Junior returns to Iowa State after career as professional poker player

Erin Coppock

Ask any student at Iowa State and the majority would say they have tried their luck at playing poker.

Whether betting small stakes casually with friends, visiting a local casino or even playing in Las Vegas on vacation, the thrill of betting is intriguing to many.

Clayton Mooney, junior in English, is no exception. He has made a living out of playing poker professionally.

When Mooney was 22 and attending Iowa State, he decided to follow his dreams and become a professional poker player, despite concerns and doubts from his parents and peers.

Even though current regulations in the U.S. have kept him from pursuing his specialty further, he hopes one day to go back to the profession and game he’s so passionate about.

Mooney became interested in poker when he was 17 after watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN.

During the next couple years, he mastered his craft by reading books, taking part in games in his hometown of Blakesburg, Iowa, and playing online on poker sites.

When he moved to Ames in 2008, he continued to play on websites, specifically Poker Stars and Full Tilt, and was a frequent visitor to Meskwaki Casino in Tama, Iowa.

“Poker was pushed back on the priority list from August to December because of my full fall semester class schedule,” Mooney said.

It wasn’t until the end of spring semester in 2009 that he became, as he puts it, “obsessed with the game.”

“When I found out there were forums and training sites geared toward improving players, I started playing even more,” he said. “I would find myself staying up online until 6 or 8 o’clock in the morning playing and reading.”

Mooney’s grades suffered as a result and close friends and family became worried about him, but that didn’t stop Mooney from making the decision to leave Iowa State and sign with SngMentors.com, a professional training site that coached players.

Because of his contract with the site, Mooney had to give a set percentage of his profit to the company, but luckily for Mooney, he found himself earning enough money to support himself.

“During the first five months of the contract, I was blessed to have found success,” Mooney said. “I was able to play up to 32 tables at once on the online sites. Each online table averaged 80 hands per hour. At a rate of a little over 2,500 hands per hour with my table setup, I was able to accumulate a large sample size in a short time span.

“By summer of 2010, I had won a handful of tournaments, ranging from $1,500 to $10,000 in prize money. Even though August started off rough, I ended up winning a mid-stakes tournament the last Sunday of that month and won a total of $20,000.”

Even though his success didn’t follow him into the later months of 2010 — his worst month was December of that year — he ended up making a net profit that allowed him to live comfortably in Ames.

Unfortunately, 2011 didn’t follow the previous year’s lucky streak. Mooney ended up losing large sums of money in a short period of time, which resulted in personal health problems including stress, anxiety and even periods of depression.

In order to bring in some sort of income, Mooney coached two beginners and made a split-profit with them. Even though poker was causing him health issues, Mooney continued to pursue poker as a profession by playing online.

Then, on April 15 of this year, he received a phone call that changed his plans indefinitely.

“I received a call at 6:30 in the morning from a friend in Denmark, a fellow professional I had met throughout the last years of playing” he said. “He informed me that all U.S. online poker accounts of the major sites, because of regulations put forth by the Department of Justice, were being frozen and were blocking any resident from logging in. We weren’t allowed to transfer or withdraw funds.”

Ultimately, because of the regulations, Clayton decided to return to Iowa State this year as a full-time student.

He plans on graduating in the spring after finishing two 18-credit semesters.

According to Mooney, he’s used to the pressure and is looking forward to not staring at a computer screen close to 60 hours a week.

As far as the future is concerned, even if online poker becomes regulated within the next year, he is dead set on finishing and earning his bachelor’s degree in English as planned.

For now, he hopes online poker becomes regulated again so he can play at the professional level.

If regulations still haven’t happened by 2012, he plans on either teaching English in a foreign country or attending law school.

Whatever happens, Mooney knows that poker will forever be a part of his life.

Even though it’s not always the most reliable source of income, he continues to practice and play the game he has loved since he saw his first tournament on ESPN.