Archive for the ‘Gambling’ Category

Can a Professional Gambler Take the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion?

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

I was asked that question this past week: Can a professional gambler take the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion? The Exclusion allows one to exclude about $100,000 of income from income tax.

The IRS website (which is quite good) has a page on the general rules for the Exclusion. The IRS notes,

Self-employment income: A qualifying individual may claim the foreign earned income exclusion on foreign earned self-employment income. The excluded amount will reduce the individual’s regular income tax, but will not reduce the individual’s self-employment tax. Also, the foreign housing deduction – instead of a foreign housing exclusion – may be claimed.

A professional gambler (unlike an amateur) will have self-employment income. A professional gambler files a Schedule C, and that qualifies as “earned income.” As the name implies, you must have earned income to take the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

But there are other requirements. Your “Tax Home” must be in a foreign country. Your Tax Home is where your main place of business, but there are other rules that influence the location of your Tax Home. One thing, though, is certain: If your Tax Home is in the United States you won’t qualify for the Exclusion.

Let’s assume your Tax Home is abroad. You also need to meet one of two other tests: The bona fide resident text or the physical presence test. A bona fide resident is an individual who, in the view of US tax law, resides in another country. Generally, you must be a citizen or official resident of another country (more than just being present in another country via a “tourist visa”). Additionally, you must be a bona fide resident for an entire calendar year to qualify under this test. If you’re residing in, say, the United Kingdom for the entire year and have a work permit for the U.K., you’re likely a bona fide resident of the United Kingdom.

The physical presence test is simpler. You must be outside of the United States for at least 330 days out of a 365-consective day period that includes part of the tax year involved. (If the 365-day period is split among two calendar years, the maximum exclusion is pro-rated based on the number of days in the tax year that fall in the 365-consecutive day period.) There are some other rules about this test: A day in (or above) international waters is considered a day in the United States; if you change planes in the United States (say you’re flying from Toronto to Mexico City), that does not count as a day in the United States; and any portion of a day in the United States (other than transit between foreign points) is considered a full day in the United States.

Finally, the Exclusion only covers foreign earned income. Let’s say a professional gambler qualifies for the Exclusion, earning $80,000 outside the United States. But he spent a week in the United States, and earned $20,000 while in the U.S. That $20,000 isn’t eligible for the Exclusion.

So let’s circle back to the original question: Can a professional gambler take the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion? Assuming he (a) is a professional gambler, (b) with foreign-source income, (c) has a Tax Home outside the United States, and (d) qualifies by either the bona fide resident or physical presence tests, he can take the Exclusion. Do note that while the Exclusion impacts income tax, it does not impact self-employment tax.

The Real Winners of the 2018 World Series of Poker

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

Over the past two weeks 7,874 competitors (myself included) paid $10,000 to enter the main event of the World Series of Poker. Who would win the money? And how much of the winnings would they actually get to keep?

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. It is quite likely that most (if not all) of the winners were backed and will, in the end, only enjoy a portion of their winnings. I ignore backing in this analysis (because the full details are rarely publicized). Now, on to the winners.

Congratulations to John Cynn of Evanston, Illinois for winning the 2018 WSOP Main Event and a cool $8,800,000. After a mammoth 10-hour heads-up battle against Tony Miles (where the chip lead went back and forth), Mr. Cynn finally prevailed when his king-jack flopped trips and all Mr. Miles could muster was queen-high. Mr. Cynn will pay federal income tax, self-employment tax (all nine of the final players are professional gamblers), and Illinois income tax. Of his winnings he’ll lose an estimated $3,860,183 to tax (keeping $4,939,817), a tax burden of 43.87%. Mr. Cynn definitely benefits from tax reform; had he had the same winnings in 2017 he would have owed $4,094,676 so he saves $234,493. Another way of looking at this is his tax burden last year would have been 46.53%. Mr. Cynn has the second highest tax burden of the final nine.

