Card Collectors Still Struggle with the Idea of Gambling vs. the Sure Thing

Collectors have battled with the idea of rolling the dice for a very long time

Gregg Jefferies 1988 DonrussThe game has been played for as long as I can remember. And I’m old, so that’s kind of like a long time. Growing up as a young collector in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a kid, pack-buying grew more intense as cards became more complicated.

When I first began collecting in 1986, cards were pretty basic. You had your three main sets in Topps, Donruss, and Fleer, and, well, that was about all. Sure, there were oddball things out there and you could jump into other sports. But in general, the cards were pretty simple. In 1988, we saw the introduction of Score and in 1989, Bowman and Upper Deck. More and more choices were added every year and the rest is history.

Despite the new choices collectors suddenly had, though, the insert craze hadn’t yet begun in earnest, really, until the early 1990s. If you were buying packs in the 1980s, you were looking for things like Gregg Jefferies and Ken Griffey, Jr. rookies instead of 1/1 parallels.

Buying packs in pursuit of expensive cards isn’t anything new. The only thing that’s changed is the amounts of the cards inside. Instead of chasing, say, a $50 card, collectors are pursuing cards, in some extreme cases, that a thousand times more valuable. Does that make it worse? Nah. The concept is the same. What I find fascinating is the concept itself in general, which is obviously a form of gambling of sorts.

Gambling isn’t just limited to modern collectors, either. While pre-war collectors aren’t going out and buying unopened 1933 Goudey packs, they are still pulled in different directions and given the opportunity to hit it big themselves for a modest investment. That’s due to vintage set breaks and things like drawings where they are assigned a number and then given a card that corresponds with that number. It works differently but the concept isn’t really much different. You’re spending a specified amount in the hopes of hitting it big.

The question is, should you spend less for the chance at a big score or use that money and buy a card that is commensurate with the amount you’re spending?

A lightbulb

While I’m older now, I actually questioned the idea of splurging on packs in lieu of buying established singles a long time ago. The idea hit me when I was 15.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done my fair share of pack-buying. Opening packs as a kid and even an adult was just a lot of fun for me. Despite understanding the game, so to speak, that still didn’t prevent me from buying what could be meaningless packs instead of investing in more tangible assets. This has nothing to do with, excuse the pun, ripping pack-buyers or collectors buying into breaks as it is a hard look at the subject in general.

1993 J.T. Snow Topps Gold Rookie

Anyway, 15. There I was on a trip visiting relatives out of town. Aside from keeping an eye out for girls that I wasn’t likely to see again, my top goal in any out of town trip was pretty simple: find the nearest card shop and absolutely pester the crap out of someone long enough to take me. Keep in mind, in those days, there was no internet. Really, you were taking a flyer on anyone that was listed in the Yellow Pages. A baseball card shop could mean a massive storefront or some random dude in his basement with a shoddy homemade sign outside. Talk about gambling …

I was fortunate enough to find a shop, and a pretty good one at that. You know, a regular one with windows and everything. The store was full of the latest 1993 products and I’d settled on a few Topps baseball packs. I hit a jackpot of sorts when I landed not only a J.T. Snow rookie but his gold parallel rookie. At the time, Snow was one of the hotter prospects and I’d just landed his gold rookie, which, if I recall correctly, was worth something in the neighborhood of, I don’t know, like $15.

Upon seeing the card, the shop’s owner didn’t offer to buy it. Instead, he wanted to trade me about a dozen unopened packs for it. Upon thinking about it, I made the decision to decline. Said owner, a bit upset by this point, insisted that if I walked out of the store as I was planning to do with my new prize, the offer would drop down to ten packs. He’d just made my decision that much easier as I thanked him but proceeded to leave anyway.

Why did I turn it down? Pretty simple. I reasoned that whatever I would pull from the packs probably wasn’t going to be as good as the Snow. And while I might come out ahead financially with all of the cards from the pack, I was likely to end up with, at best, some $1-$3 cards that weren’t all that special. Easy call.

The Gamble or the Single?

Babe Ruth 1933 US CaramelHere’s the thing. I don’t buy packs at all, so this part of the equation is a non-factor for me. But as I said, this applies to pre-war collectors, too.

Plenty of options exist for pre-war collectors to participate in things like set or collection breaks as well as your run of the mill drawings. I’ve always looked at these with some degree of skepticism. Not that they wouldn’t be run fairly, only that the deal often seemed like a crummy one.

I saw one such break once. It was a collection of pre-war cards with the big prize of a card valued at about $2,000. Nice card, no doubt. But to buy in, it cost you around $50. Many of the cards in the break had a value of around $20-$30. A good number of cards in the lot had a value of about the cost of the buy in with a handful valued at a few hundred bucks in addition to the grand prize.

So, in other words, you had to land one of the 4-5 top cards to really make it worth your while. But with about 150 spots, what were the odds of that? And even if you landed one of the cards valued at about what you paid to buy in to essentially break even, what good is that if it’s a card you don’t really want? Add it all up and you had less than a 5% chance to really do well.

You don’t need me to tell you the alternative. You could take that $50, maybe pair it with a 20% off eBay deal off an already-discounted card and really do quite nicely.

Which is Correct?

Based on what I’ve written, you might think that I’m against buying high-dollar packs or participating in expensive breaks and the like. But that’s not really true. There’s something to be said for it. First, you can certainly come out ahead and, even if you don’t I suppose there’s a value for the entertainment factor and the thrill of being involved in taking a shot at a big score.

Now, none of that is for me. I’ve never bought into a break and don’t do the pack thing these days (I mean, other than when I’m writing self-absorbed articles and drawing attention to myself). But that doesn’t mean it’s not for you or anyone else. We all collect and buy differently. Really, there’s no right or wrong way to do this thing.

The ultimate result here is that, like anything else, collectors should buy what they want. If pack-buying or vintage breaks are your thing, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. What I’d add, though, is that it’s always worth taking a step back and realizing that while buying a nice card outright doesn’t match the glitz and glamour of the unknown, sometimes it’s the safer bet and easier way to build a meaningful collection.

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