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Sports Card Grading 101 Guide

Sports Card Grading Guide

So you want to know more about grading cards, but don't know where to start? Our guide is here to help.

The Grading Companies

Beckett Grading Services (BGS), PSA and SGC are the main companies used to grade a card. In general, BGS is preferred for modern cards, while PSA is the favorite for vintage cards.

The Grading Scales

Beckett grades their cards on a scale of 1-10 with sub-grades (.5s). PSA Grades on a flat 1-10 scale and SGC Grades on a scale out of 100, which they then use to give the card a grade of 1-10.

Cards are graded 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 BGS 9 (known as a "Mint 9") is the condition expected of the card out of the pack. A grade of 9.5 is Gem-Mint, which is a card that is nearly flawless. This is the condition most collectors want. Then there is a "PRISTINE 10" which is the holy grail of cardboard. Pristine 10s are rarely handed out. A Pristine 10 can turn a $10 card into a $1,000 one.

Putting 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. The card's foil stock led to an insane amount of "out of the pack" imperfections. As a result, high-grades sell for thousands while average grades go for much less.

On the flip side, there are the occasional sets in which a majority of the cards come out the pack in near perfect condition. In this case, a BGS 9.5 barely does a thing for the value. If you want to understand how to approach this, think about opening a pack and imagine how the cards would hold up over time (sleeving process, gentle bump to a corner or edges, moisture, etc...).

The Year

The year is fairly simple as 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 and are in better condition than the norm.

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 to help clear up anything you aren't certain about. A few sample questions are shown below.

  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 Beckett Grading Services, we know the five primary attributes used to grade a card.

  1. Centering: Centering is basically the width of the border. Ideally, the border sizing 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. The bottom line is that the card should feel balanced. If a card appears lopsided, this means the centering is off.
  2. Corners: This is arguably the most important and most scrutinized of the grading attributes. A card with four sharp corners can alleviate 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 a weak corner, so always be sure to check the back. If a corner or two is an eyesore to look at, your probably looking at a card that will grade under 8.5. Slight corner imperfections, such as barely visible white might be the difference between a BGS 9 and a BGS 9.5, but can also result in no change.
  3. Edges: The four edges of a card are important, 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. Edges should be sharp and the color should be constant. Imperfect edges have dings, dents or subtle discolorations. As with corners, barely visible white isn't the end of the world.
  4. Surface: Surface 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. In addition, cards made with foil stock are prone to small pieces of foil coming off, leaving white specks on the card. With older cards, the main concern is creases and moisture damage. Many 1980s 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: The autograph grade has nothing to do with the grade given to the card itself. If the ink isn't smeared and the autograph isn't faded, it will normally be a 10. All graded autographs must be "out of pack" autos (not hand-signed or in-person). It is very easy to "eye grade" an autograph.

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.

Looking to buy graded cards?

Be sure to check out our additional guides for more information about grading.

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