I have an addiction that I deal with in increments of 1.8 grams at a time. Sometimes I’ll splurge and buy a box of my fix, but it’s the slow model of sales that gets me. As I open that pack and smell that delicious scent, I know that the craving will be sated. Oh, sometimes I get a pack that is worthless, but that one pack where I get something truly good out of it keeps me coming back for more and more. I am, of course, talking about my addiction to the Pokémon Trading Card Game, an addiction that has been with me off and on for over 10 years now.
Oh sure, you might be laughing. “How could anyone get addicted to pieces of cardboard?” you might ask. This is my story of how the addiction started… and how I relapsed after shaking the habit for almost eight years.
It all started out harmlessly enough. I loved playing Pokémon on my Game Boy, a present from my parents for some reason or another. So it was only a matter of time before I discovered that Nintendo had diversified the media that it was distributing its franchise in from games and TV shows to a Trading Card Game. In fact, that same card game had actually surpassed the popularity of the video games, which is one of the reason why Nintendo allowed Wizards of the Coast to license the game and sell it stateside. Wizards, which already ran the most successful trading card game of all time (Magic: The Gathering), took the Pokémon license and basically printed money for years before Nintendo took the rights back in July 2003. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
It was the Christmas season and I’d gotten a check from some relatives for $50. As obsessed as I was with the video games, I’d been reading lots about Pokémon on the Internet, where I came across some info about a “Trading Card Game.” I’d never played a trading card game before, but it was Pokémon, and that was good enough for me. I went into the local Waldenbooks– one of the few places in town to consistently carry product– and bought the deluxe starter box, which included two 30-card starter decks, a playmat, damage counters (real glass ones), a “rare” 1st Edition Machamp Holofoil card, and a rulebook. Then I proceeded to learn how to play.
At first it was a little difficult. I didn’t really have anyone to play with, so mostly I collected the cards. I read the rulebook religiously until I felt like I knew it front-to-back. There was nothing I didn’t know about the game. Then I started collecting packs, beginning with Jungle, which was the hot new release at that time. Surprisingly, the place I bought most of my packs from… well, the place my mom bought most of my packs from, was a Homeland grocery store that for some reason seemed to stock the cards, though you had to buy them from the cigarette seller since that was the only secure place in the store. Pokémania was still in full force, and stores learned early on that if they kept the cards out where little kids could get their hands on them, that said little kids would take a five-finger discount without even thinking about it. Honestly, I think that the reason the original cards were so valuable was for this very reason. I remember paying $5 for many of the packs I bought, even though the MSRP hovered around $2.99 at that time. It was definitely a seller’s market.
So early on in my addiction, while stuck in a 6-hour traffic jam on the interstate, I explained to my mom how to play the game. It was more to pass the time and describe why I liked it so much… and to take my mind off of how much I needed a bathroom break, but she was a quick student and before I knew it she was playing with me. But that was only the beginning. Before too long that Waldenbooks where I had gotten my first hit started up a brand new program called a Pokémon League. Just like in the video games, it was a place where the best of the best showed up in order to play each other. I started off just going to one league session (the store ran three back-to-back-to-back), but before a month had passed I would end up spending my entire afternoon in the store playing Pokémon and talking with friends. Indeed, it was at that store where I met some of my best friends for some time.
All the while I was still buying packs. It seemed like all of my allowance was going towards getting more and more cards so I could build better decks. It was a lot of fun, but the sheer amount of money I spent on cards back then makes me want to groan. It’s easy to justify $5 here, $20 there, but that adds up quickly if you’re not careful. I never seemed to have any money for my other pastimes because I was constantly buying cards.
Then tragedy struck. I left my Pokémon bag at my mom’s office one night, and that was the night that a group of kids decided to break in to steal her computer. Apparently one of them had seen my bag sitting there, and the Game Boy and games, plus all those trading cards, was too tempting to pass up. I never got back those cards, though I was able to buy some new ones thanks to some insurance money. They were dark days for sure.
