2 former battery store workers who made thousands in GameStop trading saga tell their story

The GameStop mania of 2021 was described as a David vs. Goliath story: a populist revolt of day-traders against the establishment.

ByJon Sarlin, CNN Business, CNNWire
Friday, February 4, 2022
Why is GameStop's stock surging?
Why is GameStop's stock surging?

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Missouri -- It's like seeing double.

The virtually rendered bright yellow Honda Civic Type R Limited Edition that AJ Vanover is racing in Forza Horizon 5 on his new Xbox Series X - which sits next to an equally fresh Nintendo Switch and PS5 - on his new 70" TV looks almost identical to the actual bright yellow 2021 Honda Civic Type R Limited Edition that's sitting in the garage of his new four-bedroom home.

All of it bought with GameStop money. Some of it bought at GameStop.

The video featured in the player above is from a previous report.

Vanover is one of the lucky amateur traders who bought GameStop options before its Reddit-fueled stock boom last January. A year ago, he was working in a battery store in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, alongside his best friend George Adams, who goes by the nickname "Rash," each of them earning $35,000 a year. But a casual interest in investing, spurred by the potent combination of the trading platform Robinhood and social media giant Reddit - turned a bet of a few thousand dollars into a life-changing windfall for the childhood friends.

Vanover and Adams, both 32 and with partners and children, cashed out - Vanover with around $300,000 and Adams with about $900,000 - using their windfall to quit their jobs at Ellis Battery (after politely giving two weeks notice) to become full-time day traders.

The popular narrative that quickly formed about the GameStop mania of 2021 was a David vs. Goliath story: a populist revolt of day-traders against the establishment.

And if pressed to draw a picture of self-taught Redditors who hit the jackpot far from Wall Street, it would be hard to do better than Vanover and Adams: shaggy-haired best friends who long harbored ambitions beyond the limited opportunities offered by their hometown who won big on a once-in-a-lifetime trade that upended their lives.

"Wayne's World," meet "The Wolf of Wall Street."

But unlike the many on WallStreetBets and Reddit who gambled and lost, Vanover and Adams were winners, having sold their initial options worth thousands of dollars for a life-changing amount of money. But with markets and meme stocks suffering a tumultuous few months, both are struggling to match their previous returns, and discovering the challenges of giving up a regular paycheck for a dream.

"I don't feel like a pro," Vanover admits, sitting at his basement trading desk with detailed charts of GameStop and AMC on a monitor flanked by a shelf filled with hundreds of Dungeon & Dragon figurines. "But I'm acting like a pro."

"When the times are good and when you're making money, it all feels great," says Adams, who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Numb the pain with the money." "And when the times are bad and you're losing, you can evaluate it like that and say, you know, 'I don't have a consistent paycheck.' There's no way to guarantee my future doing this."

AJ Vanover and George "Rash" Adams cashed out using their windfall to quit their jobs at Ellis Battery to become full-time day traders.

Scheming in "The Land of Dread"

Vanover and Adams like to call themselves schemers.

Growing up in the small agricultural town of Sikeston, Missouri, about two hours outside of St. Louis, the two knew by high school that they had to get out. Adam's father worked in auto parts, and Vanover's was a public safety officer. For bright and ambitious kids who don't come from big farming families, Sikeston can seem like a dead end.

"'The Land of Dread' is what I call it," says Adams. Deadpans Vanover, "It's about as far North as South goes."

The region once had bountiful opportunities for workers at the farms that blanket the area, according to Frank Nickell, a local historian and retired professor at Southeast Missouri State University. But agricultural automation led to fewer jobs and concentrated wealth among the area's land-owning farmers.

"We have individuals now who own 20, 30, 40-thousand acres controlled by holding companies," says Nickell.

In Sikeston, the two fell into different roles. Quiet and introspective, Vanover was the ambitious dreamer. Adams, the extrovert, became Vanover's hype man.

They started coming up with business schemes when they worked at Domino's in their 20s. First, there was the frog farm. "I do love frog legs," says Vanover. Then it was a cricket farm. "I think there are some kind of... edible possibilities," he added.

"That's where it's interesting!" Adams chimes in.

"Our idea was some kind of bread. Some kind of 'protein' bread," Vanover says.

"Who knows, if the apocalypse hits, then we've got all the crickets!" Adams laughs.

After he left Domino's, Adams got a tattoo of a pizza surrounded by the words "WHATS FOR SUFFER" inked on his ribs - the most painful place he could think of - to remind himself that he wanted more than a low-wage life.

