Former NFL All Pro and occasional poker player Evan Mathis has been at the center of a recent controversy involving “card trimming” in the sports card community, a scandal that in some ways is not unlike certain high profile scandals the poker world has faced over the years.
Given Mathis’ connection to poker — he came in 6th place in the $50,000 No Limit Hold’em at the PCA last January — and sports, we thought some of our readers might find the story interesting.
To get more insight on the scandal, we sat down with Jeff Hwang, the author of the Modern Baseball Card Investor to talk to him about card trimming, the recent scandal and the state of the card collecting hobby today. Poker players may also be familiar with Hwang as the best selling author of Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy and the three-volume Advanced Pot-Limit Omaha series.
Hi Jeff. Thanks for joining us. Can you first explain what card trimming is and how is it done? Any special talents or tools required?
Card trimming amounts to literally trimming off the edges of a card. Rough or jagged edges or bent corners can significantly affect the value of a card; trimming off the edges can effectively rid the card of such imperfections and result in perfect edges, though it obviously results in a physically smaller card. In this particular case, the speculation seems to be that Mathis used a paper trimmer acquired off eBay.
How long has card trimming been a problem in the industry?
Probably ever since cards have had value, and certainly since before the beginning of third party professional card grading services. The legendary Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner was the first card ever graded by PSA in 1991; that card graded an NM-MT 8 — still the highest grade ever awarded a T206 Wagner — though it was long speculated to have been altered.
In 2012, Bill Mastro was indicted on federal fraud charges and admitted to having doctored the T206 Wagner back in the 1980s.
What are your thoughts on the scandal involving Evan Mathis?
I think it’s about on par for the hobby. Back in 2014, I wrote a book called The Modern Baseball Card Investor.
I had gotten back into the hobby by chance, having noticed the spectacular values of modern baseball cards born with the advent of autographed cards; shorter-print runs and serialized cards; eBay and the internet in general; and the third-party grading services making it possible to gauge the condition of a card from across the world.
The presence of the third-party grading companies created a quality hierarchy and further scarcity as such. There were cards printed in the 2000s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the top end of card values having risen dramatically in the five years since.
Having written four books on poker strategy and having spent parts of a decade writing about investing in stocks (primarily gaming industry stocks), I was excited to examine the science of card values — like what is it that gives this piece of collectible cardboard real estate value — and talk strategies for building a collection with practical investment value.
But then I realized the whole game is rigged, and there are crooks everywhere. Right now, for example, there are huge questions about the quality of the cards in these graded card slabs, with large volumes of cards — many of them modern cards — being submitted by a small number of investors, collectors and cosigners, with plausible evidence of these cards being doctored.
Assuming such cards are in fact altered, the grading company either can’t tell the difference (and if they can’t, then their grade isn’t worth anything), or they are complicit in the crime.
Take your pick. Which again goes right back to the very beginning with the “PSA 8” Gretzky Wagner.
There is very little pure in this hobby. Though I will say I enjoyed the experiment, and my Mike Trout collection has appreciated a bit.
What suggestions do you have for card traders in protecting themselves from being scammed?
Eesh. Well for starters, do your research before you start buying anything. I would start with the online discussion forums.
For sports card collectors that have been stepped away from the hobby over the last 10-20 years, can you tell us what has changed about the industry, current trends and things casual card collectors might be surprised about?
There is an absolute ton of money being thrown around on sports cards, and the fact that nobody knows it means that there is still a ton of potential upside in card values. This is, of course, barring issues like card trimming — which unfortunately seem quite standard — and macroeconomic factors (for example, a global depression would probably deflate card values pretty quickly).
This is kind of why I wrote the book. If you’re like me, you collected cards as a kid but then realized that conditions have changed dramatically since the bubble of the late 1980s and early 1990s. You might not know there was a way to get back into the hobby and have a small or large collection that might appreciate in value over time. It might pique your interest.
Is there anything else you want to share about your book or about yourself?
In addition to The Modern Baseball Card Investor, I have also written four books on poker strategy, numerous Card Player magazine articles, and many articles about the casino gaming industry primarily for The Motley Fool and Global Gaming Business, among others.
The Modern Baseball Card Investor is to me probably both the best thing I ever wrote, and the thing the fewest people have read. There’s probably some poetry in that.