The procession is about to begin.

Just outside the convention center ballroom, King Pokémon stands hunched, his tall frame bent forward, anticipating. With his warm eyes and smooth jowls, he’s more gentle giant than monarch. And dressed as he is, in sweatpants and sneakers, he’s more common folk than sovereign. Still, everyone here knows him by his regal nickname.

“We’re honored to have the one and only King Pokémon!” an announcer calls out.

On this mid-March day, he strides into Collect-A-Con, a two-day, first-of-its-kind conference dedicated to non-sports trading cards, in Frisco, Texas. By his side are fellow Pokémon royalty — RealBreakingNate and Leonhart, two mega-popular Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) YouTubers. Making his way through the cheering crowd, King Pokémon waves and smiles, his demeanor that of a kid popping bubbles: lit-up, blissful.

The King is Gary Haase, a 67-year-old father of three from Las Vegas. His Pokémon TCG collection’s estimated total value is more than $10 million, making it the most expensive in the world. In this windowless Embassy Suites ballroom, owning top-tier Pokémon cards makes you a star. And Haase, who has obsessively collected Pokémon cards since 1998, is a bona fide celebrity. One meet-and-greet, expected to go for an hour and a half, lasts five hours.

Leonhart, Thuan Tong-Haase, Gary Haase, RealBreakingNate, and the crowd at Collect-A-ConCollect-A-Con

This is day one of Collect-A-Con, attended by 4,000 people over the course of the two days. (Half the attendees wear masks, half do not — with no admonishment directed either way.) In theory, the convention encapsulates everything from Yu-Gi-Oh! to Magic: The Gathering. In practice, it’s all Pokémon, Pokémon, Pokémon, with Pokémania peaking like it’s 1999 again. During the pandemic, with people feeling bored and nostalgic for a simpler time, Pokémon cards have exploded in value 10 to 15 times, and top-tier collectors have leveraged this second Pokémon boom into six-to-seven-figure businesses.

Last year, for instance, John Stibich, known as Pokémon Radar, quit his nine-to-five job selling robotic arms in order to hustle Pokémon cards full time. He broke $100,000 profit in six months and traveled to Dubai earlier this year to negotiate a $350,000 sale for a 1997 Pikachu Trophy card. “Twenty years ago, I was trading Pokémon cards on a school bus,” Stibich says. “Now I’m trading in Dubai. It’s such a weird transition.”

Haase, however, is perfectly content not to profit from this extraordinary moment. Although his cards represent 80 percent of his net worth, he avoids parting with them at all costs. For his prized pieces of cardboard, no amount of money is enough.

There have been exceptions, most famously Haase’s October sale of a PSA 10 first-edition Charizard card to controversial YouTuber Logan Paul for $150,000. (Official authentication services like PSA grade card conditions on a scale of 1, “Poor,” to 10, “Gem Mint,” and receiving a perfect 10 is extremely rare.) Though Haase had his reasons for the high-profile sale, it nearly broke him. “I was almost in tears giving that card up,” he said on the Iced Coffee Hour podcast. “I really felt a piece of me was going. But I honestly believed that it was better for Pokémon, better for the hobby, to sell it.”

Every single collector will tell you Pokémon card valuations skyrocketed once Paul entered the market, attracting a younger generation to the hobby. “It just went bonkers,” says Brian Wiedman, a Heritage Auctions grader who facilitated a separate six-figure Pokémon sale to Paul. That same October, the ex-rapper Logic bought a different PSA 10 first-edition Charizard for $220,000 at auction. By December, another PSA 10 first-edition Charizard sold for $350,000 at auction. For perspective, a PSA 10 first-edition Charizard sold for less than $40,000 at auction in 2019.

Hobnobbing with the likes of Paul and superstar DJ Steve Aoki isn’t unusual for Haase. Celebs continually slide into the King’s DMs to talk Pokémon and ask if he’ll sell another Charizard or maybe collaborate on content. “I’m talking the biggest stars in the world, way more followers than Logan Paul,” says Devon Haase, Gary’s 28-year-old son. “And my dad’s like, ‘Oh, do you know who this is?’”