But it was in that Domino's kitchen, amidst orders of Philly cheese steak pizzas and Brownie Bombs, that Vanover first explained to Adams his latest plan: stock trading.

AJ Vanover and George "Rash" Adams play video games in Adam's new home.

GameStop enters

For young traders like Vanover, whose ambition outstrips their capital, options trading is an alluring temptation.

Highly risky and highly leveraged, such trades allow users to purchase an option to buy or sell, say, 100 shares of a stock at a set price in the future. In practice, especially for amateur investors, it can resemble gambling more than investing.

Few options are more risky than "weeklies" - short-term trades with values that fluctuate wildly as their expiration dates draw closer. A 1% stock move could mean a 50% return on a weekly call, or quickly render one worthless.

Weeklies afforded Vanover the perfect combination: the potential for high returns with minimal capital investment. He got hooked on options trading in 2019 after he turned $50 worth of options on Disney into a surprising $3,087. (Both Vanover and Adams are quick to pull exact numbers of their trades from memory.) Drawn in by the gamified experience of Robinhood, the pair got hooked on the thrills of options trading.

In August 2020, an intriguing company caught Vanover's eye. An avid gamer, he wondered how the stocks of video game retailers performed when a new video game console cycle began. Looking at data that showed a spike during prior console releases, he saw the impending launch of Sony and Microsoft's new gaming consoles as an opening, and decided to buy short-term options in the company he figured would most benefit: GameStop.

On Reddit's WallStreetBets - the chaotic subreddit that celebrates risking your entire net worth ("YOLOing") in a single trade - Vanover found like-minded traders who also talked about GameStop, giving him the confidence to trust his hunch.

During their down time at Ellis Battery, where they were fixing iPhones and swapping out car batteries, Vanover told Adams about his latest trade idea: a new era in video games was dawning. Adams, always one to trust Vanover's plan, needed little convincing.

Diamond Hands

The chaotic weeks of GameStop trading in January 2021 are now financial legend.

Priced at around $18 at the end of 2020, the video game retailer's stock captured the imagination of retail traders - particularly the gleefully nihilistic traders of WallStreetBets - catapulting the stock up 1,745% on a single January day, peaking at $483 on January 28.

The stock's chaotic rise became an international frenzy. The diamond hand horde of Redditors taking on Wall Street. GameStop moved from the front page of Reddit to the front page of The New York Times.

The meteoric rise in GameStop's stock, as traders congregating on Reddit and Discord take on short sellers and hedge funds, is hard to look away from.

Fortunes were made and lost overnight. Hollywood came calling. And in Cape Girardeau, AJ Vanover and Rash Adams, whose four-figure investments now somehow ballooned into seven, could not believe their luck.

Adams remembers lying on the floor, crippled by anxiety. His nickname may be Rash, but he's generally the more risk-averse of the pair. With his Robinhood portfolio fluctuating by hundreds of thousands of dollars - amounts that once would have taken him a decade to earn - Adams decided to sell it all. After his two GameStop options he bought for a few thousand dollars sold for $947,972, Adams needed a walk around the block soundtracked by the rap duo Run the Jewels to bring him back down to earth.

Vanover held on longer - too long, it turns out. At one point his portfolio was worth $1,197,107, but he ultimately sold his options for just under $300,000.

The two quit their jobs, stashed enough money away for taxes, and set out to take full opportunity of their next chapter.

They did it once with nothing. Now they actually had something to play with.

"The Wheel" turns

The GameStop adventure changed Vanover. His once massive beard and long hair have been cut. Now he peppers his speech with trading terms like "value play" and "momentum trade" whenever options are brought up - which, for Vanover, is all the time.

While Vanover admits that there was an element of luck in his GameStop trade, he maintains that he had the smarts to bet big on something that the market didn't see. He now trusts his gut and plays the market with his sizable, if diminished, trading account.

When we spoke last year, Vanover had said he planned to use his GameStop windfall to transition from buying options to selling them, a strategy described by the Very Online retail trading set as "The Wheel."

Benn Eifert, founder and CIO of the hedge fund QVR Advisors, describes The Wheel as a common strategy that is often misleadingly marketed to retail investors as lower risk. While it is often less risky than buying options, selling options has a limited upside, and is generally profitable when volatility is low.

"Old mutual funds like to do this stuff. You can see the return profiles, and it's terrible," says Eifert.

