Tax me on the River
August 5, 2008 2:14 PM   Subscribe

Gambling and the IRS: I've been honing my poker skills and I think I'm ready to take my game to the next level: professionally. If I begin making gains at both casinos and online, what is my duty in terms of declarations and bookkeeping while filing my taxes?
posted by Christ, what an asshole to Law & Government (12 answers total)
I'm a poker player but not a pro or a tax expert. As far as I know you need to declare your gambling income in the same way that everyone does, and in addition to that you need to file as a self-employed professional gambler. A good guide for all of that is here.

Also, one part of the guide that is especially important:

The catch is that the IRS holds professional gamblers to a very high standard. If you have other sources of substantial income, or if you haven't posted wins for the last several years running, there is a good chance that the IRS will reject your claim of being a professional. Even if they accept your status, they may deny your expenses or consider your records to be deficient.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:24 PM on August 5, 2008

I see no reason why you could not file your gambling activity under a LLC. It seems to me that there is no reason why the government would take any issue with a for-profit gambling entity or have any mechanism to not allow it. You might want to check with a tax professional just in case there are any legal ramifications, but this would limit any tools that the IRS could use against you because you yourself would not have to technically be a full-time professional gambler to take advantage of expense write-offs and the like.
posted by fusinski at 2:34 PM on August 5, 2008

You have to include all income. Gambling income is income. So your chief duty is to include that income in your tax return, and pay taxes where applicable.

You may offset your gambling losses against your gambling winnings under IRC Section 165(e). I don't know to what extent you can deduct other gambling expenses under Section 162; if you have a lot of expenses you should do some research or ask your accountant.

IRS CIRCULAR 230 NOTICE: To the extent that this message or any attachment concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Also: IANAL.
posted by grobstein at 2:54 PM on August 5, 2008

You really need to consult with a tax professional who has specific experience with this topic.
posted by Perplexity at 3:10 PM on August 5, 2008

Obligatory mention that you should check the Poker Legislation forum on Taxes have been discussed to death at various times in the past several years, and a lot of good info and recommendations can be found in that forum.

On a personal note, I had particularly good poker years in 2005 and 2006 and filed as a professional for those years (yay me!), in addition to working my day job.

On the advice of my CPA, I opened a SEP IRA in 2005 with some of my poker winnings. This lowered my adjusted gross income and allowed me to save towards retirement. If your poker earnings are in the high five figure range or higher, I think it's prudent to talk to a CPA with some experience in gaming and taxes. A SEP IRA or similar may be an excellent choice for you, as it was for me.

In 2007, I had a losing year (boo!) and did not have to pay any taxes on my poker income, because there wasn't any. :-( That's why it's called "gambling."
posted by mosk at 3:23 PM on August 5, 2008

This podcast deals specifically with Poker and Tax.
posted by cwhitfcd at 7:54 PM on August 5, 2008

My bad, actually this podcast episode features an interview with Russ Fox.
posted by cwhitfcd at 8:03 PM on August 5, 2008

There are two key aspects to the US tax situation that are not obvious to the casual player.

1) You have to decide if you can/should file as a professional poker player. If you file as a pro, you can report your net winnings (see #2) and you can deduct certain expenses like travel and your computer set-up for online play and establish a retirement plan as described above. If poker is to be your only source of income this is a slam-dunk decision. If you have a day job, the test is complex and ambiguous as to whether you are permitted to file as a pro. The IRS has demonstrated a tendency to disbelieve those who file as pro who earn more in their "day job." The only real downside to filing as a pro is that you have to pay self-employment tax. Despite adverse tax consequences to me and substantial poker income, I do not file as a professional because I value avoiding conflicts with the IRS over my financial interests

2) How do you define a "poker session?" The tax code requires that you sum up all your winning sessions and report the sum as income and then sum up all your losing sessions and use them as offsetting losses. The most conservative way to do this would be to consider each table you play as a separate "session." If, like me, you play a dozen or more tables at once, that could easily lead to many thousands of "sessions" for reporting purposes. Other people have made up their own definition of "session" summing their results by day or week or some other way. As long as your method is reasonable, you could probably get away with it. Personally, if I start playing at 7:00pm and complete at 2:00am, I count all games played during that time as one "session" Using my results from last year as an example, these different approaches can yield significantly different tax consequences. If I defined each individual table as a session, I would have booked 28 million in income with almost the same amount of losses. Defining results the way I do, I had to report $1.2 million in winnings with around $1.1 million in losses. One thing that you very clearly can not do under our tax code is to report your net of 100k in winnings by itself. As a result, I had lots of undesirable side effects -- I had to use the AMT and risked losing many deductions.

The tax code is definitely not designed to make things easy for us. As mentioned above, 2+2 and Russ Fox are both good resources. If you choose to go with filing as a pro, Ann-margaret Johnston's book is a good place to get details on the ins and outs. I would be careful about trusting a random local CPA, as the gambling-specific laws are not something they are all up to speed on -- I got some pretty terrible advice from my local guy when I started out.

Whichever path you choose, keep meticulous and detailed records. Use PokerTracker for online play and have detailed records of your casino sessions.
posted by Lame_username at 3:16 AM on August 6, 2008

Don't play online poker. It is basically a solved problem. You wouldn't play online chess for money, would you? If a better AI than this one isn't already running the tables worldwide, it soon will be.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:53 AM on August 6, 2008

Don't play online poker. It is basically a solved problem. You wouldn't play online chess for money, would you? If a better AI than this one isn't already running the tables worldwide, it soon will be.
This is a grave misunderstanding of the state of the art of AI poker. They are world-class in one discipline -- heads-up (two person) fixed limit poker. There are also some reasonably good bots playing short stack no limit holdem, but certainly not world class. The poker sites go to some effort to prevent these bots (with mixed results), but in the far more common 6 max and full table games, bots are still far, far below the standard of serious players. I do think the day is coming when that isn't true, but that day is still in the future.
posted by Lame_username at 11:16 AM on August 6, 2008

Regarding the bot issue,

This month's 2+2 magazine contains an article by TheBryce (one of the best HU LHE players in the world who played against the AI in this summer's "man vs machine" expo mentioned in the article above): Get to Know Your Bots. Excerpt:
Currently there are only two mainstream games in which AIs have been competitive with their human counterparts: heads-up limit hold ’em and short-stacked no-limit hold ’em. [...cut...] Enough valuable information from the full games must be left out in the abstract games in order for computers to be able to solve for equilibrium solutions that even humans of modest skill would be able to exploit the strategies generated.
As long as you're not playing heads-up (2 player), poker is certainly not a solved problem. No Nash equilibrium even exists for 3+ player games.
posted by reishus at 1:18 PM on August 6, 2008

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