Cardboard Memories: The history of poker trading cards

Brad Willis
Posted on: September 21, 2023 19:04 PDT

A few years after my old man died, my mom pulled a small ziplock bag out of his dresser and handed it to me. Inside were a couple of dozen baseball cards. Nolan Ryan. Willie McGee. Ozzie Smith.

The cards weren't in good shape, but I held onto them.

They are the only cards I own--and I own more than I care to admit--that are in a box labeled: "Never Sell."

I'm certain my dad secreted them in his dresser with the intention of selling them someday, but no matter how much I could earn putting them on eBay, the money would never amount to the peace of holding a baseball card my dad picked up in the early 80s when he was introducing me to the game and its players.

There is another small card collection here in my office that is not labeled with a "Never Sell" warning, but it might as well have one.

I didn't collect these cards as an investment. I collected them as memories of Chris Moneymaker changing all of our lives, of sitting at a bar at 3am next to Gavin Smith while we talked about our families, and of TJ Cloutier growling at me when I got too close to him at a craps table. All of the cards in that small collection are autographed and pieces of history, and they are worth much more than money to me. They are cardboard memories of a poker boom that is simultaneously ancient history and still happening right now.

This week, I read Haley Hintze's piece announcing a brand new poker trading card set coming out next year. My first thought was: of course, Haley wrote this (for those who don't know, she had a history in the trading card industry before she had one in poker1).

My second thought: this is very good news.

Here's the thing: trading card companies make cards to make money, so they do their damnedest to not produce cards for industries or games that are dying. It's telling that it's been a decade since anyone bothered producing a set of poker trading cards. And now we're about to get a new one.

What does that mean?

Well, to me it signals that there is at least one company outside of our poker bubble that believes this game and its industry still has legs.

And that, friends, is good news for poker and memories.

What are poker trading cards worth?

Let's be clear: in the sports trading card world where a single card can be worth millions, poker players' cards don't even tickle the financial Richter scale.

For now, anyway.

Poker has a grand and rich history, but it does not have Honus Wagners or Mickey Mantles. Nor does poker have more than a century of trading cards under its belt like baseball does.

Back in 1936, The Cope Bros. produced a 25-card poker set that essentially explained the rank of hands and rules of the game, but it wasn't until a couple of years into the Moneymaker Boom that a card company produced a set of cards that exclusively featured poker players.

As far as I can tell, November 1, 2006, was the first day anyone ever purchased a true poker trading card at auction. The winning bidder on eBay paid $10 for autographed cards from Antonio Esfandiari, TJ Cloutier, Kathy Liebert, Todd Brunson, and Evelyn Ng.

Yep. Two bucks a card.

This was the first time in history that a trading card company had attempted to distribute a poker trading card set that featured the stars of poker, and it was the first time anyone had bought those cards on the secondary market.

And that's actually saying something, because 15 years earlier, you probably could have bought a trading card about your own damned dog. Between 1988 and 1994, there wasn't a young entrepreneur with a piece of cardboard and can of ink who wasn't trying to produce a set of trading cards.

In the card hobby world, this is known as the "junk wax era," a time when the big trading card companies completely forgot about the concept of false scarcity and over-produced their own product and upstart companies flooded the market with trading cards for every possible sport, TV show, movie, cartoon, and neighborhood pet. It's actually a minor miracle that poker didn't get caught up in that frenzy.

It took until 2006 before a trading card company put together a full and pure poker trading card set. Razor Poker put out a 76-card set featuring the poker heroes of the era. And for the prospecting-minded among you readers, in a hobby that values rookie card above all others, all of the cards in that 2006 set will be considered the rookie cards for the pokers players on the checklist.

And yet.

Yeah, poker still isn't competing with the major sports in the trading card world in terms of how much the individual cards might be worth.

Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, and Chris Moneymaker might not be able to walk down the hallways in Vegas without being mobbed by fans, but they can probably go to Costco in a way that Shohei Ohtani, Erling Haaland, or Max Verstappen cannot.

Poker, unlike all the other sports, is one that's almost impossible to capture on a trading card. If Shohei's UCL gets twisted, Erling's ACL goes sideways, or Max's Red Bull loses its wings, a doctor or a sponsor will make sure those things get fixed every time. They are stars for life.

If you're a poker player?

