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The Computer Part People Are Hoarding: ‘I Felt Like I Was Buying Drugs’

There’s also lying and price gouging, prompted by the race to create cryptocurrencies, which is driving up cost of one specific type of hardware that’s also prized by PC gamers.

By

Sarah E. Needleman

Three months into a seemingly futile search, James Liska finally spotted a reasonably priced computer-graphics card online. By the time he clicked “buy,” it was gone.

He blames those cryptocurrency enthusiasts.

Graphics card

“This has been far more frustrating than I ever imagined,” said the 30-year-old videogame player who lives in Washington, D.C. He wanted the card for a computer he is building. He recently saw a card that normally sells for $800 offered for resale at $2,000.

Graphics cards, usually a plentiful and ordinary PC commodity, produce the kind of rich visuals gamers love. Now there’s a new kind of buyer: People who need them to run software capable of creating virtual currencies—an act known as “mining.” That’s giving gamers a different kind of competition.

Sarah Kaiser was looking to build a new PC, a skill she learned from her mother, but couldn’t find a card.

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“Miners have made what was once a fun hobby into hell,” the 28-year-old said.

Her six-month quest turned up a tip: A computer-parts store near her Somerville, Mass., home would sell one of its exorbitantly priced cards for the manufacturer-recommended cost—only if the customer also bought other supplies that typically go into assembling a new gaming PC. Miners stand out because they usually try to buy more than one card at a time.

“I felt pretty lucky,” said Ms. Kaiser, who plunked down around $1,500 for a bundle of items, including the card she wanted for $600.

Justin and Tiffany Kelly’s stockpile of graphic cards.Photo: Justin Kelly

While most people buy computers off the shelf, some, especially gamers, build PCs from scratch, customizing them to their liking. Videogames today are so detailed and fast that players need top-notch graphics capabilities, so the cards are key.

Then people got into “mining”—which in many cases just so happens to require running software on a PC with high-end graphics capabilities. While gamers can get by with one card, miners prefer several, 5 or 6 per computer. All of a sudden, the market started getting low on cards.

The rapid rise in the value of bitcoin—it reached nearly $20,000 in December and gained about 2,000% in 2017, before coming back to earth this year—inspired people not only to invest in virtual currencies, but also “mine” them. Since generating bitcoin requires more computing might than PCs can manage, less-demanding kinds of virtual currency, such as one called ether, have started catching on.

As of Friday morning, bitcoin had a total market value of $143 billion, according to the research firm CoinDesk Inc., while ether had a value of $81.67 billion.

Lately, people mining ether and other cryptocurrencies have hunted graphics cards nearly to retailing extinction.

Tom Nguyen's post on facebook.

Tom Nguyen lost count of how many graphics cards he has bought over the past year for mining. The 27-year-old, who lives near Hartford, Conn., said he made multiple hourslong treks to electronics stores in New York and Boston, and scoured the web to score his bounty.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” said Mr. Nguyen, who said he took flak from gamers and miners alike over photos he posted on social media showing off his haul. “I’m using my electricity, my time and my effort to allow the cryptocurrency world to thrive.”

Laura Augustine hit pause on her IT consulting business to mine ether as a stay-at-home mom. The Nanaimo, British Columbia, resident said she spent $20,000 to soup up five PCs with six high-end cards each. “They’re like turkeys modified to be all breast,” she said. “I call them my GMO PCs.”

Laura Augustine calls herself ‘Mining Mom.’Photo: Laura Augustine?

Ms. Augustine said she has been teaching other stay-at-home moms to mine and would build a sixth PC—if she could find more graphics cards. Her supplier stopped returning her calls.

Miners are facing other shopping hurdles. When Eiron Roffey called a local electronics store in Calgary, Alberta, looking for a card, the employee who answered demanded to know why. Stunned, Mr. Roffey professed his love of “World of Warcraft,” a longtime favorite of PC gamers.

“Obviously, I lied,” the 36-year-old finance professional said. “I felt like I was buying drugs.”

For many buyers, graphics cards can be found only on sites such as Amazon and eBay, where sellers charge double or more than the usual $300 to $800 retail price. Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s Radeon RX Vega 64 went on sale in August for $599. Last quarter, its average retail price shot up to $1,200, according to Jon Peddie Research.

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Sterling Henderson is now on his third month hunting for an affordable card. He thinks miners will get what’s coming to them.

“I see the bubble burst being right around the corner,” said the 28-year-old gamer from Brookville, Ohio. “When one person buys 10 graphics cards, they know what they’re doing to gamers.”

On AMD’s quarterly conference call Jan. 30, Chief Executive Lisa Su said cryptocurrency-related sales made up a third of sequential growth in its computing and graphics division, or $46 million. Nvidia Corp. said on an earnings call with analysts Thursday that strong demand in the cryptocurrency market contributed to record low inventory for its graphics cards.

Stores worry, though, miners might not stick around as customers forever.

Gamers turned miners Justin and Tiffany Kelly.Photo: Liz Larson

“Our bread and butter is the gaming segment,” said Raymond McEachern, a corporate sales associate for Memory Express, the store Mr. Roffey called. “We can’t let miners come in and buy all our stock.”

Some gamers have gone over to the dark side. Justin and Tiffany Kelly took up mining after learning they could be making money when not playing games such as “StarCraft” and “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.”

They bought 46 graphic cards at once from an online retailer about five months ago, right before prices shot up. Each cost $529 and now go for around $1,300 a pop. The computers drew on so much power, the couple hired an electrician to rewire the house.

They have pulled in between $5,000 and $7,000 a month from mining, just enough to pay for the initial investment in cards, though electricity bills are about an extra $700 monthly, said Mr. Kelly, a welder and mechanic.

Mr. Kelly, 28, thinks gamers shouldn’t begrudge the cryptocurrency enthusiasts. “Instead of hating,” he said, “gamers should join them.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

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