The aforementioned Tony Miles finished in second place. A resident of Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. Miles benefits from Florida’s lack of a personal income tax. Mr. Miles, like all of the Americans at the final table, will owe federal income tax and self-employment tax; he’ll owe an estimated $1,939,341 (38.79%) of his winnings.

Finishing in third place and winning $3,750,000 was Michael Dyer of Houston. Mr. Dyer had the chip lead for the first part of the final table but ran into a full house of held by Mr. Miles. The Texan avoids state income tax but will still lose an estimated $1,449,275 to federal tax (38.65%). Mr. Dyer has the lowest tax burden of the six Americans at the final table (and the second-lowest tax burden overall).

Nicolas Manion of Muskegon, Michigan started the final nine with the chip lead but couldn’t make it through; he ended up in fourth place for $2,825,000. Mr. Manion is the only individual who will end up paying three taxes: federal, state, and city. Michigan has a flat income tax of 4.25% and Muskegon has a city income tax of 0.5%. Still, Mr. Manion is better off in 2018 than if he had won this in 2017; he’ll lose only an estimated $1,217,323 to tax (43.09%).

Joe Cada finished fifth for $2,150,000. If that name sounds familiar, it should: Mr. Cada won the Main Event in 2009. This time around Mr. Cada’s pocket tens lost a classic race against Mr. Miles’s ace-king. Thanks to tax reform, Mr. Cada loses only 40.59% of his winnings to tax ($872,635) compared to 42% back in 2009. Mr. Cada, a resident of Shelby Township, Michigan, owes federal and Michigan tax.

Aram Zobian of Cranston, Rhode Island, ended up in sixth place for $1,800,000. A professional poker player, Mr. Zobian will owe federal and Rhode Island tax. Rhode Island has marginal tax rates up to 5.99%, so it’s in the middle of the pack for states. Overall, Mr. Zobian will owe an estimated $721,821 in tax (40.10%).

Alex Lynskey of Melbourne, Australia finished in seventh place. While the US and Australia have a tax treaty, it does not cover gambling. Thus, of Mr. Lynskey’s $1,500,000 of winnings, he loses 30% off the top to the IRS ($450,000). Australia does not tax gambling winnings for amateur gamblers but it does tax gambling winnings of professional gamblers. The Australian tax system somewhat mirrors ours in that are marginal rates; however, Australia’s top rate is 45% compared to our 37%. The US-Australia Tax Treaty does specify that a foreign tax credit can be taken for taxes paid to the other country. Mr. Lynskey would have paid an estimated $666,296 to the Australian Taxation Office; given the US tax he’s paid that number is reduced to $216,296 (or $292,000 Australian).

In eighth place was Artem Metalidi of Kiev, Ukraine. Mr. Metalidi will pay the least tax of any of the final nine, both in dollars and by percentage. Ukraine has a flat tax rate of 18% plus a 1.5% military tax (a total of 19.5%). Mr. Metalidi will lose only an estimated $243,750 of his $1,250,000 to tax. None of that is going to the IRS: The tax treaty between the Ukraine and the United States exempts gambling winnings from taxation.

Antoine Labat, a professional poker player from Vincenna, France, finished in ninth place. He earned an even $1 million, but that’s before taxes. The United States and France have a tax treaty exempting gambling winnings, so he lost nothing to Uncle Sam. However, France is anything but a low-tax environment. While 2018 French tax rates have not been announced (they’re not announced until late in the year), based on 2017 rates Mr. Labat will lose $432,574 (€369,721) of his $1 million (€854,701) winnings to taxes.

Here’s a table summarizing the tax bite:

Amount won at Final Table $28,075,000
Tax to IRS $9,811,437
Tax to Illinois Department of Revenue $435,600
Tax to France Tax Administration $432,574
Tax To State Fiscal Service (Ukraine) $243,750
Tax to Australia Tax Agency $216,296
Tax to Michigan Department of Treasury $211,438
Tax to Rhode Island Division of Taxation $37,978
Tax to City of Muskegon Treasurer Department $14,125
Total Tax $10,953,198

That means 39.01% of the winnings of the final nine will go to taxes. That’s up from 2017 because last year four of the final nine faced no taxation (they were all residents of the United Kingdom which does not tax gambling winnings).

