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Poker Bots or Utter Rot?

There is a new player in town. He doesn't get tired, and never goes on tilt. He has an unlimited memory, and can remember how you played a hand and how long it took for you to make a particular decision. He can accurately calculate the odds of a hand in the blink of an eye. What he doesn’t have is intuition. He is a "poker bot" or "poker robot".

The concepts behind a poker bot are not new. Arthur Samuel wrote an intelligent checkers game in 1952 and in 1967 Richard Greenblatt built a chess playing program. [1] The University of Alberta have created "Vex Bot" [2], a poker bot apparently able to play poker to a masterly level. However, in checkers or chess the player has all the information about the game. A key feature of poker is that players only have partial information.

With the recent popularity increase in poker, especially online poker, it was only a matter of time before some entrepreneurial computer geek sat down to write a program that would be able to play the game that we have all come to love and hate. How do they work? There are undoubtedly many different ways in which a poker bot can play their game. It may be based purely around maths, calculating odds and only playing hands that have a high chance of winning. They may have complicated artificial intelligence routines built to analyse and understand how you play, and then to make decisions based upon its analysis (known as machine learning).

Some people may think that poker bots cannot bluff, therefore being at a disadvantage. This is simply not true. If their analysis indicates that you are playing a weak hand, or playing on a draw, they may bluff a heavy bet to make it not worth your while to call the hand any longer. Just as you may do while playing a game.

The science of poker bots is becoming more advanced every day. Four University lecturers at the University of Alberta created a commercial software package called Poki Poker [3], which has developed into the "Poker Academy". The software is intended to help players analyse and improve their own game. However, they have gone one further and allow poker bots to use the poker tables to gather empirical data and fine tune their routines to improve their play.

The World Series of Poker held a poker bot tournament in 2005, consisting of six poker bots and a top prize of $100,000 [4].

However, a poker bot has no feelings, has no intuition. The definition of intuition is "The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational process; immediate cognition" [5]. As poker players, there are many of us who use our intuition in making a call or a fold, and are often pleased when we see that we made the right choice. A poker bot does not have this ability, and will make the call based on careful analysis of your play (or the mathematics).

Can you play against a poker bot and win? I can find no published (trustworthy) facts or figures that state the win/loss ratio, or the long-term profitability of poker bots, so cannot report on their claims. Don’t be afraid of the hype behind poker bots, they are clever, but they are not human. Phil Laak, the Unabomber, played the winner of the WSOP Poker Bot event and beat it in 399 hands [4].

Are you likely to play against a poker bot? Potentially, yes. There are poker bots available now that you can download off the Internet, and leave playing while you go to work. However, many of the online poker companies are aware of this, and don’t consider it ethical. They are trying to combat the "problem" in many different ways, and if a player is found to be operating a poker bot, the poker company will ban them from using their software, and confiscate their winnings. You as an online player are unlikely to know (or recognise) if you are playing a real opponent or an artificial opponent.

References

[1] – Brief History of Artificial Intelligence, Updated August 2002
http://www.aaai.org/AITopics/bbhist.html

[2] – Are poker ‘bots’ raking online pots? MSNBC, Updated September 21, 2004
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6002298

[3] – Writing Poker Bots for the Poki Poker Server, Updated March 26, 2004
http://games.cs.ualberta.ca/webgames/poker/bots.html

[4] – Bots now battle humans for poker supremacy, Posted 22nd July 2005
http://msn.foxsports.com/other/story/3772232

[5] – Definition taken on 24th August 2005
http://www.dictionary.com

John "Emrys" Dempsey


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