Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cash Game Tax Planning Calculator - Instructions

Happy New Year! I have built a practical and important poker spreadsheet that I hope will make up for a lack of recent content here.

Hopefully 2012 will be a fruitful year for the poker industry — it'd be hard to be worse than 2011 — but in the meantime, while we wait around and attempt to keep our games sharp, us unwitting part-time live poker players in the US need to be mindful of our 2012 income taxes as we plan our play in a year without the volume afforded by stable online poker to help us hit the "long run" by the year's end.

I know I've written about a lot of topics that are interesting, but not quite practical. This is not one of those. This is extremely valuable practical tool that will help you guide real-life decisions and improve your bottom line. The results that you'll find will often be counter to your intuition, especially if you aren't playing very often anymore.

I have made it freely available here (and thanks to our friends at for the hosting):

(You may have to give permission for macros to run. There's nothing malicious or objectionable.)

What does it do?

This spreadsheet lets you input a plan for your cash game poker play for the year, simulates it, and computes your true bottom-line after-tax winrate.

Why should I care?

This isn't just a simple calculator for how much tax is paid on a certain amount of winnings. It accounts for important and complicated effects of the US income tax rules for poker.

In a perfect world, where poker is taxed in a consistent and fair way and where poker players are easily able to comfortably put in enough volume to get close to the "long run", a poker player would be able to realize the full value of his expected value in a poker game. We do not live in this world, and hence the variance of poker results has a real, quantifiable cost.

Four major forces act to impact a player's bottom-line payoff from a year of poker playing:
  1. There is no tax deduction or carryover for a losing year in poker — This affects both amateur and professional players and has a substantial effect on the decisions of which games to play in. For example, upon reaching the end of a year, a poker player who is close to even for the year may have to move down in stakes or stop playing entirely to avoid the "negative tax freeroll" of ending up with a losing year.
  2. Progressive tax rates induce extra risk aversion — A similar but lesser effect occurs when a player's poker activity could push them either upwards or downwards into a new tax bracket. Notably, a player in the WSOP risks $10,000 their marginal tax bracket, but will be taxed on their winnings at the highest possible tax rate if he has a big score, which eats into expected after-tax profits. This effect is much weaker at lower-variance pursuits, such as cash games, but can still impact year-end decisions significantly as seen in this model.
  3. Personal risk aversion — In my experience, this effect is much smaller than the tax effects, at least for players with reasonable amounts of wealth/bankroll, but is still worth including in the model. Utility theory is a way of approximating and quantifying personal risk aversion, and I've discussed how to construct and apply it to poker decisions it in a series of posts beginning here.
  4. Loss of standard deduction for amateur players — Amateur players cannot simply report their net poker winnings on their taxes. Instead, they must take the sum of their losing sessions as an itemized deduction against the sum of their winning sessions. If the player does not have enough other itemized deductions to offset the standard deduction, he will lose out on either the ability to deduct his poker losses or the tax break afforded by the $5,950 standard deduction. This is a very serious tax effect for amateur players who play cash games at reasonable stakes, in many cases effectively introducing a $1,000-$2,000 cost of playing ANY amount of poker during a year.
Previous models I've written about, particularly this one, have focused on effects #1, #2, and #3. I've mostly ignored effect #4 to date, treating its effects as a foregone conclusion that would almost always fully hit any player with a reasonable volume of play.

However, with 2012 being the first full year where many US players will be unable to enjoy the liquidity and convenience of stable online poker, it's going to be hard for many part-time players to put in enough volume to justify the cost induced by effect #4 or to have a sufficiently-low probability of a losing year as effect #1 demands. A winning player who made a solid profit from online poker over the last decade would have happily paid the $1k-$2k yearly "poker license cost" of effect #4, but if he is only going to be able to make a trip to a live cardrooms once a month in 2012, that cost may now exceed his expected profits.

For the suddenly-large group of American low-volume live players who will not be able to get anywhere near as close to the "long run" in 2012 as in years past, these tax effects can completely destroy expected profits. Now, much more than ever, it's necessary to plan ahead for the impact of taxes on one's poker career. This spreadsheet helps guide these decisions.


