03/07/2008

The Rise of the Machines

Carl Sampson 'The Dean'

Back in the days when I used to play Chess pretty much everyday, I had a strong fascination with Chess programs and how they worked. My main fascination was in investigating their processes of how they looked at certain positions and what strengths and weaknesses they had.

But the advances in technology over the years meant that the day would eventually arrive where the machines were finally beating the very best humans on the planet. It had already reached that stage in Checkers where the program “Chinook” defeated the reigning human world champion and became the best player in the world.

In games like Backgammon, the very best programs can challenge the best human players and have been able to do so for some time. Back in the old days when I first started playing Chess programs, they were always tactically very strong and the very first one that I bought was a Fidelity Mach 3 which had a certified United States Master title (different to ours).

But once you began to understand the program and how it operated and the depth of its artificial search horizon then you could develop strategies to outplay it. This usually involved blocking the position and then slowly building energy in a certain part of the board prior to launching an attack. Because the program couldn’t spot any direct threats that involved checkmate or losing material then it couldn’t spot an attack that was building up to happen in 10 to 15 moves time.

All that changed over the next few years with programs like Deep Thought, Deep Blue and Chess Genius scoring very well against the best Grandmasters in the world including wins against the reigning human world champion at that time, Garry Kasparov!

So what has all this got to do with poker, well we all know about the increase in the use of poker software and bots but in terms of actually being able to beat the very best humans then they have until recently been considerably behind even mediocre poker players. But all this is about to change.

Last year we had the challenge match between the Polaris program and Ali Eslami and Phil Laak. This match ended up in a narrow win for the humans but it was close. Each match consisted of a series of hands that were played between Polaris and Laak in one room and Polaris and Eslami in the other with the program having a fixed set of hands in one match and the human player having those identical hands in the other match and vice versa.

This was intended to iron out differences in short term luck. Well shortly, we will be having the second “Man vs Machine” encounter only this time the machine will be POLARIS 2 which boasts the most sophisticated AI in the history of poker programs. The humans this time have an even more formidable line up which involves members of the Stox Poker coaching team at stoxpoker.com.

Being a specialist limit player then I can personally vouch for these guys as being the real deal and I for one cannot wait to see the outcome as I am intensely fascinated by the use of AI in poker just like I was in Chess all those years ago.

The University of Alberta who have produced the program claim that they have made considerable progress since the launch of the original Polaris and the match with Laak and Eslami last year. My own prediction is that I think we will see a repeat result with a narrow win for the humans. But Polaris’s ability to adapt to the play of its opponents as the match progresses would make the overall length of the match critical as the longer it went on then the more data the program would be able to store and use against the Stox Poker team.

It will be fascinating to see a program lock horns with some of the best online players in the world who have won millions of dollars in online cash games. I already highly rate people like Nick Grudzien after reading his book and Bryce Paradis after seeing some of his instructional videos so this event for me is mouth watering. For anyone who is over there and wishes to go, the match will take place at the 2008 Gaming and Life Expo at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas between the 3rd and the 6th of July. I wonder if they will have a picture of Arnold Schwarzeneggar as the terminator somewhere in the room……if they don’t then they ought to!

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