Location, Location, Location: The Real Winners of the 2019 World Series of Poker

This year was the 50th anniversary of the World Series of Poker (WSOP). And by all accounts, this year’s series of tournaments was highly successful. Attendance was up across the board. The Main Event, which concluded early this morning, was no exception. 8,569 entrants paid $10,000 each for their chance to win $10 million, the second-most entrants all time.

One important note: I do need to point out that many of the players in the tournament were “backed.” Poker tournaments have a high variance (luck factor). Thus, many tournament players sell portions of their action to investors to lower their risk (and/or “swap” action with other entrants). It is quite likely that most (if not all) of the winners were backed (or had swaps) and will, in the end, only enjoy a portion of their winnings. I ignore backing and swaps in this analysis (because the full details are rarely publicized). Now, on to the winners.

Congratulations to Hossein Ensan of Munster, Germany. Mr. Ensan beat second place winner Dario Sammartino when Mr. Sammartino’s two-way draw (he had both a flush and straight draw) did not catch up to Mr. Ensan’s pocket kings. Mr. Ensan’s German Wikipedia page notes that he emigrated from Iran in 1990 and is listed as a professional poker player. Whether he’s a professional or an amateur makes a huge difference for taxes. In 2017, the Federal Fiscal Court (Germany’s highest court dealing with tax issues) ruled that professional gamblers must pay income tax on their net gambling winnings (less expenses); amateur gamblers do not have to pay income tax on gambling winnings. The US-Germany Tax Treaty exempts his winnings from US taxation.

This is a huge issue for Mr. Ensan; the classification is the difference between earning $10 million and earning $5,393,531. Assuming Mr. Ensan is subject to income tax, he’ll lose $4,606,469 to the Bundeszentralamt für Steuern (BZSt). That’s a reason why many German professional poker players reside in the United Kingdom: They avoid the high German taxes.

Finishing in second place and winning $6,000,000 was the aforementioned Dario Sammartino. The native of Naples, Italy now resides in Florence, Italy after a stay in Slovenia. Italy does tax gambling winnings: Mr. Sammartino will owe an estimated $2,572,350 to Italy’s Agenzia delle Entrate (42.87%)

In third place was Alex Livingston. The resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada benefits from Canadian law on gambling: His winnings will not be subject to tax in Canada. However, he will lose a flat 30% of his $4,000,000 ($1,200,000) to the IRS per the US-Canada Tax Treaty. (He can file a Form 1040NR return for the 2019 tax year to recover a portion of his tax based on any taxes US gambling losses he had during the year.)

Garry Gates of nearby Henderson ended in fourth place. Mr. Gates, who has worked in the poker industry for years, earned $3,000,000 for his finish. An amateur gambler, he avoids self-employment tax. As a Nevada resident, he also avoids state income tax. I estimate he will owe $1,050,813 (35.03%) of his income to tax.

Another amateur gambler, Kevin Maahs of Chicago, finished in fifth place. Mr. Maahs won $2,200,000 before taxes for his finish. He owes both federal and Illinois income taxes on his winnings; he’ll likely lose $870,729 (39.58%) to tax.

Finishing in sixth place was Zhen Cai. Mr. Cai, a professional gambler residing in Lake Worth, Florida earned $1,850,000 for his efforts. One of two American professional gamblers at the final table, he must pay self-employment tax and federal income tax (as a Floridian, he avoids state income tax). I estimate he will lose $706,679 (38.20%) to tax.

Nick Marchington from London, England finished in seventh place for $1,525,000. Mr. Marchington, a professional gambler, gets to keep all of his winnings. The US-UK Tax Treaty exempts gambling winnings of UK residents from tax. And the United Kingdom doesn’t tax gambling winnings. As my mother says, location, location, location.

In eighth place was Timothy Su of Boston. Mr. Su, a software engineer, does avoid self-employment tax. He does have to pay federal and Massachusetts income taxes. There’s a slight bit of good news for Mr. Su: Massachusetts’s income tax rate dropped for 2019 from 5.15% to 5.05%. That’s not a huge change, but when you win $1,250,000 and will have to pay an estimated $491,150 in tax, saving $1,250 is still better than nothing.

The ninth place finisher was Milos Skrbtic. Mr. Skrbtic, a professional gambler, was born and raised in Serbia, but currently resides in San Diego. Had he remained in Serbia he would lose 50% of the $1,000,000 he won to tax. The US and Serbia don’t have a Tax Treaty, so 30% would be withheld by the IRS. Serbia does give a tax credit on their income tax, but only for taxes paid to a country which Serbia has an income tax treaty for. Since the US and Serbia do not have such a treaty, he would have been liable for Serbia’s 20% tax on gambling winnings. Unfortunately, Mr. Skrbtic lives in California; the Golden State is anything but a low tax environment. I estimate he faces the highest tax burden of any of the final table participants: He will owe an estimated $474,463 in tax (47.45%).

Here’s a table summarizing the tax bite:

Amount won at Final Table $30,825,000
Tax to BZSt (Germany) $4,606,469
Tax to IRS $3,313,395
Tax to Agenzia delle Entrate (Italy) $2,572,350
Tax to Illinois Department of Revenue $108,900
Tax To Franchise Tax Board (California) $108,414
Tax to Massachusetts Dept. of Revenue $63,125
Total Tax $11,972,653

That means 38.84% of the winnings at the final table goes toward taxes.

Here’s a second table with the winners sorted by their estimated take-home winnings:

Winner Before-Tax Prize After-Tax Prize
1. Hossein Ensan $10,000,000 $5,393,531
2. Dario Sammartino $6,000,000 $3,427,650
3. Alex Livingston $4,000,000 $2,800,000
4. Garry Gates $3,000,000 $1,949,187
7. Nick Marchington $1,525,000 $1,525,000
5. Kevin Maahs $2,200,000 $1,329,271
6. Zhen Cai $1,850,000 $1,143,321
8. Timothy Su $1,250,000 $758,850
9. Milos Skrbtic $1,000,000 $525,537
Totals $30,825,000 $18,852,347

Mr. Marchington finished in seventh place but ended up in fifth based on after-tax income. As my mother says, it’s location, location, location.

The Internal Revenue Service didn’t end up as the biggest winner at the final table this year. Thanks to two of the top three winners being exempt from US taxation, the IRS had to be content with earning just a bit more than fourth place money. The German Tax Agency, Bundeszentralamt für Steuern, is the biggest winner among tax agencies. As usual, the house–the tax agencies–ended up with more than first place money. The house always wins.


One Response to “Location, Location, Location: The Real Winners of the 2019 World Series of Poker”

  1. Mike McManus says:

    Awesome and informative analysis, as usual, Russ.