Ryan Tepen panicked when he saw border patrol officers grasping machine guns.
It was 2 a.m. He had just quit his risk management job in Springfield, Illinois a week ago to move to Mexico, which at the time seemed like the right decision. Now, Tepen was not so sure as the Mexican border came into view. He saw torn-up fences and police flagging down cars for inspection. The highway lanes narrowed. His plan to travel to Mexico in hopes of reviving his poker career became less appealing as he drove closer to the Tijuana checkpoint.
“I thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life,” Tepen said.
When it came time for the police to search Tepen’s black Honda Civic, they found no drugs. Instead, they discovered a car full of misery with little money or hope to be found.
It was common for Tepen to lack money and optimism throughout the decade in which he tried — often unsuccessfully — to make poker his sole source of income. Tepen, a former Missouri long snapper and student coach, struggled to know when to call it quits from poker. His son’s arrival this past January helped him make that decision.
Tepen passed through the checkpoint without issue, but once through, could not get ahold of anyone he was supposed to meet up with. His iPhone switched to Mexico’s cell service as he drove by run-down buildings covered in spray paint. He couldn’t call his friends in Mexico because they could only use Skype.
Tepen decided to stop at a restaurant in Rosarito near the place he was told he would stay. Fortunately for Tepen, Chris Conrad, who Tepen became friends with on the previous year’s poker circuit, found him at the restaurant. It was a fortunate coincidence for the discombobulated Tepen. After they greeted each other, Conrad brought Tepen to the four-bedroom beachside penthouse where Tepen would live while in Mexico. Tepen slept on an air mattress in Conrad’s room so he would not have to pay for his own.
It wasn’t a smooth ride for Tepen to get there, but Conrad took care of him like he promised when he convinced Tepen to join him in Rosarito.
Back in Springfield, when Tepen slumped home after days filled with cold calls and zero friends, he often popped open a Busch Light and called Conrad. Conrad could hear Tepen’s misery through the phone. This wasn’t the professional poker player Conrad met who smiled enough in one day for 10 people.
So Conrad told Tepen to come to Rosarito, where it was legal to play on PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Cereus, three websites the U.S. shut down in 2011. This opportunity was too good for Tepen to pass up. Before long, Tepen was on his way to Rosarito with $100, hoping to restore his happiness.
Football or poker?
Tepen’s poker career began in Columbia’s bars during his freshman year in 2003.
Football became his top priority during his sophomore year in 2004 when he joined the team as a long snapper and scout team offensive lineman. He later found it too physically demanding, so he became a student coach. He helped coach the offensive line and in the weight room. Tepen planned to pursue coaching after graduation.
An online satellite poker tournament during his senior year in 2007 altered that path, though. Tepen took first place, winning a $12,000 prize package to the Bahamas. He stayed at the Atlantis resort for six days, where, of course, he played more poker.
While playing, he noticed 18- and 19-year-olds running around with “ungodly amounts of cash” of about $40-50,000.
“I was thinking: Do I really want to be a college football coach?” Tepen said. “Or maybe I ought to get better at this game.”
After he graduated from Missouri with an agricultural and business management degree in May 2007, he decided to pursue a poker career. Tepen’s mother, Debby, said she assumed he was going to get a more traditional job, so she was surprised, but she also knew her son.
“Ryan is the one who was always kind of a free spirit,” his mother said. “He always did what he wanted to.”
The next thing on Tepen’s to-do list after graduation: Play poker in Las Vegas.
He arrived just before the 2007 World Series of Poker. He got a side job as a reporter for Poker News, but his first night off, he won a tournament at Caesar’s Palace for $4,000. Add in the success he had playing cash games, and Tepen quickly reached $10,000 in earnings.
Within three months, he lost that money through poker. It forced Tepen to move back to Missouri.
After Las Vegas, Tepen returned to Columbia and began reading books on poker.
“I finally realized I had to do my homework and get better at poker,” Tepen said.
