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Sports Card Grading 101

1. The Grading Companies-

Beckett Grading Services (BGS), PSA, and SCG are the only companies I consider to be qualified to grade a card. Beckett in my opinion is the best and most accurate. PSA and SCG are more geared toward vintage cards. Some people prefer PSA simply because they own a ton of PSA graded cards and the slabs fit together. A "Slab" is the case a grading company puts a graded card in.

2. The Grading Scales-

Beckett grades their cards on a scale of 1-10 with sub-grades (.5's). They grade a card based on these factors: Centering, Corners, Edges, and Surface. They give each attribute a grade of 1-10, then combine those to give the card a final grade of 1-10. Anything above a 9 is worth book value or greater, as a BGS 9 (known as a "Mint 9") is the condition expected of the card out of the pack. A 9.5 is Gem-Mint, which is a card that is nearly flawless, this is the condition most collectors shoot for. Then there is a "PRISTINE 10" which is the holy grail of cardboard. Pristine 10's are rarely handed out, a Pristine 10 can turn a $10 card into a $1,000 one. PSA Grades on a flat 1-10 scale and SCG Grades on a scale out of 100, which they then use to give the card a grade of 1-10.

Put Condition Into Context

The Brand

This probably confuses people most, expecting a high grade for certain card brands is not only unrealistic, but virtually impossible. A good example of this is Derek Jeter's 1993 SP Rookie Card. It books at $100, but the card's foil stock led to an insane amount of "out of the pack" imperfections. A BGS 9.5 of the 93' Jeter SP is worth $4,000 because of this. I can't even begin to imagine what a Pristine 10 would be worth.

On the flip side, there are the occasional brands in which the cards come out the pack in near perfect condition. In this case, a BGS 9.5 barely does a thing for the value. The simplest way to think about this "on the fly", is to imagine yourself opening a pack that contains the card your looking into and imagining how it would hold up against the elements (sleeving process, gentle bump to a corner or edges, moisture, etc.).

The Year

This is farley simple; Older cards grade lower than newer ones. This doesn't mean older cards are worth less, it simply means that less is expected in terms of condition. The older cards get, the worse the condition gets. The goal is to find cards that have been well taken care of.

What to do when you can't see a card in Person

The hardest and riskiest way to buy a card is when you can't see it in person. If the scan of the card you wish to buy seems to be hiding something or doesn't offer an accurate or visible picture, it's time to close your eyes and type. Simply ask the seller questions, below are a few sample ones, as the questions you will ask will be based on the situation. Hopefully, at the end of the article, you will have a grasp on the questions you should be asking, as every situation is different.

  1. Are all 4 corners sharp?
  2. I noticed _____ , is that on the card or on the case of the card?
  3. Are there any noticeable imperfections?

Now You're Ready To Practice "The Eye of Collector"................

This is extremely simple! Thanks to the Beckett Grading Services, we know the 5 primary attributes a card is graded on!

  1. Centering - Centering is basically the the width of the border. Ideally, the border size should be equal on the Left, Right, Top, and Bottom.  Sometimes judging the centering won't be as simple as looking for equal spaced borders. Bottom line,  the card should feel "balanced". If a card feels lopsided, this means the centering is off.
  2. Corners- In my opinion this is the most important and most "scrutinized" of the 4 attributes. A card with 4 sharp corners can trump other concerns, especially on older cards. Study all four corners looking at the front of the card first, then look at the back of the card. This is the best way to double check. If a corner shows imperfections on both sides, it's not your eyes playing tricks on you. Sometimes the ink, foil, or other factors can create the illusion of weak corner, so always be sure to check the back. If a corner or two is an eye sore to look at, your probably looking at a card that will grade out under an 8.5. Slight corner imperfections, such as barely visible "white" might be the difference between a BGS 9 and a BGS 9.5, but I've been pleasantly surprised and gotten 9.5's! I have found that I can be more critical of my cards than even a grader.
  3. Edges- This is the 4 edges of the card, this can be a tough one as well. Some brands are notoriously terrible with edges, especially cards with dark or black borders. At the same time, less is expected from these, so lower your expectations. Graders also look at the back for this too. I've been told that 20% of the cards grade is the back of the card, yet I don't think PSA or SCG really take the back into account unless there is something really bad going on. Edges should be sharp and the color should be constant. Imperfect edges have dings, dents, or subtle dis-colorations. As with corners, barely visible white isn't the end of the world.
  4. Surface- This is the condition of the cardboard as a whole. With Glossy cards such as Bowman Chrome, scratches on the surface can be an issue, as well as faded Autographs (which I will elaborate on next). While cards made with Foil Stock are prone to small pieces of foil coming off, leaving a "white speck" on the card. With older cards, the main concern is creases and moisture damage. Many 80's cards suffer from "ink smearing" and "stamp marks" that happen when the card goes through a print press. Many times a crease is hard to notice at first, as the picture on a card can hide one very well.
  5. Autographs-PSA and SGC don't grade Autographs, they just judge whether they are real or not. BGS on the other hand gives the autograph a separate grade of 1-10. This grade has nothing to do with the BGS grade given to the card itself. All graded Autographs must be "out of pack" autos (not hand signed in person). It is very easy to "eye grade" an Autograph. If the ink isn't smeared and the Autograph isn't faded, it will be a 10.

Although the grading process may technically be "scientific", learning how to look at a card has more to do with your gut reaction. If a card looks great, it looks great. There's a thin line between having "High Expectations" for condition and being "Paranoid about Perfection".

Now, go into the collecting world and develop the "Eye of the Collector", I have given you an outline and the building blocks. It is now up to you to practice and understand that I have only opened the door! Go to a Hobby store, look over your own collection, go on eBay, or a Card Show. Soon enough you won't have to think, as it will become second nature and a priceless part of your collecting arsenal.