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The New Card Shark

Artificial intelligence programs that can beat human opponents at poker are the focus of Darse Billings, a doctoral researcher at the University of Alberta.
Ian Jackson for The New York Times
Artificial intelligence programs that can beat human opponents at poker are the focus of Darse Billings, a doctoral researcher at the University of Alberta.

By PETER WAYNER

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VICTORY - Chris Moneymaker celebrating after winning the World Series of Poker in May. He had never before played in a live, no-limit poker tournament.


HOME GAME - Gautam Rao, a skilled Canadian player, stopped going to casinos after his daughter was born "because of the smoke and distance'' and has turned instead to online play.

WHEN 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 professionals.

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 30 seconds.

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.''

"I 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 people online."

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