Why Did the WSOP Change the Rules on Lammers?

With the World Series of Poker (WSOP) winding down (the Main Event champion will be crowned Wednesday evening–and, yes, I will have my customary post on the real winners of the WSOP on Thursday), an issue arose late in the series.  Why did the WSOP change the rules on players cashing in lammers?

For those of you not in the poker world, let me explain.  “Lammers” are the nickname for satellite chips.  The World Series includes all sorts of tournaments, from the Main Event (which costs $10,000 to enter), numerous other tournaments costing $500 to $10,000 which award WSOP commemorative bracelets, daily tournaments costing $100 to $500, and satellite tournaments.

Satellite tournaments allow someone to enter a larger buy-in tournament without spending the full price.  Let’s say you have $1,080 and want to enter the Main Event.  You could play a one-table satellite.  This mini-tournament has ten players; $1,000 of the $1,080 entry fee goes to the prize pool with the WSOP keeping $80 per player for running the tournament.  The tournament awards twenty $500 buy-in chips (called “lammers”) that can be used to enter any event at the WSOP.  The WSOP has satellite tournaments costing $100 and up awarding various numbers of lammers.

These lammers have printed on them, “No Cash Value.”  The problem with that is obvious: there is value with the lammers.  If you have 20 lammers, you can buy into the Main Event, so each lammer really has a value of $500.  An individual lammer cannot be turned into cash from the WSOP (the Rio Hotel, where the WSOP is being held, will not buy your ‘excess’ lammers).  However, every year there is a brisk trade in lammers.  Many players just play satellite tournaments, collecting lammers and selling them to other players.  The players buying the lammers simply go to the cashier and use the lammers to buy into whatever event they wish.

Until November 8th the WSOP didn’t do a thing about this.  Then Shane Schleger, a professional poker player, noted:

There was lots of speculation about why this happened.  Most of the speculation called it greed by the WSOP (unused lammers are completely worthless once the WSOP is over); I believe that’s almost certainly wrong.  This has nothing to do with greed by the WSOP.  Instead, it has everything to do with tax law.  Indeed, there are two separate issues in play.

For years the WSOP has played “wink-wink” in regards to the active market in lammers.  Unless the individuals running the WSOP were blind (and they’re not), they knew about the active marketplace in lammers.  This benefited the WSOP greatly because more individuals played satellites leading to more entrants in all their tournaments.  If the WSOP could, they would want the lammer marketplace expanded. 

Unfortunately, we have to juxtapose the way poker players want the poker world to work with how the IRS and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) demand it work.  We have to go into two areas to understand this: the rules regarding issuance of W-2Gs and FINCEN rules regarding cash and cash equivalents.

The WSOP is required to issue W-2Gs (or Form 1042-S for a non-American) if someone wins a prize in a poker tournament of more than $5,000 in cash (or cash equivalent) net of the buy-in.  Assume those lammers have cash value; that means the WSOP would be required to issue a W-2G if someone wins a one-table satellite awarding $10,000 in lammers.  It takes time and costs money for the issuance of a W-2G.  Indeed, the reason why the minimum prize for the WSOP main event is $15,000 relates to the IRS rule on issuing W-2Gs.  That’s a $5,000 net profit and a W-2G is not required (where it would be at $15,001).

Unfortunately, the IRS, FINCEN, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, or Caesars internal auditing likely noticed the wink-wink.  (Caesars Entertainment owns the WSOP.)  Gambling is heavily regulated, and the amount of paperwork required for a casino is staggering.  (That’s a subject for another day, but whatever you think it is, the correct answer is almost certainly to double or triple what you think.)  Paperwork has to be completed exactly right, too.  If there’s an active marketplace in satellites that the WSOP condones, then paperwork must be issued.  Thus, the order came from ‘higher up’ to put an end to the wink-wink.  If lammers can only be used to buy into another tournament, they truly have no cash value because they cannot be sold and turned into cash.

Second, casinos are financial institutions under the Bank Secrecy Act and are regulated by FINCEN.  Casinos must issue Currency Transaction Reports (for casinos, CTRCs) and Suspicious Activity Reports just like banks.  Indeed, the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, California was just fined $500,000 for not complying with money laundering laws.  If lammers are being used as cash (which they were), then they fall under BSA reporting.  That would be a near impossible task for the WSOP to deal with.  Thus, one of FINCEN, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, or Caesars internal auditing had a second reason to put a stop to the trade in lammers.

If greed had won out, the wink-wink would have continued forever.  Instead, the real world intruded.

 

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