No Gambling Log, No Problem, Right?

Two married poker players worked as house players (commonly called “proposition players” or “props”) in California. They were paid wages for their work, but they had gambling winnings that they didn’t include on their tax return. They state they lost money (more than their winnings) each month with their poker playing so the winnings needn’t be included on their returns. The IRS disagreed. The dispute made its way to Tax Court.

The petitioners worked at the Hustler Casino in Gardena, California (south of downtown Los Angeles), one of the card rooms (poker clubs) in the Los Angeles metropolitan region. They were hired by the Hustler to start poker games, and fill those games until other customers came. Such house players are common, and are used at off hours or to start games.

One of the petitioners happened to be at the right place at the right time and shared in a “Bad Beat” jackpot worth $16,800 (noted on a W-2G). Because their losses exceeded their wins, the petitioners simply ignored the W-2G. Although not specified in the Tax Court’s opinion, petitioners likely received an Automated Underreporting Unit Notice (probably a CP2000) noting the missing income. Eventually a Notice of Deficiency was issued, and the case made it to Tax Court.

Petitioners didn’t note what they won or lost. From the Opinion:

Petitioners assert that initially they tried to keep track of their poker winnings and losses by writing down the amount won or lost at the end of each day, but after a while they gave up that practice because it is “bad for your psyche * * * you need to be strong mentally” when playing cards.

The Opinion goes into how gambling losses for a proposition player should be noted (whether it’s an unreimbursed employee expense or a gambling loss), but the Court first had to determine the losses.

Regardless of whether petitioners were employees or independent contractors, they were engaged in a gambling activity and are required to substantiate their reported gambling losses. Accordingly we first look to the issue of whether petitioners substantiated their reported gambling losses.

Deductions and credits are a matter of legislative grace, and taxpayers must prove entitlement to the deductions and credits claimed. Taxpayers are required to identify each deduction, show that they have met all requirements, and keep books or records to substantiate items underlying all claimed deductions. To establish entitlement to a deduction for gambling losses the taxpayer must prove the losses sustained during the taxable year. The Commissioner has suggested that gamblers regularly maintain a diary, supplemented by verifiable documentation, of gambling winnings and losses. A taxpayer’s “contention that it was too difficult for him to maintain contemporaneous records of his gambling activities is without merit.”[citations omitted]

The “bad for your psyche” defense isn’t a good one at Tax Court. The petitioners didn’t provide any evidence of their losses. They could have used a phone app to note their gambling results or pen and paper. They provided no confirmation to the Court, so the Court was left with little choice but to affirm the Notice of Deficiency.

A helpful hint for props: Keep a gambling log! It’s not hard (there are even phone apps you can use). Yes, your psyche may be damaged by a bad day at the poker table but you won’t suffer a second loss in Tax Court if you keep that log.

Case: Pham v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary 216-73

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