The New Card Shark
Ian Jackson for The New York Times
intelligence programs that can beat human opponents at poker are the
focus of Darse Billings, a doctoral researcher at the University of
By PETER WAYNER
an accountant named Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million in the World
Series of Poker last May, the chatter in the poker world wasn't focused
on his skillful bluffing, his tremendous luck or even the aptness of
his surname. Everyone wanted to know how a man who had never before sat
down at a tournament table could clean out so many skilled
While the Las Vegas
hype machine focused on the rags-to-riches tale of a man who parlayed a
$40 entrance fee into a huge pot, many poker players recognized that
the amateur's success signaled the arrival of a new age in the game.
Mr. Moneymaker may never have been in the same room as other players in
a tournament of Texas Hold'em poker, but he had played extensively
online, where the game is faster but the money is just as real. He was
as much a rookie as Ichiro Suzuki, who joined the Seattle Mariners
after nine years in the Japanese major leagues.
The online poker
saloons that nurtured Mr. Moneymaker, 27, are just the beginning. Many
players hone their craft with simulation software that allows them to
test strategies by playing out thousands or even millions of hands.
Some researchers are building software opponents that use sophisticated
concepts from economics and artificial intelligence to seek out the
best strategy, then use the knowledge to beat human players. The
experience of playing thousands of games in roadhouses and casinos is
being eclipsed by a cyborg-like intelligence produced by humans weaned
on machine play.
The changes in the nature of the game are both
subtle and striking. The advantages of some well-understood strategies
are being tuned, and others are being abandoned. Some online
enthusiasts, for instance, are even suggesting that the value of any
information gleaned from watching the opponent's body for telltale tics
or gestures is overrated. These so-called tells are too easily
manipulated. More information comes in the pattern of bets, raises and
calls. The money, they say, talks.
The biggest factor propelling
change may be the speed of technology. Players do not wait while
someone shuffles and deals. Chips do not need to be counted or watched.
Computers handle the accounting, often finishing hands in as little as
Steve Badger, the editor of the Web site
playwinningpoker.com and winner of the 1999 World Series in a game
called Omaha Hi-Lo, says that online poker halls are appealing because
of their convenience.
"You could play them every day," he said.
"You're able to play two games at the same time. Or you can sit and
read or vacuum or do any infinite number of things while waiting for
the next hand."
The online halls also offer substantially
better rates. Most casinos pay for the lights and the dealer by
subtracting either a fixed amount or a percentage from the pot. This
levy, known as the rake, is often about $3 to $5 a hand in physical
casinos, but about $1 or less online.
The rake depends on the
stakes, which can be lower than those at physical casinos. Some online
tables have minimum bets as low as 25 cents, an amount that makes
learning the game cheaper. The speed of the game, however, ends up
raising the amount at risk because 60 to 100 hands can be played in an
hour. Higher minimum bets of $5, $10 or more are also common at tables
with the better players.
Gautam Rao, a well-known Canadian
player, said he stopped going to casinos in 2000, not long after his
daughter was born, "because of the smoke and distance.''
told my wife I had to find a way to play online," he said. Now, he is
able to play every night between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. while his daughter
sleeps in the next room.
"The rake is much less," he said. "The
number of hands is much more. There are never any misdeals. There are
never any issues related to tipping. The average cost of winning a pot
is so much less. It's so much more efficient."
The speed of play
lets players work through the thousands of apprentice hands faster
while paying attention to the game itself, rather than the
surroundings. "I think I learned it differently," Mr. Moneymaker said
in a telephone interview. "I learned to play so many hands. You watch
the fluctuation of betting patterns. It's a lot more difficult to read