam and his team have forged a terrific partnership that has grown far beyond the original scope. Beyond poker night, Adam was interested in the direct impact we were making in the community and wanted to personally be involved in making a difference.”

Pliska’s involvement with TWF quickly grew beyond the World Poker Tour’s sponsorship of Tiger Jam. During a debrief of the organization, Pliska realized there was something about the foundation with which he could truly connect. 

“I have been around a lot of charitable organizations and foundations, and what I truly admired was the rigor and the seriousness without the pretentiousness.” Pliska said. “I see everyone at this organization working as if it’s their own children.” 

Pliska felt a kinship to the foundation and the Earl Woods Scholarship Program (EWSP) in particular. Like many of the scholars, he too was a first-generation college student. Pliska knew firsthand the challenges of growing up with financial limitations but was a walking testament to the power of education and perseverance. It wasn’t long before Pliska decided to join EWSP’s mentorship program. 

For more than two years, Pliska has been a mentor to Earl Woods Scholar Joanna Cheung. 

“Adam is a FANTASTIC mentor. He believes in the mission of TWF and finds so much in enriching the lives of our future leaders,” said Hilary Falk, who oversees the mentorship arm of EWSP. “He is always willing and open to offer a lending hand, and has been an integral part in Joanna’s growth personally, academically and professionally.” 

And for Pliska, he credits his mentor/mentee relationship with Cheung as being one of the most precious contributions he has made. In her, Pliska sees a bit of himself. He can relate to her humble upbringing, and, as he explains, they have a shared personality trait of being both introverted and extroverted. Pliska has witnessed firsthand the role that mentorship plays in shaping a young person’s life. 

“This organization is working, and I am seeing it work before my eyes,” Pliska said. 

He remembers first meeting Cheung, a shy young woman. Watching her coolly and charismatically share her college experience with Tiger Woods in front of a sea of cameras was one moment in particular that Pliska saw firsthand the immense growth in Cheung and the impact of the mentorship program. The reward has been watching her blossom and come out of her comfort zone through his guidance. 

“Joanna is exactly the type of person that we want in our future, the kind of person that I want running society,” Pliska said. “A good person. And she is smart and she is thoughtful to other people. I am reminded that she has no limits and that her future is as bright as she is and the joy that she brings. And that’s incredibly exciting for me.” 

As for Cheung, she credits much of her success in college to Pliska. A nano engineering major at UC San Diego, Cheung knows Pliska will always be a part of her life, even after she graduates from school. 

“I have gained so much from Adam that it is hard for me to know where to begin,” she said. “He changed my experience in college. He shared his experience and allowed me to learn from him. He relieved me of my stressful times when I was dealing with issues at work. He forced me out of my comfort zone, which was crucial to my success. Not only do I think of him as a mentor, but I think of him as a friend that I can always talk to.” 

In June 2016, Pliska, through the World Poker Tour and their Beijing-based parent company Ourgame, sent 14 Earl Woods Scholars, including Cheung, to China, offering them an opportunity that truly took them out of their familiar surroundings. Cristina Fernández, TWF’s senior director of programs, credits Pliska for giving these students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For the majority of the cohort, this was their first time leaving the U.S. and seeing another part of the world. 

“His sharing of TWF’s story to others inspired Ourgame to create a special opportunity for our scholars,” Fernández said. “He is the reason we are taking a group of our scholars on a trip to China. And for that, we are immensely grateful.” 

Pliska has truly served as one of TWF’s strongest advocates, largely because the mission of the foundation underscores his own fundamental belief that education changes an entire family’s trajectory — as it did for him and his family. When he looks back at his own graduation from USC’s film school, he acknowledges that his achievement was just as much his as it was his parents’. While his parents could not offer him hands-on guidance, he believes wholeheartedly that their silent support carried him along the way. His father, who was never afforded the opportunity to go to college, always encouraged Adam to look to others to guide him. The humbleness that his parents exude has stuck with Pliska. 

“It takes incredible human beings with an immense degree of humility to say that other people will know what to do,” Pliska said.  

He once again echoes his belief that education can single-handedly change the course of a family’s life when he reflects back to a graduation he attended of an Earl Woods Scholar. The young man and his father shared a poignant moment that stuck with Pliska. He recalls the young graduate saying to his father, “Today we succeeded.” 

“I have never experienced a more profound moment,” Pliska recalled. “I just thought this foundation didn’t just change a child’s life, it’s going to change his family’s life, their whole family. It gave them a degree of security; it brought their dignity back.” 
As the latest crop of students across the country head into their freshman year of college, Pliska offers them sound advice. He reminds students that education is never the wrong choice. And for those students who believe that college is only about landing a job and making money, Pliska would disagree. 

“College is not about graduating, job, money,” he said. “College gives us a model for how to live. It doesn’t point us to a destination; it gives us a direction. It teaches us that when we are ignorant, because we are all ignorant, there is information out there that can make us more whole. It has taught us that what we want often takes planning and patience and frustrations. It has taught us that rarely can we do it alone.”

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.