Well, there ain't a doctor or corporate sponsor in sight when you're running bad, and there sure as hell isn't a trading card company wanting to make a card with your face on it.

That's what makes it so amazing that poker trading cards have ever existed and that some of them have sold for damned good money.

The most expensive poker trading cards in history

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm going to define a "poker trading card" as a card that exists in a set that:

  • features players primarily because they play poker
  • features the same structure and design elements as most traditional sports trading cards

Spoiler alert: There are only a handful of sets that will meet this criteria, so we're going to branch out beyond those bounds for just a second.

To wit: we have to recognize a few high-dollar items that have shown up over the years in the poker memorabilia world. This is my favorite.

Over the past few decades, there have likely been many pieces of poker memorabilia sold on the private market. Regardless, the item above is the most expensive piece of what the hobby calls "mem" (aka memorabilia) that was part of an organized set dedicated to only poker.

In the photo above, you see one of Stu Ungar's last autographs that was--I'm just supposing here--lifted by an assistant TD at the 1997 World Series of Poker. It sold at auction for nearly $2,300.

In terms of money, the next most expensive comes from (Bodhi's voice from the original Point Break), The Ex-Presidents. The most valuable pulls from previous poker player card sets were "autographs" from American Presidents who were well known for playing poker. In the card-collecting hobby, these signatures are known as "cut autos." Card companies go out and look for legitimate signatures from historic or otherwise famous people, cut those signatures out of their original document (often a paycheck or contract), and then place those cut-out signatures into a trading card.

The most expensive of those ever sold in a poker context was the cut auto of President John Quincy Adams as part of the 2007 Razor Poker Presidential Poker insert set. It last sold in September 2016 for $1,025.

After the Ex-Presidents come the "Celebrities Who Also Play Poker" cards category. This is where the overall cost-barrier to entry-to-the-hobby falls fairly dramatically.

At the peak of the most recent trading card boom (one that coincided with the COVID outbreak...aka when most adults of my age were stuck at home and thinking about their youth and simpler times), many collectors, investors, and speculators were spending every penny they had on trading cards.

While the late Jerry Buss was a noted poker player in his own right, he's best known as the one-time owner of the LA Lakers. In 2020, his 2011 Leaf Poker autograph card (one of 50 he signed) sold for $312.

While that might not seem like a big amount, it is the highest recorded sale of a Jerry Buss autograph I've been able to find over the past 25 years.

So, at this point, we're left with a chip bag receipt signed by Stuey, a cut auto signed by our boy JQ Adams, and an actual trading card signed by an NBA owner/celebrity who also played poker.

Not a lot to work with, huh?

So, if you had to guess, what poker player would have the top-selling poker trading card that came from a purely poker trading card set?

You don't have to guess.

You already know.

RIP Doyle

For many years, there existed a macabre hobby of declaring poker's Godfather dead. I never understood it, but I eventually accepted that I'd never understand what "doing it for the lulz" meant and that the RIP DOYLE crew would eventually have to pick one of their moms' basements for their clubhouse because the rest of their moms would have given up on their boys ever growing up and getting a job or something.

This year we had to face the inevitability of the basement boys losing their tired joke and poker losing its greatest champion. This year, we finally had to declare RIP DOYLE.

A couple of months after his death, this card, one of 25, sold for $499 (a bargain, if you ask me).

As much as I'd like to declare that amount as the biggest price ever played for a poker trading card, I just can't do it. Yes, it's the highest for a Doyle card, but that card was part of a larger set not purely dedicated to poker.

So, for the record:

If we look back to all the trading card sets that were put out as purely poker products and try to find the highest price paid for any one of those cards...

Yeah, it's still Doyle.

In May of 2013, someone paid $259 for an autographed cyan printing plate (the only one in existence) of Texas Dolly.

In 2024, we'll see the newest pure-poker set of cards we have seen in a decade, and if I know Leaf cards like I think I do, I'm pretty confident we'll see some Doyle Brunson masterpieces. Moreover, I'd bet that the cards in the upcoming set will be worth well more than anything we've seen sold so far in the hobby.

I'd encourage everyone to ignore this eventuality so I can collect them all as cheaply as possible.

The future of poker trading cards

If you had walked up to me last weekend at a cookout and told me to choose whether one of America's most expensive and technologically advanced airplanes was going to fall out of the sky in my home state OR that the booming 2023 trading card industry was planning to put out a poker set in 2024...I would have chosen the plane going down and parlayed it with the St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series (yes, of baseball).