Both Adams and Vanover claim that The Wheel has so far been profitable for them, but they haven't stuck to it exclusively. The prospect of hitting big on a weekly is just too great to pass up.

"It's kind of like buying a lottery [ticket]," says Adams. "Even if you don't want to put much money on it, there's a chance for 10, 20, 30x returns, which is just kind of hard to pass up."

But not putting "much money" into a trade now has a very different meaning for the pair than it did a couple years ago. The weeklies that the two now deal in on Robinhood can cost more than their annual salaries back at Ellis Battery. Adams says that he often holds onto them for only a few minutes before selling.

"When you got some extra money where it's almost like burning a hole in your pocket, you get fifty grand worth of [options]," says Adams. "You're like, 'f*** it,' I'll buy a thousand shares of this."

Both have taken hits this year, especially over the last few months. Vanover, once willing to flash his Robinhood portfolio on camera, is now reluctant. Adams is more comfortable talking about his losses, explaining that in the volatile world of options trading, you need to steel yourself for downturns. He's lost $400,000 since his portfolio peaked last September, according to screenshots provided to CNN, but remains confident that the market will move back in his favor.

"You get a little numb to it," says Adams. "It's just the way the market is. You can either sell it for a loss or hold on and try to recoup some."

When asked if they have ever met professional traders, the pair reject the idea that they themselves aren't professionals. "That's what I do for income," says Adams. "So it is a profession at this point."

With the media attention that he received, Vanover explains that some people in town began to treat him differently, giving more weight to his opinions and - of course - hitting him up for the latest stock tip. He generally recommends Ford.

For Adams, having money for the first time certainly has its perks. Showing off the YouTube for his retro synth pop band Noir Daze, Adams explains the uncharacteristically high view count of his band's latest video. "A little bit of GameStop money," Adams says with a smile, "goes a long way with YouTube ads."

"I wanted time"

Vanover hoped that quitting his job would afford him the freedom to live life on his own schedule. "I was hoping for time. I wanted time," says Vanover. "Not being forced to do something when I'd rather be doing something else."

But time has been hard to come by.

When he was working behind the counter at Ellis Battery, Vanover's typical workweek was around 40 hours. Now a self-employed trader, he estimates his typical workweek is 80 to 90 hours of trading and research. "It's constantly thinking about what's going on in the market," says Vanover. "All the time. I mean, all the time... It's a lot of stress."

Now he's now trying to shift to a more passive trading strategy to cut down on the hours he's tied to his phone and computer.

Adams, by contrast, says he works fewer than 10 hours a week. Unlike Vanover, he bought his house with cash and doesn't have to worry about mortgage payments.

"At the end of the day, if after taxes I end up losing all the money in the account and gotta go back to work, I've at least gotten a house out of it," says Adams, who uses his new free time for gaming and playing bass. He's recently gotten into VR with a new Oculus headset.

AJ Vanover watches George "Rash" Adams play on his Oculus VR headset.

But he has trouble sleeping, and recently started therapy to cope with what he describes as the most stressful year of his life. After he sold his GameStop shares in January, he fell into a deep depression.

"Not having a set schedule and job that you go to is really detrimental for someone like me," he said.

Vanover and Adams point to another stressor: having livelihoods tied to the whims of global markets. The two friends - far removed from their Domino's days - are closely monitoring the conflict in Ukraine and last month's uprising in Kazakhstan for any market effects.

"Everything is always up in the air," sighs Adams.

The drastic run-up of a single stock on Wall Street that rocked our financial system to its core was one of this year's first big stories, and now, the tale is the subject of a new

An uncertain future

The two constantly talk about new trade possibilities, generally chatting over Discord. Vanover remains the ideas guy, proposing trades that Adams often buys into. Both are bullish on uranium producers. They disagree on Roblox.

But Vanover, who says that at times he has imposter syndrome trading in such large amounts, doesn't know what his future in trading options might hold. Does he worry that his GameStop trade was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

"Could be. And that's what I asked myself at first," Vanover says. "But I know I can at least pick 100% returns. Double my money... that's my confidence in my system."

Now burned by the lack of control that comes from living off the markets, Vanover and Adams are looking for local investments. They both like the idea of opening up a music venue on Cape Girardeau's historic Main Street - current working title is "Rash Dudeman's Rock N' Roll Pizza Palace." Maybe give Domino's some competition.

But today Vanover and Adams' music venue/recording studio/pizza restaurant is only another of their schemes-in-waiting. For now, there are more options to be traded.

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