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.
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combination of distance and simplicity is worrying some regulators, who
note that the Internet card rooms are often based in places like the
Caribbean, out of reach of United States laws. While there seems to be
little enforcement, the games take place in legal limbo. Physical
casinos and opponents of gambling suggest that existing laws ban
playing poker online to protect the gambler. Online players argue that
the Web sites know that their long-term existence relies on providing a
fair game for everyone. Mr. Moneymaker, like other players, refuses to
answer questions about the topic.
tournament play online isn't enough, many players are turning to
software programs that simulate the game. These let players explore all
of the permutations of the game to develop a better strategy.
successful amateur, the novelist and poet James McManus, turned the
story of his experiences at the 2000 World Series into a best-selling
book, "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World
Series of Poker" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). While Mr. McManus
did not win outright, he made his way to the final table and finished
fifth. In the book he describes how he built up the skills to compete
at the World Series level by playing endlessly against programs like
Turbo Texas Hold'em from Wilson Software.
The programs can be
useful for studying the nuances of the game. A gambler can focus on
particular combinations of cards, then try all possible outcomes.
Anyone with questions about the wisdom of drawing to an inside
straight, for instance, can find numerical proof of the path's expected
value. (Five sequential cards, like 7, 8, 9, 10 and jack, make a
straight. A player missing a card in the middle, say the 8, is said to
be drawing to an inside straight. If the player has four consecutive
cards, say 7, 8, 9 and 10, then two cards - the 6 or jack - can
complete the hand. Drawing to an outside straight is roughly twice as
likely to be successful as searching to fill an inside straight.)
not just games, they're study tools," Mr. Badger said. "You deal the
same starting hand against a programmed group of opponents and discover
the hand that I thought was pretty good actually lost me a lot of
These programmed opponents are designed to mirror various
human archetypes, with styles that vary from cautious to free-spending.
Wilson, the president of Wilson Software, said the program uses a
highly tuned table of strategies that vary with dozens of factors,
including the number of players still competing for the pot, the
position around the table, the potential strengths of the hands, and
the potential of other hands on the table.
While Mr. Wilson is
proud of his artificial players, his main goal was not to beat humans
but to teach humans to beat other humans, he said. Bots, after all,
don't have money to lose.
"The objective was to put a system together to allow some people to do some testing," he said.
are delving deeper into the mathematics of the game and aiming to build
bots that can dominate. Darse Billings, a Ph.D. student at the
University of Alberta, is working with his professors to build a bot
capable of beating all human players. They currently operate a free
poker room online where the bots routinely defeat most humans
The heart of their
current method exploits game theory to build a good model to determine
when it makes sense to bet or fold. This branch of mathematics gained
wide recognition after a book about John Nash, a pioneer in the area,
was made into the Oscar-winning movie
a complete model of a poker game is not feasible because there are
billions of possible outcomes. Instead, the team tried to simplify the
model by combining similar hands. They ended up with seven possible
classes of hands and used this to create a plan of action for the bots.
"The program is the first decent approximation of a really balanced
strategy," Mr. Billings said. "It does a really good job of bluffing
with an appropriate frequency, as well as check raising and slow
Playing against one of Mr. Billings's bots can be
unnerving for some of the better human players, who often rely on
unbridled aggression to win. The machines don't feel challenged as
humans do; they simply crunch more numbers to decide the proper
response. Mr. Rao, a friend of Mr. Billings, played several thousand
hands against the bots and lost frequently at the beginning.