That wasn’t the only dark cloud on the horizon. Waldenbooks stopped holding league sessions. I don’t know why, since both of the league leaders still worked for the store. I think it mainly had to do with how limited the space was in the store, compared to how big the turnout was– a turnout, might I add, that wasn’t buying books. It was then that I had to start looking for a new league.
So I started all over again. I was the kid with the crappy cards that was new to a league once again. It helped that a bunch of my friends had also made the transition with me, but it was still a daunting prospect. I had fun, though. The league held at OK Sports Collectibles (now sadly closed) always drew a large crowd, and this venue included something that Waldenbooks didn’t have: table space. Now instead of playing cards on the floor, I could sit across a table from my opponent. So what could have ended my Poké-journey on a sour note led to more fun and new opponents. It also helped that my core group of friends from Waldenbooks started meeting up together at various places in order to play each other.
That was a golden time, but it would have to come to an end eventually. My years-long hiatus from Pokémon started off completely the opposite way you’d expect. I took the Pokémon Professor Test multiple times and finally passed, slating myself as a Pokémon Professor. True, I wasn’t 18, so some of the perks were beyond my reach, but I could confidently rule on tricky card interactions. But just as I reached this milestone, I started being lured by other card games: Harry Potter and Yu-Gi-Oh! to be precise. My finances really couldn’t handle multiple games, and eventually Yu-Gi-Oh! won the fight for my card-playing money. Even with the Harry Potter game dying out just four sets into its run was not enough to let me support both my Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! habits. So I decided to go with Yu-Gi-Oh!. It really made sense at the time. More than half of the players showing up for Pokémon League were actually playing Yu-Gi-Oh!, and it just seemed a more rewarding game overall.
My pack spending had also grown truly outrageous at this time. I’m lucky that I was still a kid and living at home with my parents since pretty much every dollar I earned at my first few jobs went towards paying for my card addiction. Finally I just couldn’t justify it anymore. I decided I had to quit buying cards.
Not Pokémon cards. Not Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. All cards.
Of course, like many things in my life, this decision did not come about solely because I realized how much it was costing me to play this fun game. There were two major things that brought about the shift: Wizards lost the rights to Pokémon, and my parents and I moved across the country.
I’m not going to try to go into the various reasons why Wizards lost the rights, because they’re not generally talked about and no one real reason is known. I will say that it completely came out of left field from a player’s perspective. weeks before the big announcement came, Master Trainer Mike, one of the head Pokémon honchos at Wizards, had put up an extremely cryptic article on the Pokémon TCG site about the future of the card game and how there was great stuff to look forward to. Then suddenly it was announced that Wizards would not be distributing the cards anymore. The Pokémon Company would be taking over North American distribution through its North American subsidiary. Professors were sent thank-you boxes from Wizards with some of the final promo cards and also some samples of other games Wizards ran (Star Wars, mainly), and that was it. It was dramatic, but moving had a bigger effect on my personal decision to play the game.
My parents moved from Oklahoma to Virginia because of their work. I left that group of friends who still met about once a week to play Pokémon and have a good time talking about the game. I tried to stay in touch, but slowly I lost contact with them. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding yet another league and starting the process over again, so one day I was in Walmart and I chose not to go look at the trading card aisle. It wasn’t easy. I wanted to drift over the entire time I was in the store, but I knew that without my friends to play with, it would be pointless to keep buying new cards.
That was the end of my Pokémon addiction… or so I thought. Until last year when, on a whim, I decided to buy a pack of cards and see how the game had changed. It had changed. Pokémon seemed to have been taking steroids in my absence, but the game was still tons of fun. I was working at a library which had a bi-monthly Pokémon program. It’s wasn’t very well attended, but the kids that came loved to play the games. So I walked right back into my addiction– a little wiser this time.
Ok, so I do still buy packs on a whim. Sometimes I’m in Walmart for something completely unrelated and I’ll grab another pack of the newest set, but growing up has shown me that there are more important things in life than getting that Poké-high– things like eating and paying rent. I am sad that I missed years of the trading card game’s evolution. The fact that the vast majority of my old cards are effectively worthless due to all the rule changes is a bummer, but being able to sit down and play a game of skill against a friend is really worth it. Isn’t that one of the things that makes the video games so great?