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Poker Bots on the Rise—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on November 12, 2007.

Poker Bots on the Rise
By Ian Ayres ’86

It is not an opportune time to start an online gambling site for checkers.

In July, researchers at University of Alberta “solved the game” using brute computer force. As such, their computer knew the best strategy to play in any of the possible 50 billion checker positions. Humans should now be very scared to bet money against any virtual opponent, for fear that they are really facing the Alberta computer or its clone. (You also wouldn’t want to play a money game against a computer in Connect Four or Othello, or even backgammon.)

What’s true for checkers is also becoming true for poker. The same group at Alberta has just shown that their Polaris program is on the verge of taking down poker professionals. In the recent “Man vs. Machine” Poker Championship, Phil “The Unabomber” Laak and Ali Eslami barely beat Polaris two sessions to one (with one a virtual draw). After the tournament, Laak candidly acknowledged that “the bots are closing in.”

People have expressed worry that computerized competition and game-theoretic solutions could psychologically depress player enthusiasm. What’s the point of playing checkers now that we know it should always end in a draw? What’s the thrill of playing chess, when we humans know that we can never be the best?

But the rise of gambling bots may soon depress online poker participation for a very different reason. In the very near future, online poker may become a suckers’ game that humans won’t have a chance to win. Bots are quite scale-able and it will be virtually impossible to prohibit computer or computer-assisted online playing.

Poker sites are trying to assure customers that they will kick bots off their site and seize their assets. But unlike the statistical trail left by crude poker cheats at Absolute Poker, it is possible for bots to randomize their strategies and even hire individual humans to run them.

Ultimately the Albertus Polaris program and its offspring could be more effective than any Justice Department indictment in crippling the growth of online gambling. Indeed, our government might even think about subsidizing the development and use of these bots. Imagine a DARPA-like competition for creating a bot that can beat the average law breaker. Constructing a bot that can consistently win (and then publicizing this fact) is a sure step toward virtual temperance. (By the way, I’m agnostic about whether online poker should be illegal.)

Poker enthusiasts have argued for online legalization, saying that poker is a game of skill. And of course, it is (just like chess and checkers). But ironically, it’s because poker is a game of skill that humans’ chance of winning are undermined. Unlike checkers, the key to poker is to predict whether other players are bluffing. On the Internet (without the possibility of visual cues), computers are probably better at predicting a rival’s hand from his or her past play. But computers are much better at confounding the expectations of their human opponents. Computers can play randomized strategies much better than we can. Our brains are so hardwired to see patterns, it’s devilishly hard for most of us to generate random behavior.

Indeed, take a minute and try to write down a random sequence of 200 heads or tails. If you actually flip a coin that many times, there’s a very large chance (98%) that there will be a run of at least 6 heads or 6 tails in a row. But very few people can bring themselves to produce such runs in trying to be random. Your iPod’s shuffle function isn’t broken when it plays songs from the same artist two or three times in a row. By chance, runs do happen.

When I play poker, I use my watch as a crude random number generator. Before my first bet, I look down and bluff if the second hand on my watch is between :00 and :06. Unlike machines, people have a hard time ignoring the past. Our biggest tells aren’t facial tics but that we just can’t stop ourselves from playing non-randomly. With training, we can get better, but we should fool ourselves. The handwriting is on the wall. High quality bots are an online gambler’s worst nightmare.

Bots won’t kill poker. They’ll just drive it off line. Old fashioned “humans-only” competitions will still thrive. But this is one Darwinian struggle where the unaided human mind is definitely not the fittest.