But it wouldn't have mattered, because you'd have given me a freeroll. Both sides came in hard. The pilot survived (the plane did not), and we're about to get the first full set of poker cards in a decade.

So, you wonder, why should you be excited?

Well, it's probably not for the future of America's air armada, and it's probably not the money you'll earn from the trading cards.

Unless you're lucky enough to pull a Doyle, Daniel, or one of the Phils (collectively DDP2) you're probably not going to flip the card for a profit. Unless poker's shadow cult allows for young players and women to develop the same celebrity and sway as the DDP2, you'll be prospecting with the same level of accuracy as the cartoon gold miners who ran for the hills in the western United States and ended up as the fossil fuel they could have found in Oklahoma.

(NB: PokerOrg and its Editor-In-Chief neither recognize nor acknowledge the existence of Poker's Shadow Cult, and any reference to such entity that exists here is for the purpose of parody, satire, fancification, and two or three other words that don't exist...just like the Shadow Cult doesn't exist).

The future?

Well, I guess that is up to us.

As much as I love trading cards, it's not about trading cards. It's about how much you love the game. It's about how much you love the players. It's about how much you want to be a part of the game even if you can't play at its highest level.

It's telling and exciting to me that Brian Gray and his people at Leaf have decided to put out a full poker set for the first time in a decade. To me, that means Gray sees money in those hills for the first time in a long time. And if he and his company see money there, then we better damned well be paying attention if we're going to be any part of this industry.

But more than that...there is this.

I live just a few miles away from BMW's North American headquarters, and one of my closest friends happens to work for the company. As it happens, there is a big Pro-Am golf tourney here that BMW sponsors every year.

A few years back, my buddy and I took both of our boys to the tourney, and because my office is overrun with trading cards, I gave all four of our kids a card and a pen to carry with them. That day, they all walked out with baseball cards signed by Ozzie Smith, and we all left with memories that will last forever.

I won't lie. It was one of the best days of my life, and it confirmed everything I'd believed to be true about Ozzie since my old man told me who he was back in the early 80s.

I've been fortunate enough to work in the poker industry since 2004, and the money never mattered to me. Money is everywhere, but good stories are scarce, and good people are even more rare.

I wrote--for very little money--about poker and its people for the WPT and All In magazine before I founded the PokerStars Blog. Even while I worked for PokerStars over the course of 18 years, I found ways to tell poker stories that PokerStars didn't have any need to tell (not to mention non-poker stories I had to tell).

And I still--as early as this morning--ask myself the hardest question:

Why?

Seriously? Why bother with the industry, the government, the basement boys, the scammers, the ladder climbers, the ladder builders, and all of the people who wake up every day hoping their first step out of bed lands on somebody else's face?

Why?

Well, here's the thing: I've traveled the world, won and lost more money than I care to consider, and I've come back home to find--for better or worse--I've been in it not for the travel or the money, but for the people and the memories they gave me.

TJ Cloutier scared the hell out of me 17 years ago, and I bet he'd scare me tomorrow if I tried to slide into his craps game. Chris Moneymaker was beyond kind to me and made me feel like a damned rock star in a $2/$5 game at the Palms when I was playing with case money. And Gavin Smith...well, he was a better man than the vast majority of you will ever know or believe. That is all I'll say about that.

All three of those men deserved to have their faces, names, and autographs on a trading card as much or more than anyone else who is offered that opportunity today. And that's what poker trading cards are worth to me. It's not eBay. It's not how fast you can turn a profit on them.

Those poker cards sitting on the shelf here in my office are the cards my kids will someday put in a box, and my guess is the boys will label them: "Never sell."

And why?

Because Dad cared about them.


1While I was writing this piece, PokerOrg's Haley Hintze saw my first draft and pointed out that there was one set of poker cards that came out in 2005. While these cards were not traditional trading cards as the hobby thinks about them, they are of note. The 2005 Hero Decks poker editionfeatured actual playing cards with Daniel Negreanu as the A♣️ and--I literally can't stop laughing at this--Greg "Fossilman" Faymer as the 8♠️. Oh, and if you own one of these decks and want to sell it, I'm pretty easy to find online. (Yeah, they are actually readily available here). Here is a selection of some of the cards in the deck.