Last week I had an inquiry that asked me about deducting massages at the poker table. At many poker rooms and major poker tournaments, you can get a massage; the cost ranges between $1 and $3 per minute (plus a gratuity). If you’re playing an event like the World Series of Poker, where the chairs are (to put it kindly) not the greatest, a massage might make you feel quite good and ready for a few more hours of play. The question arose whether a massage while playing is tax deductible for a professional gambler.

Porfessional gamblers, unlike amateurs, are allowed to deduct all ordinary and necessary business expenses; that’s codified in IRC § 162:

(a) In general
There shall be allowed as a deduction all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business….

The Tax Court has looked at this many times; for example, in Lychuk v. Commissioner (116 T.C. No. 27),

The Treasury regulations specify that ordinary and necessary business expenses include “the ordinary and necessary expenditures directly connected with or pertaining to the taxpayer’s trade or business”, sec. 1.162-1(a), Income Tax Regs., such as “a reasonable allowance for salaries or other compensation for personal services actually rendered”, sec. 1.162-7(a), Income Tax Regs. The Supreme Court has explained that a cash method taxpayer such as ACC may deduct an expenditure under section 162(a) if the expenditure is: (1) An expense, (2) an ordinary expense, (3) a necessary expense, (4) paid during the taxable year, and (5) made to carry on a trade or business…The Supreme Court has stated that a necessary expense is an expense that is appropriate or helpful to the development of the taxpayer’s business…and that an ordinary expense is an expense that is “normal, usual, or customary” in the type of business involved, [internal citations omitted]

So where does a massage lie? Well, a poker player could argue that massages make long sessions more bearable; that they help a player concentrate; and that they make a player feel better. Those are all true, of course, but it it helpful for developing a poker player’s business? What would happen to the player if he did not have the massage? And therein lies the rub.

The IRS would argue that most poker players do just fine without a massage; that it is a luxury; that it is not necessary for a poker player to play; and that they involve elements of personal pleasure making them nondeductible personal expenses. Unfortunately for poker players who like massages, the IRS would almost certainly prevail on one or all of these arguments.

It’s hard to imagine a massage that doesn’t involve elements of personal pleasure. Indeed, that’s the reason poker players get massages (to feel better during a long session). The problem lies in that the Tax Code does not allow deductions for personal expenses. I know the manager of a spa here in Las Vegas. She stated that her business is a “…luxury, one that is not necessary. We want our customers to feel good and better.”

So we come back to the original question: Can a poker player take a tax deduction for a massage at the poker table? The answer is that it is almost certainly a personal expense that is not deductible.