Free Poker Tour Is a Dead Man's Hand

We know why you are underground, to many people looking for you.

By this summer, when he received his first e-mail death threat, plenty of people were looking for Matt Sowash. And at him: The Colorado Bureau of Investigation was investigating his Amateur Poker Tour for possible securities fraud. Investors, most of them poker players, had handed Sowash tens of thousands of dollars — their entire savings, in some cases — to buy into the game, believing that they'd all become millionaires. But now the Wheat Ridge company's pot was empty, and there wasn't enough cash to pay employees or give away prizes at the free poker games that APT sponsored at local bars. Sowash's investors realized they'd been bluffed.

Some of them stayed loyal to the company, hoping that if it survived, they might still get their money back. Others pursued legal action or cooperated with the CBI investigation.

Herb Beck took a different route. Back in December, the poker player had given Sowash $36,000 to save APT's first major tournament from collapse. Believing that Sowash had money stashed away somewhere, Beck had since hired a private investigator, Christopher Steelman, to dig up dirt. Steelman and Beck were soon plotting how to extort Sowash, maybe by kidnapping the kids he'd had with his now-ex-wife, Shannon. And if that failed, they had another plan for collecting: They'd buy a life insurance policy on Sowash and kill him.

Their preferred scenario involved rattlesnakes. Steelman would build a three-foot by three-foot by three-foot box and fill it with snakes. They'd kidnap Sowash, force his legs into the box and let the snakes bite him. Then they'd take him out on a hiking trail, remove the box and leave him for dead.

Or maybe they'd tamper with his car so that he'd die in a crash.

On June 18, the would-be killers sent an e-mail to Sowash:

As you know you are also being followed and investigated by CBI, FBI, State, to name a few. You do not have any friends. Which brings me to the point, we have been watching you for sometime and we have documented proof of everything that they want to know about you.

You think what you have been doing is legal! Let us be clear, don't be stupid. You know what you have been doing and now you know that others know.... Never mind about Shannon or the kids, we will tell her, and the kids. We know where they are. Hell, we may even be right outside their front door right now. Just to be clear, we have some interesting photos and live video feed. Now, we know you are a businessman. We will give you one option to resolve this quietly and with no more visits to your family and with no information falling into the wrong hands, which will put you in the hands of some friends that we have in prison.

You will bring $150,000, a small portion of what you have and owe, in cash, and you will start driving west on 44th at 3:30 p.m. You will receive a call, Monday June 18, 2007 at 3:31 p.m. You will be told where to go. You will be given all info on you and your games after pick up and we will be gone. You owe the debt, and it is your choice. Your choice creates the rest of your life. Advice, if you don't deliver, none of you will ever see us coming.

But Sowash didn't start driving west on 44th at 3:30 that day. He didn't even check his e-mail until after 4:30 p.m. And by 6 p.m., he was on the phone with CBI agent Ralph Gagliardi, describing the threat he'd just received.

The game of free poker was suddenly deadly serious.

Brian Masters, head of Denver Poker Tour and the self-proclaimed founder of free poker, is positively giddy as he searches forums on Yahoo and Topix.net for comments about Amateur Poker Tour and the plot to kill Sowash. He reads aloud random posts from around the country that crudely insult the man while suggesting better ways to murder him.

"I love this shit," Masters says, leaning back in his desk chair and folding his hands behind his head. "He's an asshole. Those retards deserve to go to jail. I just don't think they're going fast enough."

The tall, lanky and admittedly crude Masters makes no secret of his contempt for Sowash and his partner, Andrew "Doc" Hicks. He's bashed Amateur Poker Tour on web forums like Denverpoker.com — where a thread he started called "Has the APT gone too far?" has drawn more than 4,400 views — and frequently gets e-mails and phone calls from disgruntled APT employees, dealers, debtors, investors and players. There are three tape recorders on his desk that he uses to capture most of these conversations; he presses "play" on one. It's a former APT dealer who wants to deal for DPT now. "Why'd you leave APT?" Masters asks, unable to mask how much he enjoys asking the question. The dealer says something about not getting paid.

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Jessica Centers