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

Winner Before-Tax Prize After-Tax Prize
1. John Cynn $8,800,000 $4,939,817
2. Tony Miles $5,000,000 $3,060,659
3. Michael Dyer $3,750,000 $2,300,725
4. Nicolas Manion $2,825,000 $1,607,677
5. Joe Cada $2,150,000 $1,277,365
6. Aram Zobian $1,800,000 $1,078,179
8. Artem Metalidi $1,250,000 $1,006,250
7. Alex Lynskey $1,500,000 $833,704
9. Antoine Labat $1,000,000 $567,426
Totals $28,075,000 $16,871,802

Mr. Metalidi finished in eighth place but based on after-tax winnings he finished in seventh place. The Ukraine’s low flat-rate income tax gives him a benefit over the relatively high taxes in Australia.

But the true winner this year was the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS’s take of $9,811,437 exceeds the combined after-tax winnings of the first and second place winners ($8,000,476) and nearly exceeds the top three! Taxes may be what we pay for a civilized society, but we sure pay a lot of them. One truism this year (as usual) is that the house (the IRS) always wins.

The FBAR Is *Not* Due Tomorrow

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Most tax-related deadlines are on the 15th of various months. Income tax returns for individuals are due on April 15th; the extended deadline is October 15th. But just to have fun with us there are some exceptions. One of these used to be the FBAR—the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (Form 114).

The FBAR used to be due on June 30th, and that was a receipt deadline. Almost every other deadline in tax is a postmark deadline; for example, if you mail your tax return on April 15th and it takes a month to get to the IRS it’s still considered timely filed. That wasn’t the case for the FBAR. Luckily, Congress changed the law.

Beginning with 2016 FBARs (those filed last year) the deadline was changed to be concurrent with the tax deadline (April 15th). There’s an automatic six-month extension until October 15th. A few years ago the FBAR changed and now must be electronically filed. It now also does not have to be accepted by the deadline to be considered timely; it only has to be filed by the deadline.

Every year I get asked by a few clients, “Russ, why haven’t you reminded me about the FBAR deadline at month-end?” I’m happy to tell them that’s simply no longer the case.

Gambling with an Edge Podcast

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

I was the guest on this week’s Gambling with an Edge podcast. You can download the podcast here or on iTunes. The main point of discussion was the new tax law, but we covered some other topics such as bad tax states for gamblers, the Cincinnati Reds’ bobblehead case, and yesterday’s ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair.

WSOP and Taxes: 2018 Update

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

The 2018 World Series of Poker (WSOP) begins today here in Las Vegas. There are also several other tournament series that have either begun or will soon begin at the Venetian, Wynn/Encore, Aria, Planet Hollywood, Binion’s, Golden Nugget, and Orleans hotels. Very little has changed from 2017, but I am updating the post I did last year with some new information.

The WSOP has made one change that could impact some Americans: If you use a passport for identification, you must bring a second piece of identification (such as a state ID card). From the WSOP FAQs:

What Photo ID’s are acceptable?
The following forms of ID are acceptable:
US Passport [and Passport Card] (A second form, an unexpired governmental ID verifying physical address such as a valid Driver’s License will also be required with this first form of ID).

(A driver’s license or state ID by itself is sufficient.)

Good luck to those participating in this year’s WSOP! And now on to the meat of the post:

The tax environment has changed, so I’ve decided to do a thorough update of the tax situation for those attending the WSOP (and other summer poker tournament series here in Las Vegas). I’ll cover the basics of the tax situation, backing, foreign (non-US) backing, and non-American winners and what they will face with taxes. This post will be somewhat long, so I’m going to break this into sections that you can click on to open. The focus is on tournaments where tax paperwork is issued.

