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Trading cards: a risky gamble?

June 20, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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If you're part of the Baby Boomer generation and you collected trading cards in your childhood, you probably recall pitching them against a curb in the street, or wedging them into the spokes of a bicycle wheel. You grew up in the times before trading cards became commodities in the full sense of the word—before some collectors would pay hundreds or even thousands for one pack of cards and the chance of landing that one coveted superstar.

Michael Smith, co-founder and CEO of Chapter House Sober Living and Counseling Center in Dallas, recalls one of his first experiences as a young person during the trading boom period. Having acquired at age 13 a prized card featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Smith says a dealer immediately offered to write him a $200 check to turn it over. His first thought after accepting the money: “Maybe I can get another,” he says.

The discussion of whether trading cards represent a dangerous gaming exercise for too many people gets renewed from time to time in the national media, but appears to be a little-studied aspect of youth and young-adult behavior (overwhelmingly male) overall. In an interview with Addiction Professional, Smith at one point referred to prospecting for valuable cards as “an unspoken process addiction,” one with which he says he was intimately familiar.

“When I was dealing heroin in Portland, Maine, I got to telling people, 'Go to the local card shop and buy sets of cards instead of giving me money,'” Smith says. “I'd give them heroin for cards.”

Little acknowledgement

Smith says he has not recently seen examples of this behavior in the clients his transitional-living program for men serves, but sometimes he will hear colleagues in the field refer to a patient as a “collector” or someone who “prospects.”

Arnie Wexler, a recovering compulsive gambler who has served as a leader in the National Council on Problem Gambling and who with wife Sheila has helped many individuals and families affected by problem gambling, recalls one individual he encountered who after 20 years in a 12-Step program relapsed and began collecting baseball cards, with the notion that he “was going to corner the market.”

Wexler also said in an e-mail to Addiction Professional, “I just got off the phone with a guy who started with baseball and football cards and then went into all kinds of other stuff that came on the market, like Beanie Babies. … He quit his job and was just buying things, collectables, until he went broke, and is now in recovery.”

Smith explains that after a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a host of competing manufacturers were generating a glut of trading cards, prices dropped, demand slowed and several companies exited the market. The trend became one of card makers releasing limited-edition runs of autographed cards or other choice items, which led to the emergence of $50 packs and ultimately much higher amounts (Smith says he saw news of a $2,000 pack hitting the market recently).

In his younger days, Smith says, the feeling he experienced around acquiring trading cards resembled a casino experience. For him, “It got very out of control,” he says. Yet he says that while he believes the card industry has always capitalized on the gambling aspect of a buyer trying to land the big hit, there is little or no acknowledgement of this within the field.

He adds that the treatment community doesn't have a full picture of whether or how extreme behaviors around collecting cards might predispose young people to other problems and process addictions. This appears to be an area that has not been thoroughly researched.

Longstanding issue

The gambling component of trading cards certainly has been talked about for some time. An article published in The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa., in 1997 stated, “Individuals who bought dozens of boxed sets of cards annually during the 1980s gambled that their value would increase significantly and quickly. They expected to sell in the mid-1990s at enormous prices. Manufacturers, dealers, trade magazines, price guides and others encouraged this mindset. The profits never materialized.”

That article referenced a civil lawsuit that had been filed to challenge the legality of the limited-edition cards that had become popular in the 1990s, with the author stating that a suit might result in a full public airing of manufacturers' and dealers' methods. But while the number of makers and dealers has been declining, the gaming-like behaviors in the public continue unabated, now fueled by online vehicles for buying and trading.

It took years, but for many trading segued from “this innocent activity to big amounts of money per pack,” Smith says.