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Tax Court: Professional Gamblers Can Deduct More on Their Tax Return Than Recreational Gamblers

Visitors to the Coachella Valley often spend some time at our local casinos: such as the SPA Casino in Palm Springs or the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage. When the gambler has a single win of at least $1,200, the casino is required by law to issue the big winner a W-2G, which notifies the IRS of the win (great, thanks a lot casino). The Internal Revenue Code does allow a taxpayer to deduct gambling losses from gambling winnings (but not below zero) on an annual basis, but as we’ve discussed before, proving gambling losses can be difficult. After all, unlike the big win, the casino never notifies the IRS when the gambler has a big loss. The IRS has traditionally accepted a daily log or journal kept by the taxpayer detailing the gambling activity of the day as proof of gambling losses, but how realistic is keeping a daily journal? In our high-tech modern era, the best evidence a taxpayer can use to show the IRS that he or she was, in fact, a big loser (and not a big winner) is the casino issued “players card”. The card allows the casino to electronically track the individual’s gambling winnings and losses. This serves as excellent evidence when proving gambling losses to the IRS. So gamblers, always get and use the casino issued player’s card, because the day might easily come when you need to prove your gambling losses to the IRS.

Special Rules For Deductions of “Professional Gamblers”

As discussed above, the Internal Revenue Code permits individuals to deduct gambling losses to the extent of gambling winnings (but not below zero). But here we’re talking about gambling loses (i.e., wagering losses). What about expenses incurred in gambling? Can an individual who gambles for a living deduct gambling expenses just like a regular business expense (the rest of us seem to be able to deduct our business expenses)? If so, does the amount of gambling winnings have any bearing on the amount of expenses the professional gambler may deduct?

The US Tax Court addressed theses issues in the recent case of Mayo v. Commissioner, 136 TC 81 (2011). In that case, the taxpayer in question was in the business of “gambling on horse races”(i.e., a professional gambler). Although a facts and circumstances test, a professional gambler is generally one who gambles for profit, and not for recreation. The taxpayer in the case had substantial losses from the gambling on races, but the taxpayer also had significant expenses associated with the gambling activity. Such “business” expenses included meals, telephone costs, horse racing periodicals and admission fees into the horse racing grounds. If the taxpayer were allowed to deduct his total gambling losses and expenses, the total deduction would, in fact, exceed his total gambling winnings on the year.

The Tax Court held that these amounts may be deducted by the professional gambler. So gamblers with heavy losses and expenses are far better off classifying themselves as professional gamblers than recreational gamblers. This categorization permits the individual to deduct gambling losses (up to the amount of gambling winnings, as with any gambler), and expenses associated with gambling (below the gambling winnings threshold…fantastic!).

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