- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — Poker champion Phil Laak has a good chance of winning when he sits down this week to play 2,000 hands of Texas Hold’em — against a computer.

It may be the last chance he gets. Computers have gotten a lot better at poker in recent years; they’re good enough now to challenge top professionals like Mr. Laak, who won the World Poker Tour invitational in 2004.

Just as they already have in backgammon, checkers and chess, computers are expected to surpass even the best human poker players within a decade. They already can beat virtually any amateur player.

“This match is extremely important, because it’s the first time there’s going to be a man-machine event where there’s going to be a scientific component,” said University of Alberta computing science professor Jonathan Schaeffer.


The Alberta researchers have endowed the $50,000 contest with an ingenious design, making this the first man-machine contest to eliminate the luck of the draw as much as possible.

Mr. Laak will play with a partner, fellow pro Ali Eslami. The two will be in separate rooms, and their games will be mirror images of one another, with Mr. Eslami getting the cards that the computer received in its hands against Mr. Laak, and vice versa.

That way, a lousy hand for one human player will result in a correspondingly strong hand for his partner in the other room. At the end of the tournament, the chips of both humans will be added together and compared to the computer’s.

The two-day contest, beginning tomorrow, takes place not at a casino, but at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in Vancouver, British Columbia. Researchers in the field have taken an increasing interest in poker in the past few years because one of the biggest problems they face is how to deal with uncertainty and incomplete information.

“You don’t have perfect information about what state the game is in, and particularly what cards your opponent has in his hand,” said Dana S. Nau, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland in College Park. “That means when an opponent does something, you can’t be sure why.”

As a result, it is much harder for computer programmers to teach computers to play poker than other games. In chess, checkers and backgammon, every contest starts the same way, then evolves through an enormous, but finite, number of possible states according to a consistent set of rules. With enough computing power, a computer could simply build a tree with a branch representing every possible future move in the game, then choose the one that leads most directly to victory.

Yet poker involves not just myriad possibilities but uncertainty, both about what cards the opponent is holding and, more importantly, how he is going to play them.

“It’s mandatory for you to understand how the other guy approaches the game. This is critical information in poker, and it’s not true of any of these other games that we’ve studied in academia,” said Darse Billings, a recent Alberta Ph.D. who has worked on the robot for 15 years — except for a three-year break to play poker professionally.