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Talking Poker, Life Skills, and the Future with Instructor Abby Merk

As a child, Poker Power Instructor Abby Merk played Othello, Connect 4, and card games, like Gin and Gin Rummy, with her parents and two sisters in their Wilmette, Illinois, home, about 15 miles north of Chicago. A natural athlete, Merk excelled at volleyball and soccer, but soon narrowed her focus to soccer exclusively. She enjoyed the teamwork, camaraderie, and exhilaration of winning.

Her love of strategy games and competition initially prompted her to sign up for Poker Power lessons. When she learned of the organization’s goal — to get one million women to learn crucial life skills such as risk management, strategic thinking, decision-making, and budgeting through the game of poker — she was hooked.

“That mission really aligned with me. I would consider myself a feminist. I’ve always believed women have been capable of doing anything men can, if not better,” Merk says. “Poker Power has such a great emphasis on real-world applications and also teaching it in a way that’s fun and approachable.”

By the end of Lesson 12, Merk was so engrossed, she kept studying the game with her mentor, Poker Power Instructor Sarah Stefan, and eventually joined Stefan’s entourage of professional players, including fellow Poker Power Instructor, Kyna England.

“I couldn’t get enough. The more I played, the more I wanted to learn,” says Merk, who kept her poker studies up by using virtual resources to test out potential poker scenarios, calculate optimal strategies, and analyze expected outcomes.

From the basics to the big time

In just two years, Merk went from basic Poker Power classes to competing in her first World Series of Poker (WSOP) Tournament.

This fall, she joined 6,000 players in the Millionaire Maker event, where she placed ten people away from making the money, which is known in poker terms as a bubble.

Merk went on to play in the four-day Ladies No-Limit Hold ’em Championship, where she was able to navigate the bubble correctly and ended up cashing in.

“The World Series of Poker was so powerful for me. In my first event, I made a bad decision, and I had to suffer the consequences,” says Merk. “The way I reacted was to figure out what I learned from it. I allowed myself about 10 minutes to be sad because that was all it was worth, and then moved on. You have to keep growing.”

Poker lessons equal life lessons

Merk has worked as a Poker Power collegiate brand ambassador, introducing the organization to other college-aged women at her own school and others, but what she truly enjoys is sharing her love of poker through teaching.

One of her students shared a conversation she had with her boss about a potential pay increase and how the student had applied what she learned from the previous Poker Power session.

The lesson was on check-raising, a strategic move in which a player checks early in a betting round and lets their opponent bet with the intention of raising them. The student initially thought she was going to demand a raise from her boss right off the bat, but after thinking about the check-raise lesson, she decided to be patient and listen to what her opponent, in this case, her boss, said. The student countered in a way she wouldn’t have before playing poker and ended up getting the raise.

“We make most of our decisions in life without really considering what will happen next, but poker got me to think about consequences,” says Merk. “What can I be prepared for in the future? How am I going to react to that? Poker got me thinking about decisions neutrally and analytically, instead of being blinded by emotion.”

Graduation and beyond

Poker has literally changed the trajectory of Abby Merk’s life. A philosophy and math major at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, she was unclear what career path to pursue after her 2022 graduation.

She knew she wanted to work in a field where she could be creative and be able to apply her analytical skills. Merk always had an interest in the business world, particularly finance, and she began to realize the same skills of taking risks and exploring strategies she used while playing poker would directly translate into finance.

“There are so many similarities between poker and trading that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so I applied to the Trading Experience for Women at PEAK6 and ended up getting an offer to be a trading associate,” says Merk.

She intends to keep her position as a Poker Power instructor when she starts her career as a trader after graduation. Merk credits poker with giving her the confidence to want to change her life, become a more critical thinker, and learn money management skills.

“Whether you want to make better decisions in life or or learn crucial skills that women aren’t generally taught, poker can help you do that,” Merk says. “Poker Power makes the game extremely approachable. “We don’t use real money, so you’re still getting all the life lessons and skills out of it, but the lessons are free. We have saved you a seat. Give us the opportunity to show you the world.”

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