Justin Bieber and Gary Vaynerchuck are just a few names who’ve reached out to Haase about buying a Charizard, an extremely powerful fire dragon that holds outsized importance in the Pokémon anime series. Haase owns over 120 Gem Mint–graded Charizard cards, way more than anyone else. But he repeatedly and politely turns down these celebrities, at times to the befuddlement of those who know him well.

“It’s like, you beat the game, you beat the system,” says Stibich, who co-hosts a podcast with Haase called The King and I. “You’ve got the title: greatest Pokémon collector ever. You’ve owned these cards for so long. Why are you holding onto it? I don’t get it. I’m still trying to figure that one out.”

Collectible HoarderAfter another meet-and-greet on day two of Collect-A-Con — this one lasting two hours — handlers usher King Pokémon behind the curtain that partitions the backstage VIP room, and he plops into a plush chair. Exhaustion ripples through his body; his shoulders slump, his eyes droop. Thirsty, Haase asks for a Coke. A handler fetches him one, and he gulps it like a construction worker knocking back his first post-shift brew.

Security walks backstage carrying a framed case containing a small fraction of Haase’s most valuable cards, including his famed Charizards and his first-edition sealed Base Set Booster box, which contains the original 150-card set of Pokémon. In January, such a box sold for over $400,000. Only 120 are thought to exist still in the original plastic wrap. Haase has nine of them. Security places the framed case on a nearby table, and fellow collectors gather to ooh and aah.

Haase isn’t the best at watching after his cards, hence the security. At pre-pandemic conventions, he’d leave cards laying on tables unattended, and somehow none were ever stolen. Later, he tells me how and where he hides his cards when the family travels on airplanes, only for his wife Thuan Tong-Haase to interrupt, playfully scold him, and politely request I don’t include such sensitive information in this story. Their lives have changed in substantial ways this past year, and Gary is still getting used to his newfound celebrity.

Haase with a blown-up image of a prized Charizard cardCollect-A-Con

The collecting bug first struck Haase as a kid growing up in Hollywood in the 1950s, starting with Coke bottle caps. Once, Haase’s dad helped him tie a magnet at the end of a fishing rod to collect caps people had popped off and left behind in vending machine boxes. No one in the family had this impulse besides Gary. If something no longer had a use, his dad, who ran his own electrician company, and mom, a personal assistant to actress Lucille Ball, couldn’t throw it away fast enough.

From bottle caps, he graduated to collecting comic books, rock posters, old sci-fi pulp magazines, and his personal favorite, trading cards. He owns (or has owned) complete sets of virtually every trading card game in existence, including television tie-ins for Sailor Moon and The Addams Family.

Today, Haase calls himself a “collectible hoarder,” meaning he hoards nothing but his collectibles. He’s got three storage lockers and three safety deposit boxes dedicated to all his stuff. Haase confesses that 90 percent of the things he collects are completely worthless, but he doesn’t care.

“Just about everything in my collection, if you were to hold it up in front of me and ask me about it, I can tell you the whole story about it,” Haase says. “I might not remember my wife’s birthday, but I’ll remember those things.”

And so King Pokémon remembers. He remembers first importing promotional Pokémon cards from Japan in 1998, before they were localized to the U.S. market. He remembers attending Frank & Son collectible shows every Wednesday and Saturday with his two sons after they took an interest in Pokémon.

Even back then, Haase didn’t want to part with his cards. “It kind of broke my heart a little bit to sell anything.”He remembers his son Devon pulling his first Charizard card from a pack and staring at it for hours. He remembers checking in the next morning and finding Devon’s eyes shut and that Charizard card still clutched in the boy’s tiny hands. He remembers that as the day Pokémon touched some hard-to-express emotion deep inside him.

And he remembers that day in Hacienda Heights, California, in 1998, standing in line for coffee and doughnuts when a lady tapped him on the shoulder, pointed at the mole on his calf, discolored and distended, and said, “You should get that checked out.”