The Tax Basics

Backing by Americans of Americans

Backing: Non-Americans

Non-Americans and ITINs

[Note 1]: I recently became aware of a lawsuit in the Midwest where Caesars’ policy is being challenged. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in late January 2018.

[Note 2]: It is likely the IRS would reject a Form 1040NR filed by Jon noting his extra withholding. The IRS won’t understand the issue given that there is no tax treaty issue (say, Jon is from Australia) and say, “Take it up with Caesars.” It’s a classic Catch-22.

Online Gambling and Offshore Cryptocurrency Exchange Addresses for 2018

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

With the United States v. Hom decision, we must again file an FBAR for foreign online gambling sites. An FBAR (Form 114) is required if your aggregate balance exceeds $10,000 at any time during the year. (The IRS and FINCEN now allege that foreign online poker accounts are “casino” accounts that must be reported as foreign financial accounts. The rule of thumb, when in doubt report, applies—especially given the extreme penalties.) You also should consider filing an FBAR if you have $10,000 or more in a non-US Cryptocurrency Exchange.

There’s a problem, though. Most of these entities don’t broadcast their addresses. Some individuals sent email inquiries to one of these gambling sites and received politely worded responses (or not so politely worded) that said that it’s none of your business.

Well, not fully completing the Form 114 can subject you to a substantial penalty. I’ve been compiling a list of the addresses of the online gambling sites. It’s presented below.

FINCEN does not want dba’s; however, they’re required for Form 8938. One would think that two different agencies of the Department of the Treasury would speak the same language…but one would be wrong.

You will see the entries do include the dba’s. Let’s say you’re reporting an account on PokerStars. On the FBAR, you would enter the address as follows:

Rational Entertainment Enterprises Limited
Douglas Bay Complex, King Edward Rd
Onchan, IM31DZ Isle of Man

Here’s how you would enter it for Form 8938:

Rational Entertainment Enterprises Limited dba PokerStars
Douglas Bay Complex, King Edward Rd
Onchan, IM3 1DZ Isle of Man

You will also see that on the FBAR spaces in a postal code are removed; they’re entered on Form 8938. You can’t make this stuff up….

Finally, I no longer have an address for Bodog. If anyone has a current mailing address, please leave it in the comments or email me with it.

Note: This list is presented for informational purposes only. It is believed accurate as of January 24, 2018. However, I do not take responsibility for your use of this list or for the accuracy of any of the addresses presented on the list.

The list is in the cut text below.

If anyone has additions or corrections to the list feel free to email them to me.

GOP Tax Proposal Targets Professional Gamblers’ Losing Years

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

The Joint Committee on Taxation released its new tax proposal, H.R. 1, today. Buried within it is Section 1305:

SEC. 1305. LIMITATION ON WAGERING LOSSES.
(a) IN GENERAL.—Section 165(d) is amended by adding at the end the following: ‘‘For purposes of the preceding sentence, the term ‘losses from wagering transactions’ includes any deduction otherwise allowable under this chapter incurred in carrying on any wagering trans action.’’.

So what does this mean? The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) sent out an analysis:

Sec. 1305. Limitation on wagering losses.

Current law: Under current law, a taxpayer may claim an itemized deduction for losses from gambling, but only to the extent of gambling winnings. However, taxpayers may claim other deductions connected to gambling that are deductible regardless of gambling winnings.

Provision: Under the provision, all deductions for expenses incurred in carrying out wagering transactions (not just gambling losses) would be limited to the extent of wagering winnings. The provision would be effective for tax years beginning after 2017.

JCT estimate: According to JCT, the provision would increase revenues by $0.1 billion over 2018-2027.

The JCT analysis is wrong about the current law. Only professional gamblers can take business expenses beyond their gambling winnings to create an overall loss. This is the result of Mayo v Commissioner; Section 1305 would overrule the Mayo decision.

I will have more on this proposal, most likely over the weekend. There’s quite a bit for me to digest. For now, let me state that my first reading of the measure did not leave me feeling good about it.

