You may know Gary from his appearance on the American reality tv show, Pawn Stars. Involved with bringing Pokémon TCG to North America in the late ‘90s, Gary has been a pioneer in making Pokémon TCG collecting what it is today. His Charizard collection is one of the most sought-after in the world. From selling cards to celebrities like Logan Paul to fans asking for his signature on their fire dragons, this two-part feature interview with Gary will tell you the story of the man the community calls “King Pokémon”.
A Battle With Cancer That Led To An Opportunity
A collector his whole life, Gary spent his time as a child collecting bottle caps with American Football players printed on them, comics, science fiction magazines, baseball cards, if there was something to collect he was interested in it. “I just collect everything and always have – I’m a collector at heart.”
Gary attended the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), graduating in Biological chemistry. After graduating he opened a video television store before moving onto casino management, starting in Nevada and moving his venture to Vietnam where he met his wife Thuan.
A couple of years before the English release of Wizards of The Coast Pokémon cards, Gary with his eye for collectibles, saw an opportunity and invested money into bringing the TCG over to the Home Shopping Network, an American sales television station – These Japanese cards would be one of the first exposures of Pokémon to a mainstream American audience.
“The gaming industry was my main job, in 1999 I was diagnosed with cancer and that took me out of action for a while.” As Gary started to battle cancer, Pokémon was becoming increasingly popular ready to send millions of children and parents worldwide into a frenzy. “Because I wasn’t working, I was able to dive into pokemon with both feet. My sons were eight and nine at the time, so I was involved with Pokémon through their interest in it.”
There was something about Pokémon that felt different than the usual products Gary would collect. Having experience in many different collectibles, there was a stark difference between the fads, trends, and crazes compared to the impact Pokémon had already begun to have.
“Going back to the late 1950s, I had never seen anything like what happened with Pokemon. Nothing had ever reached the intensity that pokemon had – neither in Japan nor in the USA. After the English cards released the frenzy that pokemon created was unprecedented.” Gary’s gut instinct was right, years down the line the interest Pokémon generated has impacted the childhoods of many generations, which no other media franchise has managed to replicate.
“I like to say the whole reason I have a comfortable retirement today is because of my cancer in 1999, otherwise I would never have had the time to get interested in Pokémon in the same way.”
Empty Shelves in ’99, Empty Shelves in 2021.
When we think about Pokémon cards in the 1990s, it’s easy to assume that they were everywhere. Nowadays, it’s rare to walk into a store and find any form of Pokémon product on the shelf, scalpers selling newly printed sets for double the price online. Back in the ‘90s things weren’t too different.
“ I was driving from California to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, down to Texas just looking for pokemon cards because you couldn’t find them. From January 1999 when they were released in the US it was all secondary market, you could not find them anywhere. The only places to buy cards were small card shops and well-known establishments like Frank & Son Collectibles. Far from easy to find anything, now 20 years later it’s just as hard.”
Gary’s love for Pokémon and his collection has given him new opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic. He still loves to collect but his focus has since shifted towards using his knowledge and status to make an impact on the lives of others.
Pokémon Collecting – Making A Difference.
Six years ago, Gary’s wife Thuan gave birth to a little girl with autism. Since then, the couple has been focused on raising awareness and helping others with autism live their lives. Thuan changed her career goals and is currently studying at the University of Nevada Las Vegas completing her master’s in autism and special education.
“Because I’m retired, I have more free time so I take my daughter to therapy sessions nearly 12 times a week.”
During these sessions, Gary had gotten to know Ms. Hernandez and her little boy with severe autism. One day during the pandemic, she stopped coming. “I asked the organisers, as I had known them for a couple of years and they told me that because of COVID-19 they were furloughed off and had lost their insurance. They couldn’t afford to come to sessions anymore, it just totally broke my heart, I couldn’t believe it.”
Gary and Thuan had the idea to start a charity but quickly realised that the logistics of doing so were incredibly tough, especially with no experience of running one. One of Gary’s neighbours is Steve Aoki the famous DJ, Pokémon fanatic, and founder of the Aoki Foundation focusing on brain health.
With Steve’s help, Gary and Thuan were able to get their charity work for autism up and running and have now raised over $500,000 through several events in collaboration with Aoki’s Cardhouse. Stemming from a little boy who couldn’t get a $25 treatment because of the difficult times endured by his family, they were not only able to make sure that he was given the correct therapy but also donate large amounts of money to several groups working to make life for those with autism that little bit easier. “We are so proud of that, most of the interest and the donations are coming out of the Pokémon community. There is just simply no better community than the one we are involved in, it’s crazy what they do for us and others, like Leonhart’s charity work for NAMI.”
Gary & Steve are now working on bigger opportunities for post-COVID-19. Steve Aoki will be performing once again, creating opportunities to merge their amazing Pokémon charity work with his dj work. “There were talks of him (Steve Aoki) performing at the Tokyo Olympics. If it all comes off I’ll be going to Japan with Steve, that would be massive for the Aoki Foundation.”
Gary has dreams about doing incredible things for autism using his Pokémon platform. “I’m praying that Steve reworks a dance mix of the original Pokémon theme tune, could you imagine him doing that at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo olympics.”
The link between Pokémon and autism is deeply rooted, “the creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri is autistic, he had all the traits as a boy and spent his time with a narrow focus on bugs, spiders and little animals.”
He went from bug collecting to creating the biggest media franchise in the world. This highlights how important it is to help with autism treatment and emphasises how much ability autistic people have to accomplish amazing things in life. As Gary puts it, “Without autism, there would be no Pokémon.”
You can donate to Gary & Thuan’s charity page for the Aoki Foundation here (win one of 18 signed posters).
Part Two can be found here
John-Anthony Disotto – Ludkins Media Editor