He later found a teacher in Bryan Devonshire, a professional gambler since 2003 who also backed other gamblers financially. Tepen met him in Las Vegas during his 2007 trip. When Tepen went back to Las Vegas during a vacation from his job at Kwik Trip in 2010, he ran into Devonshire again.
Tepen asked Devonshire to back him, which would provide Tepen with more stability. Devonshire would pay for Tepen’s entry fee to tournaments in return for a percentage of Tepen’s winnings. Devonshire agreed. He began backing Tepen in online tournaments while teaching him through an eight-part video series they created together.
“I watched him take things I taught him, and he would internalize it in his own way,” Devonshire said. “A month later, he would come back and teach me things about the same concept.”
Tepen won $50,000 in his first Los Angeles tournament during his second 2010 trip. He made $10,000 in the next tournament he played. He paid off credit card bills, and he was debt-free. He traveled to San Diego and then Philadelphia because he could. He sat courtside at a Bulls-76ers playoff game.
Soon after, his money disappeared. He wasn’t maintaining his poker success.
“When he would go through little slumps,” his mother said, “I would say, ‘Ryan you probably need to get a normal job instead of that up-and-down of poker.’”
Eventually, he took the risk management job in Springfield in 2013. Tepen said this was the greatest valley of his poker career. When asked about his lowest moment, he took more than a minute to answer.
“You try to forget the tough times,” he said.
Happy days awaited him when he joined Conrad in April for the Spring Championship of Online Poker. He won $50,000 in one week. When Tepen wasn’t winning, he was frequenting local restaurants, the movie theater and the strip club, a favorite stop for Tepen and his friends.
It became a high point for Tepen, one of the last he had in his poker career.
He stayed in Mexico for five weeks. He continued to try to make poker his sole source of income until he found out his girlfriend was pregnant before the World Series of Poker in 2016.
Michelle Scherder decided she would date a guy only if she met him at church.
“I talked to God, and this is how it had to be,” Scherder said.
Despite the difference in lifestyles, the self-proclaimed church girl and the poker player, Tepen, went on a date shortly after seeing each other at Christmas Eve mass in 2015 at St. Clement Catholic Church in Clement, Missouri. When Tepen told Scherder what he did for a living, she laughed. She didn’t think he was serious.
He told her to search his name on Google, and Scherder realized he was serious when she saw his name on poker websites.
Tepen’s poker career didn’t last much longer after he met Scherder. They had a son, Sebastian. His arrival prompted the need for stability.
Sebastian Tepen arrived on Jan. 27, about 13 months after Tepen and Scherder started dating. It brought about a different Tepen.
Tepen, 31, now drives slower. He rarely uses curse words. Instead of T-shirts and gym shorts, he will soon wear a suit and tie for his new job as a financial advisor at Edward Jones. He even missed a poker tournament to attend Scherder’s son Dominic’s first communion. Tepen now attends church every week.
Tepen also drinks maybe one day a week, a far cry from what he used to consume on the poker circuit where he said drinking was his drug.
He has changed so much that Scherder sometimes pushes him out of the house to go play poker. Tepen doesn’t play often, but Scherder wants him to get his poker fix from time to time.
“She is very supportive,” Tepen said.
Because of his dependability, Tepen has earned the nickname “wild card.” Similar to how a wild card improves a poker player’s hand, Tepen makes everything better for Scherder, she said.
“He makes my day better and makes me want to just love people more,” Scherder said.
Whether it was defending his friends in a bar fight or losing poker tournaments, Tepen said he wouldn’t trade the experiences he had playing the game. He continues to play in his free time, but he is in full dad mode now.
He no longer needs to go to Mexico to find happiness. Tepen can go home to his family instead.
And he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I have lived my retirement,” Tepen said. “People want to retire early so they can travel the world. I have traveled the world. I partied hard. I had a blast when I was in my 20s. Now, I have different priorities.”
Edited by Eli Lederman | firstname.lastname@example.org