The doctor told Haase he had advanced malignant melanoma. He quit his casino manager job to receive treatment and surgery. At home, with nothing to do, his Poké-fandom blossomed.

Back at the height of Pokémania, between 1999 and 2000, Haase had to drive hours out of state just to find Pokémon cards still on shelves. His livelihood depended on finding those cards and selling them on eBay and Yahoo! USA auctions. The $5,000 in monthly profit was all the income he had to provide for his family.

And even then, Haase didn’t want to part with his cards. “It kind of broke my heart a little bit to sell anything.”

Twin BrothersAt first, Steve Aoki was just another celebrity who wanted Haase’s Charizards. After getting into collecting sports cards, Aoki — an inveterate collector of records, sneakers, art, you name it — heard Pokémon was blowing up through his friend Logan Paul, among others, and he wanted to, in his words, “jump in big.”

Although Aoki loves Pokémon, voraciously playing Pokémon Go in 2016, and even releasing a song called “Pika Pika” in 2018, he was never that into the cards. He needed help knowing what to buy, and Paul put him in contact with Haase, who authenticates big-ticket Pokémon items for private sales, gratis. He steered Aoki away from making a $200,000 mistake — a Base Set Booster Box Aoki wanted to buy that Haase recognized was probably fake.

Aoki inquired about Haase’s Charizards, since Haase had already sold one to Paul by then. I’m not selling, was Haase’s reply, but you could come over and check them out.

Turns out the two were Vegas neighbors, though their houses couldn’t be more different. Aoki’s is all modern, mega-celebrity minimalism: bright, clean, spacious, natural light from every direction. Haase’s is very 20th-century suburban family: carpeted living room, diffusive yellow lighting, toys strewn about. Aoki, 43, has artwork by Banksy and KAWS; Haase has family portraits.

So Aoki came over and sifted through Haase’s Pikachu and Charizard collections. When Devon Haase walked in to find a world-famous DJ sitting criss-cross applesauce in his family room, he laughed: “Every time I come here, there’s another celebrity here.” Dad had forgotten to tell his son that Steve Aoki was coming over to play after school.

Haase has this accepting demeanor that puts people at ease. He and Aoki talked about trading cards, Pokémon, and life. They played Barbie with his six-year-old daughter, Okara, who is autistic. (It’s something Haase asks every houseguest to do.) The DJ’s charity, called the Aoki Foundation, is dedicated to brain health and research, which includes working with kids with special needs, so Aoki was comfortable playing along.

Then, improbably, or perhaps not, Haase sold Aoki one of his first-edition PSA 10 Charizard cards. In response, Aoki fell to the floor, rolling around like a child, kicking his feet in the air. “I felt special,” Aoki tells me, “because he only sold to Logan and then me. That was a big deal — the Holy Grail of Pokémon.”

As Aoki dove deeper and deeper into the hobby — so much so, he recently had to cut himself off to “focus on my main life” and his music — he and Haase developed a deeper and deeper friendship.

Aoki and the Haases at an Aoki Foundation “box break” charity event in November.Tony Tran

Haase and Thuan, his third wife, became active in the Aoki Foundation, raising money for autism research and treatment by selling Pokémon memorabilia and signed items from top Pokémon celebrities. Last November, Aoki and Haase streamed a “box break,” auctioning off the 36 packs of a first-edition Base Set Booster Box (donated by a friend of Haase’s), then opening them live on camera.

Including donations from the audience, that one event raised $130,000 for charity. Within the Pokémon community, Gary and Thuan are known as much for their autism work as for Gary’s Charizards.

Aoki opened his house for Haase to record podcasts or interviews, although he must make arrangements ahead of time. Little Okara, however, has a standing invitation whenever she wants to come over and play on Aoki’s trampolines or in his ball pit. “Steve Aoki house, please?” Okara will ask her parents.

In Haase’s eyes, Aoki became a godfather to Okara. “TB,” the two sign off their texts, which they exchange almost every day. It s
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