[Retros] Retro-poker ?

Eric Angelini keynews.tv at skynet.be
Fri Jul 27 10:30:17 EDT 2007

The New York Times

July 26, 2007
In Poker Match Against a Machine, Humans Are Better Bluffers

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, July 25 — For anyone stuck on a casino stool,
playing hours of video poker, rest assured: humans can still beat a

But computers may soon dominate on the felt-top table, as they have on the

In a match of wits between man and machine this week, a software program
running on an ordinary laptop computer fought a close match, but lost to two
well-known professional human poker players.

The contest, which was billed as the “First Man-Machine Poker Championship”
and which offered prize money totaling $50,000, pitted two professionals,
Phil Laak and Ali Eslami, against a program written by a team of artificial
intelligence researchers from the University of Alberta. They gave it a name
that probably no gambler would ever choose as a nickname, Polaris.

Poker is thought to be a more difficult challenge for software designers
than games like chess and checkers. Computer scientists have to develop
different strategies and algorithms to deal with the uncertainties
introduced by the hidden cards held by each player as well as
difficult-to-quantify risk-taking behaviors such as bluffing.

In the past, research has focused on chess and checkers. In 1997 Deep Blue,
a supercomputer-based chess playing software system developed by I.B.M.
researchers, beat Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion. The University of
Alberta researchers won the world checkers championship in 1994, and earlier
this month they reported that they had developed a program that cannot lose,
and at best can be tied at checkers.

However, Jonathan Schaeffer, chairman of the University of Alberta computer
science department and the researcher who initiated the poker playing
research effort 16 years ago, said that the advances that are being made in
the development of poker-playing software are likely to be more applicable
in the real world than chess research.

“I contend that poker is harder than chess for computers, and the research
results that come out of the work on poker will be much more generally
applicable than what came out of the chess research,” he said.

Research interest has shifted to games like poker in recent years, in part
because chess is no longer of keen interest and in part because rapid
progress is being made in developing new algorithms with broad practical
applications in areas such as negotiation and commerce, said Tuomas
Sandholm, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist.

The version of poker used in the match Monday and Tuesday at the annual
meeting of the Association for the Advancement Artificial Intelligence was a
popular game called Texas Hold ’Em heads-up limit poker, a two-player game
in which some cards are hidden and others are playable by both sides. Each
hand is played in four rounds during which each side can bet or fold. After
four rounds of 500 hands each, lasting about four hours, the player with the
most money is declared the winner.

Unlike chess competitions, which are marked by extreme concentration and
long moments of silence, the tournament in a hotel here was festive, with
each human competitor offering a running commentary on Polaris’s style of
play to an audience of several hundred people.

Mr. Laak, who is nicknamed the Unabomber because of his trademark hooded
sweatshirt and sunglasses, would frequently gesticulate wildly at the laptop
computer screen and repeatedly referred to the computer’s play as “sick” —
his way of describing an unexpected or extraordinary action on the part of
the machine. His supporters included Jennifer Tilly, an actress who is also
a well-known professional poker player.

The contest had to be formatted to accommodate the computer. To counter the
luck of the draw, a dominating factor in poker, the human players were put
in separate rooms. The hand dealt to the human in one room was identical to
the hand dealt to the computer in the other room.

The format also eliminated one of the crucial aspects of traditional poker
called the tell, subtle clues such as facial ticks that may permit other
players to make accurate guesses about the hidden cards held by their

Mr. Eslami and Mr. Laak are both well-known figures in the world of poker
and are mathematically skilled and familiar with the techniques used by
their opponents. Although Mr. Eslami and Mr. Laak are not the best human
players in the world, the scientists argued that their knowledge of
computing made them more effective opponents than other top-ranked poker

The human team reached a draw in the first round even though their total
winnings were slightly less than that of the computer. The match rules
specified that small differences were not considered significant because of
statistical variation. On Monday night, the second round went heavily to
Polaris, leaving the human players visibly demoralized.

“Polaris was beating me like a drum,” Mr. Eslami said after the round.

However, during the third round on Tuesday afternoon, the human team
rebounded, when the Polaris team’s shift in strategy backfired. They used a
version of the program that was supposed to add a level of adaptability and

Unlike computer chess programs, which require immense amounts of computing
power to determine every possible future move, the Polaris poker software is
largely precomputed, running for weeks before the match to build a series of
agents called “bots” that have differing personalities or styles of play,
ranging from aggressive to passive.

The Alberta team modeled 10 different bots before the competition and then
chose to run a single program in the first two rounds. In the third round,
the researchers used a more sophisticated ensemble of programs in which a
“coach” program monitored the performance of three bots and then moved them
in and out of the lineup like football players.

Mr. Laak and Mr. Eslami won the final round handily, but not before Polaris
won a $240 pot with a royal flush then beat Mr. Eslami’s three-of-a-kind.
The two men said that Polaris had challenged them far more than their human



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