Longform

Free Poker Tour Is a Dead Man's Hand

Page 4 of 10

The concept of free bar poker sounds so simple: Bar pays tour to deal poker game, players pay bar for drinks while playing, bar makes profit, tour makes profit, players have fun playing poker (sometimes winning prizes). Who would have thought that it would also include bouncing checks, bogus Vegas trips, hackers, pissing contests between tours, bars being stolen by tours from tours, and the list goes on. — August 7 post on DenverPoker.com.

Mark Cross, who today runs All-in Series Poker, started Amateur Poker Tour, sort of. He actually started Amateur Series Poker, which was APT's original name, and has the shirts to prove it — with a logo featuring a snake curled around a card. He uses the same logo for All-in Series Poker. The snake is a cobra, not a rattlesnake, but it's close enough that people who've heard of the murder plot want to buy his shirts.

Originally from Michigan, Cross moved to Denver from Venice Beach in 2001 and started a NASCAR collectibles store that failed after three years. In need of a job, he learned how to deal cards from a longtime friend. With her help, Cross got a job working for Masters. He dealt for DPT for thirteen months, until he showed up late to one game and Masters docked his pay by half. Cross didn't think that was fair, so he left and started his own tour in early 2006.

Cross is a short, soft-spoken man. He reads his chronology directly from a computer screen, where he's kept a timeline of all APT events at a lawyer's suggestion.

In May 2006, a player named Andrew Hicks started coming to Cross's games. Cross had met Hicks when he was dealing for DPT, and the player had left a good impression. When the girl with Hicks had gotten in a fight with another woman — a fight that had stopped the game and brought the cops — Hicks had tipped Cross $10 for his trouble.

A frequent player, Hicks was liked in the free poker community. But aside from the fact that he was friendly and tipped well, no one knew much about him. Cross had heard that he was a stockbroker. Lori Meyer, a former APT employee who now works for DPT, thought he sold insurance. They'd all heard that he wanted to start his own poker company and was looking for investors.

Hicks soon found a partner, Matt Sowash, who lived in the same Wheat Ridge apartment complex and worked as a broker. Sowash had grown up in Pennsylvania, and lived in Steamboat Springs for a dozen years before moving to Denver. He was not a poker player; he called the game "boring." But Sowash was extremely outgoing and told people he used to work in law enforcement — without mentioning the long list of money and breach-of-contract claims that had been filed against him around the state.

By September, Hicks and Sowash were coming to Cross's games together, saying they planned to start a company that hosted free games but made its money on Internet gambling. "The catch to get me to invest was not the local table games," Cross reads from his laptop. "It was to get money from a site they were going to run called SmartAcePoker.com. They were showing us the numbers to the online gaming thing, and they were huge. The point of the local games was to try to drive people to the money games. That was the original concept of how the thing was supposed to work."

Sowash showed Meyer the same site. She says he was a convincing salesman: All he had to do was look at people with his big blue eyes, tell them "I don't lie," and they believed him. "He was doing it with a company offshore, and he was going to make $25 million a year," she remembers him telling her.

Lured by the popularity of online gaming, Cross gave Hicks $6,000 — selling part of his stamp collection to do so. "This company started when I gave them the first check," Cross says. They decided to keep using the name Amateur Series Poker, and Cross continued dealing at nightly games while Hicks and Sowash concentrated on the business side of what they called a "marketing and promotions" company.

When his new partners asked Cross if he knew anyone else who might be interested in investing, he suggested April Osborn and Robert Breckley. Osborn was the friend who'd taught Cross how to deal, and Breckley was her partner. The couple wound up giving them a check for $50,000 — the entire nest egg they'd set aside to send their kids to college and cover any of life's unexpected expenses.

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Jessica Centers