Israel Tax Authority Targets Poker Professionals

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Some unknown bureaucrat working at the Israel Tax Authority was likely reading something about poker or perhaps watching the World Series of Poker on television when he asked himself, “I wonder if Israeli poker players are paying their income taxes?” He likely looked at poker websites such as Hendon Mob and did a search on ‘Israel.’ He discovered that there were Israeli poker professionals and even an Israel Poker Tour (held in Cyprus).

As an article in Globes notes, the Tax Authority wants its share. The current disputes include:

– Taxing poker as a business (at a rate of up to 50%) rather than as gambling (at 35%);
– Allowing business expenses, such as travel and tournament fees; and
– Allowing poker losses and ‘staking losses’ (where a player wins money but must give it to others) as an offset to income.

It appears that the Tax Authority has won that poker income will be taxed as a business, but has not allowed all business expenses and what I’m calling staking losses. Disputes are finding their way into Israel’s court system; it will likely be months to years before there’s a resolution of the issues.

That said, one thing is clear: With the Internet and publicity, it’s getting harder and harder to hide the fact that you’ve earned income. Sharon Fishman, the manager of criminal taxation department of Doron, Tikotzky, Kantor Gutman and Amit Gross law firm, is quoted in the Globes article:

An administrative decision was recently taken there to zero in on this segment of professional poker players. This is due mainly the accessibility of the information about them on the Internet, because there are now international websites that report who won international tournaments, who plays on the Internet, and who is traveling to overseas tournaments. They publish the names of the winners, where they come from, and how much money they earned, so the tax authorities suddenly have abundant evidence, and you can’t tell them that you weren’t there and didn’t win.

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

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

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.

It’s One 1099 Per Person, Or the Most Stupid and Hilarious Thing I’ve Seen in Some Time

Friday, September 29th, 2017

One of my clients, Barri Brown (all names in this post are fictitious), was missing a 1099 issued by one of the two large Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) companies. It didn’t show on her Wage & Income Transcript, so she called their accounting department and requested a copy. A few days later they emailed it to her. She forwarded it on to me and I entered it into her return.

And then I took a look at the pdf and saw that it was 18 pages long. I wondered what kind of attachments this company would send on a 1099? Perhaps a breakout of state tax issues (although that didn’t apply to my client). Or perhaps some internal accounting records detailing Ms. Brown’s profits and losses.

How about the 1099s for everyone this company serviced with the last name of Brown? The second page is that of Brett Brown, the third page is Daniel Brown, etc. At least only the last four digits of the social security numbers were shown (but both my client and I know the exact amount of Brett Brown’s DFS income from this site in 2016).

In one way, this is hilarious. Apparently it was easier for that clerk to email the 1099s for all the Browns to my client than to just send the specific 1099. (I have to wonder about how they create their 1099s, but that’s a question for another day.)

In another way, it’s stupid. Hasn’t this company heard of privacy concerns and laws? My client has every right to know her income, but absolutely no right to know Brett Brown’s income (unless Mr. Brown elects to tell one of us).

But my client asked a very good question. “That is HILARIOUS and absurd and maybe illegal?” I’m not an attorney, so I can’t state with certainty whether this was a violation of the law. The reality is that this was almost certainly a stupid error, and there wasn’t the intent to do something illegal.

(Tax professionals fall under the provisions of the Federal Trade Commission Act. If a tax professional were to deliberately do this, it definitely could be a violation of the FTC Act.)

Unfortunately, the data breach at Equifax and this act of stupidity reinforce my belief that businesses need reminders to treat data security very seriously. My client used an Employer Identification Number (EIN) with the DFS company; I strongly recommend that sole proprietors (like my client) do that whenever possible. A stolen EIN (for a sole proprietor) can’t be used to file a personal tax return.

Let me give a helpful hint to those issuing 1099s and sending them out: It’s one to a customer. Barri Brown doesn’t need Steven Brown’s 1099. Luckily for this company, my client is able to laugh this off (as am I). The problem is that if this happened to Ms. Brown, it likely happened to Mr. Nelson and others.