The First Man-Machine
Poker Championship

$50,000 poker challenge should separate men from machines

Tuesday, June 12, 2007. 2:25pm

It'll be "all in" next week as an advanced poker-playing computer program takes on two poker champions in a Texas-hold-em shootout for the ages. Well, OK maybe not for the ages but for $50,000 University of Alberta researchers are betting their Polaris poker program will beat two of the sharpest human professional players in the world in a match slated for July 23 and 24.

The game, held in conjunction with the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference in Vancouver will feature 2,000 hands of Texas hold 'em between Polaris and Phil (The Unabomber) Laak and Ali Eslami.

The $50,000 man-versus-machine poker match will not only be fun-it will help test advances in artificial intelligence, said Jonathan Schaeffer, leader of the computer science team that created Polaris."We have developed a format that has helped us factor out luck and make it into a scientific experiment to determine how good humans are relative to the best program in the world," Schaeffer said."This is a world first, and, I hope, the beginning of something that will grow and become an annual event."

Schaeffer said the event is an evolution of the 1997 match between IBM's "Deep Blue" chess program and Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion at the time. "The difference is that chess is a game of perfect knowledge, meaning there is nothing hidden from the players. In poker you can't see your opponent's hand and you don't know what cards will be dealt. This makes poker a much harder challenge for computer scientists from an artificial intelligence perspective," Schaeffer said.

The competition will feature four Texas Hold 'Em matches between Polaris and the two poker playing professionals. In each match Laak and Eslami will play simultaneously against Polaris in separate rooms. At the end of each match, Laak and Eslami will combine their chip totals and compare them against Polaris' combined total.

The professionals will earn cash for each match they win, Schaeffer said in a statement. Laak told The Montreal Gazette he hopes to break even against Polaris, which he refers to as a "bot." He plans to train relentlessly against other bots in order to prepare.

Like it or not, the bots are on the rise, Laak said."We're already at the point where artificial intelligence crushes players that are unsophisticated, beats handily intermediate players, and loses small or wins small against savvy opponents. ... For Round 1, I'd say the bots have it.

"This is the second time Laak has faced a University of Alberta poker program. In a 2005 match in Las Vegas, Laak beat Vexbot, a predecessor of Polaris, partly because he played better, but also because he had far more luck that day, as Laak himself readily admitted in the Gazette article.

Laak will be a tough opponent because he trains against commercial versions of the U of A program that have some of the same tendencies as Polaris, Schaeffer said.

Eslami is a higher-rated and more consistent player than Laak at this particular poker game, which has a limit on betting.Online poker programs have been all the rage for quite awhile. Last year computer scientists have moved beyond figuring out how to beat computerized chess systems and are now tackling automated Texas Hold'Em programs.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have created a robot that uses knowledge of game theory, not poker smarts, to beat online Texas Hold'Em programs. The GS1 poker robot, which makes decisions after analyzing poker rules, was created by Tuomas Sandholm, director of Carnegie Mellon's Agent-Mediated Electronic Marketplaces Lab and graduate student Andrew Gilpin.

Sandholm says the challenge of developing a poker robot is greater than that of trying to beat a computerized chess program because unlike chess, poker involves making decisions with incomplete information (you know what pieces an opposing chess player has, but don't know the hand of a competing poker player).