Pulling Back the Curtain on Pokemon Card Grading

Graded Pokemon cards keep making the news, as vintage cards keep selling for more and more. Recently, the Pokemon Trading Card Game has made headlines, as celebrities and collectors keep shelling out big bucks to add graded Pokemon cards to their collection. This, of course, has led thousands of fans to pull out their Pokemon card collections to see if they have a card that could be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To the average Pokemon fan, grading cards is a bit of a mystery, so ComicBook.com decided to reach out to Certified Guaranty Company (CGC), one of the top collectibles grading services, to find out about the process of grading cards and why Pokemon cards have gotten so popular. CGC put us in touch with Charlie Hurlocker, CGC's Senior Pokemon TCG Consultant Specialist. Hurlocker is the point person for Pokemon cards at the company, providing them with critical information about rare cards, managing their database, and ensuring that cards are labelled correctly and takes into account the peculiarities of different set releases. Hurlocker provided tons of valuable information about the Pokemon grading process along with his thoughts about why Pokemon cards have become all the rate this year.

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(Photo: CGC)

ComicBook.com: So the first question is a question that our readers ask us all the time. When should someone decide to get a Pokemon card graded?

Charlie Hurlocker: So that's actually a really personal decision. There's a lot of reasons that people choose to get their cards graded. I think one of the biggest misnomers is that financial incentives are the number one reason that people grade their cards, but they're really not. The majority of people are grading cards because they genuinely love them. They have nostalgic connection to them. They represent good memories, and they want to encapsulate those and make sure that those permanently protected in the state that they had enjoyed them, or at least the most recent state since they've enjoyed them. If it's a childhood collection, it may not be in the condition that your childhood brain remembers to then.

But yeah, in addition to that, it does generally have a value increase if they tend to be in good condition.

My personal position is that grading is always a good idea for anything I would say over $10, just because it gives somebody who doesn't have years and years and years of professional experience with the cards definitive proof that it is authentic and that it is assessed in a specific condition. That's going to be able to help you with protecting your cards, it's going to help you with selling your cards, it's going to help you in the future because even if you don't want to sell your cards, someone's going to one day.

What are the exact criteria that factor into a card's grade?

With CGC, you have the option of subgrades that will actually break down each of those criteria. The first one is just centering, which is how well the card is center on the card.

Then you have three major conditional situations, which are post-production because centering is just how it was printed. Those are the surfaces, the edges and the corners, which are the parts of the card that take damage over time and sometimes on the offset. I mean, you're not guaranteed a perfect card out of a booster pack, that's for sure. And so you have sometimes on the surface, you can have any sort of issues like scratching on it, especially if you have like a glossier card or a card that's a holofoil, that's going to show a lot of the scratching because it's a very soft material there.

If you're talking about the corners and the edges, people look for whitening. They're looking for nicks to the paper, lifts of the paper, because a card is made up of multiple layers so sometimes the layer will start to become removed, especially if it's been exposed to humidity over time. Sometimes people see their cards and they look like Pringles. They've curled up over time, especially that's the humidity affecting the holofoil and pulling in the paper. And when that happens, sometimes the edges will lift and you can have all sorts of issues. And so, yeah, that's sort of part of the complexity of grading and that's why you pay professionals to do it for you.

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(Photo: CGC)

So why do you think the Pokemon card market, especially vintage cards, has just exploded in recent months? And do you think that there's any particular factor that's driving that? Or is this just one of those things where something's like hit critical mass?

It's a convergence of factors. The first thing that a lot of people would point to is that pandemic has kept people at home and people at home are talking to communities online. They're rediscovering hobbies and that has obviously fueled the amount of time that people can dedicate. And naturally when we put our times into things, we tend to put money into them as well. So I do think that that's a big factor.

Also, a lot of these cards are just incredibly rare. A lot of the hallmark cards that people are seeing, you're talking about stuff that was at released 20 years ago now. And that's the vintage market specifically. The Wizards of the Coast era ends in 2003, so we're coming up on 20 years since the end of it. But the first releases of the pre-TCG cards was in 1995. So on average, we're about 20 years out now.

And you also have a factor of generational interest that's happening. One of the things that Pokemon has done really well is to continue to capture and remain relevant with younger generations. So kids today still know Pokemon, just like you did, just like I did. And so that's been a huge factor as well because people are getting into it with their kids. Kids are home from school. And this is where there's an interweaving of all of these different factors. People are looking for something fun to do with kids, they pull up YouTube, they start watching pack openings and maybe they pick up some packs for the kids and it's all downhill from there.

And another factor too on top of that is that the Pokemon Company has been allocating and limiting how much it's releasing with some of these sets. And that's not something that was really part of the strategy in the past. And that scarcity has caused a lot of people to buy in even harder, because people are like, "Wow, in the past I always felt confident that I could go and grab another pack if I wanted to." But when you're not sure if there's another pack and you're looking at 10 on the shelf, you're more inclined to just buy all 10. And I think that that's been a big factor as well. I think that allocating the product has led to people buying it more aggressively. And that's why you see just as much growth in modern [Pokemon card re-selling] as you do in vintage.

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(Photo: CGC)

Do you think it's worth getting into the modern Pokemon cards as a collector? Will those cards hold value and would they be worth getting graded? Or would it be better to turn and sell an in-demand card as soon as possible while the market's hot?

I don't want to give super pointed financial agreements, so take this is just my personal opinion and not a recommendation of what you should do. But as for me, I have a lot of confidence in the modern market. I think that what we're seeing is a lot of people, as much as they love vintage, vintage is becoming less and less and less and less accessible.

The other thing about vintage is that vintage doesn't really change. There's a very limited amount of news and the news tends to be entirely centered around earning new prices or famous collections maybe being broken down into pieces, but I think the people who are actively involved in this hobby, they want a dynamic experience in addition to that old school nostalgic love for the vintage stuff.

The other thing is that Pokemon's really hitting these modern releases out of the park. They've introduced new concepts. They've introduced new distribution methods, they're pushing new languages. That's something that we haven't seen, there are languages that were retired in the early 2000s that are being re-introduced. So I think that this is really like a global phenomenon. And so as those barriers have been reduced and reduced and reduced and reduced over time, you've just seen a ton of interest and those people tend to be getting into modern cards. And I think that the appeal of Pokemon again is so broad and it applies to so many people in so many different walks of life that to expect the majority of them to specifically go for vintage, I think is sort of a perspective that you can only really have if you have a personal nostalgia, because you want everybody to want to go for that.

The reality is that Pokemon has always been driven by the check lane blister. And that is that the kid in a big box retail store grabbing a $4 pack off of the shelf, that is the core experience of Pokemon. And so that lends itself entirely to modern and I don't think that that's going to go away, I think that people are going to continue to go for modern because of its dynamic accessible nature.

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Charlie Hurlocker is CGC's Senior Pokemon TCG Consultant Specialist. You can find him on Instagram at @charliecollects to find pictures of his impressive Pokemon card collection.