Perfect Computer Poker No Match for Real Deal Among Avid Players

David Sklansky, a professional poker player, is willing to concede that a new computer algorithm that solved Texas Hold’em would easily beat him. But he’s hardly crying in his beer.

As he sees it, he’ll take home lots more money than the computer would from a hapless opponent.

“If the computer is playing a bad player, it will win, but it won’t win as quickly as a human being playing a bad player,” said Sklansky, an author of poker books who has appeared on television shows including the “World Series of Poker.” “I will destroy that beginner to a greater degree than this computer program will.”

The digital rival, dubbed Cepheus, was unveiled this week by researchers at Canada’s University of Alberta, who worked through every possible variation of play to come up with a mistake-free algorithm. Professional players like Sklansky say they are impressed with the magnitude of the computer science involved, even if Cepheus was programmed to play the simplest form of poker known as Heads-Up Limit Hold’em.

What the robot seems to lack, however, is the professional player’s killer instinct to take risks and hence win big, according to Aaron Brown, chief risk officer at AQR Capital and an avid player.

“It looks to be protecting itself from losing money,” he said. While players want to enjoy themselves, he said, “They want to make money.”

Joy of Bluffing

Brown experimented with the system, using a website set up by researcher Michael Bowling and colleagues that allows players to query the computer to see what it would do in any given situation.

“I’m going to try to figure out what my opponent is doing, but this computer has absolutely no interest in that,” Brown said. “It would seem that one strategy shouldn’t beat all types of players, but it actually does. They have the strategy that beats everybody.”

If it’s any consolation, Cepheus is no match for a neighborhood game with the joy of bluffing and opportunities for personal connections.

“One of the things I’ve always really enjoyed is the competitive spirit of the thing,” said Andy Cherne, a retired electrician from Minneapolis who has had a regular game against friends and family members since he started earning a paycheck. “It’s a way to see if you can bluff your friends, go face-to-face with somebody and make them believe that you have a better hand then they have.”

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