Only the cells with the white backgrounds need to be modified with the inputs for your personal circumstances. Let's walk through them all through the example of our classic "typical" player.

  • Annual Salary — Your non-poker taxable income for the year, which is treated as nonrandom. Use your best estimate. Professional poker players with no non-gambling income should set this to $0 and reflect their poker income through their poker results.
  • Prior Wealth — Your net worth at the start of this year, not including your income for this year. This is only used in calculating the effects of risk aversion, as the utility function depends on your prior wealth. A rough estimate is fine.
  • Risk Aversion — Your risk aversion parameter for the utility function built here. If you're convinced that you're completely risk-neutral, feel free to lower this, but, in my opinion, 0.80 should be reasonably accurate for most people. Don't sweat it too much, as the risk aversion effects are usually dominated by the tax effects anyway.
  • Other Itemized Deductions — This is the amount of non-poker, non-gambling itemized deductions you will take this year if you were to itemize deductions. This commonly includes state income tax paid in the prior year, mortgage interest, medical expenses, and more. Here, we'll assume that our typical player just has a small itemized deduction for his state income taxes he'll pay during 2012.

  • YTD Winning Sessions — Year-to-date winning sessions. This will start at $0 at the beginning of the year, but should be updated on an ongoing basis to give more accurate recommendations as time goes on and as results come in. The power of this spreadsheet is how it makes it convenient to keep up with dynamic reevaluations after each session.
  • YTD Losing Sessions — Year-to-date losing sessions. Note that this should be a positive number; if you have $1,000 in losing sessions for the year, put $1,000, not -$1,000.
  • File as Pro? — Amateurs will leave as "No", while professional players should change this to "Yes". Filing as a pro removes effect #4, as pros get to report only their net poker income, but pros must pay an additional 15.3% tax for their self-employed income from poker. Keep in mind that most people do not get to choose whether or not they file their taxes as a professional poker player. Consult a tax professional.

The spreadsheet allows you to project calculations based on up to three different types of games. Here, our example player expects to play in a small-stakes home game as well as some typical live $1/$2 and $2/$5 NL games. In each game, you should provide your best estimate of your hourly winrate, your standard deviation (you can draw some rough guidelines for NL holdem games from here), and how many hours you expect to play during each session.

This section is where you input how many times you expect to play each type of game. In our example, our typical player expects to play in his home game ten times this year, and to make a trip to the local cardroom to play $1/$2 five times this year.

It can be useful to run multiple game projections simultaneously to compare them. Fill in additional rows in the table provided and the program will treat them upon hitting the Calculate button. Keep in mind that each extra row increases runtime.

By clicking the Tax Rates tab at the bottom of the spreadsheet, you can modify the state and federal tax brackets to suit your individual situation. The federal tax brackets and standard deduction that I've provided are accurate for taxpayers filing as single in 2012. They should be changed if you are married, see here. You should also change the state brackets to those of your state. The first column contains the increasing tax rates in order, and the second column contains the highest amount of income taxed at that rate. For example, for New Jersey taxes, the first $20,000 of income is taxed at 1.4%, then income between $20,000 and $35,000 is taxed at 1.75%, and so on. The second column of the last row should always be a large number since the program will not properly account for income above that amount. If your state has no income tax, replace all of the percentages in the state income tax table with zeroes.

Calculation and Results

After all of the inputs are properly set, hit the big blue Calculate button to execute the calculation. This should take about 1-2 minutes per row as the program runs through N = 1,000,000 different possible yearly outcomes based on the number of sessions specified. If you just want to test only one possible session plan, leave the unused rows blank to minimize runtime.

Once the calculation is complete, the results appear in the blue cells. Keep in mind that, when you make changes to any of the inputs, the results will NOT be accurate until you've hit the Calculation button again.

