Can a Tunnel Bridge Agent be a Professional Gambler, Too?

The Tax Court looked at whether someone who worked full time as a Tunnel Bridge Agent could also be a professional gambler. There is a lot in the decision, including some things that I believe the Court gets wrong.

The opinion first describes the differences between being a professional gambler and an amateur gambler. If you are unaware of the differences in the tax treatment, this opinion is must-reading. Unfortunately, the opinion gets the definition of a professional gambler only half-right. “To be a professional gambler, the taxpayer must engage in gambling for profit,” is what the opinion states (citing Commissioner v. Groetzinger, 480 U.S. 23, 35 (1987)). But the courts have held that you need to be gambling for your livelihood, a stricter standard. There are numerous amateur gamblers who do so for a profit (I am one of those), but I’m an amateur gambler. My livelihood comes from my tax practice, but I’m skilled (or lucky) enough to make money from poker.

In any case, today’s taxpayer, Mr. B, doesn’t even pass this test. His first problem is where he gambled and his recordkepping or, should I say, his lack of recordskeeping.

Boneparte gambled at horse racetracks and in casinos. At the casinos his preferred game was baccarat, but he also played other table games as well as slots. Sometimes he gambled alone, and sometimes he gambled with a friend. He gambled primarily in Atlantic City. He did not keep a contemporaneous written log of winnings and wagers.

If you’re in business, you are supposed to keep records. The IRS rules on gambling—and these date back to the 1970s—mandate a contemporaneous, written log. (Remember, those rules were written well before smartphones or any cellphone. Today, computer records would most likely be accepted.) But if you have no records, you’re going to have trouble substantiating that you’re a professional gambler. Yes, Mr. B had casino win-loss statements but (a) these are not guaranteed to be accurate (a point the Court missed in its opinion), and (b) professionals want to know what they’re succeeding in and failing in; the only way to do that is to keep your own records.

As an aside, it’s hard to be a professional gambler when you are playing games of pure chance with a house (casino) advantage. That’s why most professional gamblers play poker (where you’re playing against other players); a lesser number of professional gamblers partake in sports betting and “advantage” video poker (where there’s a small player advantage with perfect play). But I digress…

The Court then looked at the nine-factor test of whether an activity is engaged in for profit.

(1) [T]he manner in which the taxpayer carries on the activity; (2) the expertise of the taxpayer or his advisers; (3) the time and effort expended by the taxpayer in carrying on the activity; (4) the expectation that assets used in the activity may appreciate in value; (5) the success of the taxpayer in carrying on other similar or dissimilar activities; (6) the taxpayer’s history of income or losses with respect to the activity; (7) the amount of occasional profits, if any, which are earned; (8) the financial status of the taxpayer; and (9) elements of personal pleasure or recreation.

Mr. B. didn’t lose on all of the factors: Factor #4 (expectation of asset appreciation) was held not to apply. With the Court ruling that Mr. B. Isn’t a professional gambler, most of the rest of the opinion goes into calculation issues of his return and penalty calculations.

However, I want to point out an error the IRS made that I’ve seen in my practice. If a casino win-loss statement shows a net loss $14,887, and we know that the gambler had gross wins (before losses) of $18,000, his gross losses must be $32,887. That’s simple math. I once had to explain to an IRS Revenue Agent how this works; it took about a half-hour for him to grasp the concept. In this case, the IRS was holding this same idea that Mr. B’s gross loss was his total loss. The Court, though, understood basic math:

As explained above, two propositions are true: (1) the gains from wagering transactions for which there was gain total $18,000, and (2) the gains from wagering transactions for which there was a gain minus the losses from wagering transactions for which there was a loss equal -$14,887. It mathematically follows from these two propositions that the losses from wagering transactions for which there is a loss equal -$32,887 (i.e., $18,000 ! $32,887 = -$14,887). [Mr. B] is entitled to a section 165(d) deduction equal to this amount to the extent of gains from wagering transactions. This gain is $18,000. Therefore his section 165(d) deduction is $18,000.

Mr. B’s returns were self-prepared. He included his gambling on both a Schedule C and as Other Income. In almost all cases, you’re either a professional gambler or an amateur gambler (not both). The IRS assessed both the late filing penalty (Mr. B’s return was postmarked after the April deadline) and the accuracy-related penalty; both were sustained.

Mr. B gives a good example of someone who wanted to be a professional gambler because it would help him save on his taxes. Unfortunately for him, he neither treated his business professionally nor was he able to show the Tax Court that he was a professional gambler.

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