  • Total Certainty Equivalent — This dark blue column is your bottom-line result. The number reported here is the certainty equivalent of the planned year of play beyond your year-to-date results, that is, it's the amount of additional nonrandom salary that would be equivalent to your planned random poker results. This is not just the after-tax amount of your original expected value; it represents the amount of nonrandom pre-tax money that would be equally preferable to your random poker results.
  • True Year-End $/hr — This divides the certainty-equivalent payoff by the number of hours played to return your true, effective average hourly rate over the entire year of play. When considering your bottom line, you should treat this as your true hourly winrate for the year. Due to the four effects detailed above, this will always be less than the raw hourly rates that you provided in your game descriptions, but if these negative tax effects don't end up impacting your results too much (i.e. as if you put in a very high volume of play), your true winrate will approach your raw winrate.
  • Marginal True $/hr — If you've run multiple rows, this shows your true winrate for executing the sessions in the current row in excess of the sessions chosen the prior row. This is intended to allow you to see the marginal true winrate over each additional sessionby running multiple rows in which one extra session of a certain game is added in each successive row.

To provide a sense of how much is being lost to the negative tax effects, the raw (that is, the unperturbed, unaffected numbers based on the game information you provided) total $/hr and marginal $/hr are provided for comparison.

In our results, we see that our unfortunate typical player is going to, on average, lose $74 this year by playing his home game ten times and playing $1/$2 in a cardroom five times. His executing this poker plan will end up effectively reducing his salary by $74 versus if he were to not play at all. The negative tax effects have created a cost of playing that exceeds the raw $440 that he would win on average.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual result. Quite a bit more play is often necessary for a part-time player hit hard by the loss of the standard deduction to be able to break even, let alone profit! If this player doesn't have the time to play poker any more than this, he should consider forming a backing deal which completely eliminates his variance, or, sadly, not playing at all.

This simple case illustrates the need for careful planning through the use of such a calculator. The winning player looking to occasionally stay in practice likely would not expect his poker habit to cost him money, but indeed it might.

Under the hood

The core of the program is a Monte Carlo simulation of the possible year-end poker results, which basically means that the program simulates many random trials and tracks the sample average. Excel, despite having a nice front-end, is not ideal for computations of this magnitude, which is why this runs slowly. The necessary sample size (N = 1,000,000) and associated runtime is higher than I expected; since the utility function maps wide intervals in dollars into tiny intervals in units of utility, a very low standard error on the expected utility is necessary to keep the dollar results accurate.

Playing around with different sets of numbers can take some time, but it's still reasonable to update and run this program after every poker session. Really, though, this should be implemented in a more efficient language than VBA. The methodology is fairly simple.

  • This isn't a complete solution to the poker planning problem. The truly optimal poker plan for most sets of available games will involve starting at one stake, but moving up or down based on ongoing results throughout the year. Once a decent positive profit is locked up, it becomes safer to move up to a higher-winrate, higher-variance game. I have found that this is too computationally intensive to solve in Excel via backward iteration. Updating and re-running this spreadsheet on an ongoing basis should help. The effect of this simplification to the optimization problem will be to underestimate the true certainty equivalents; when you reserve the right to change stakes in the future rather than lock into your plan, your EV might increase and cannot decrease. So, keep in mind that this spreadsheet essentially forces you to make your plans as if you had to commit in advance to playing a certain number of sessions, while, in reality, you could optimally quit or change games in the middle of the year.
  • This doesn't treat tournaments. It'd be conceptually easy to add them, but difficult to program and implement, as tournament finish probability distributions are so much uglier than Gaussians.
  • Using anything but a Gaussian distribution for cash game results would be a pain, but the normal approximation to cash game results should be good enough.
  • This doesn't currently accommodate the negative tax effects for amateur players of the infamous bad poker tax states, where gambling loss deductions are prohibited or limited for the purposes of state taxes.
  • Some other possible negative tax effects of poker that are not treated by this model are the triggering of the Alternative Minimum Tax, the loss of medical deductions due to artifically-high adjusted gross income, and effects on married taxpayers.
  • This is designed for US taxes, and I'm not familiar enough with the taxation of poker in other countries to know if this could be useful to non-Americans. However, it should be able to handle any tax system that involves a constant or bracketed percentage tax on poker winnings but disallows deductions or carryover for poker losses. In most cases, I imagine this would involve turning off the state taxes, standard deduction, and self-employment tax in the Tax Rates tab.
I welcome your feedback, suggestions, questions, and bug reports in the comments below. I apologize in advance if my calculator is the bearer of bad news for your part-time poker career, but it's much better to know the costs before you begin playing.

Continued in Part 2: Examples, charts, and general results

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