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Poker and Computer Smarts

Poker and Computer Smarts 0001

Corporate America is rushing to lasso the poker wagon. The Corporate Cowboys are quickly throwing together last-minute weddings for video games and poker, with little intimacy and much fanfare and gunfire. In many instances, the hurried matrimony leaves much to be desired, and the result is a broken product before the honeymoon. Creating a poker video game that has long-term playability is a difficult task. It takes a great deal of time, money, and knowledge – a lot of knowledge. Thankfully for the rest of us, The University of Alberta has been researching artificial intelligence in conjunction with poker for over a decade. Not only that, but they have taken the time to create quality poker programs that have infinite playability, the Poker Academy line.

"Infinite, huh? Yeah right..."

I don't blame you for being a skeptic. Lucky for the both of us, I had the chance to chat with Kurt Lange, a member of the team at Alberta. We talked both about the artificial intelligence research as well as the software that is the result of all of that hard work.

When Alberta began their research into artificial intelligence, they were looking for a way to test their AI using a skill-based game with tangible results. Lucky for us, the researchers were already poker players and enthusiasts, so poker was the game of skill they chose. You may have heard of other artificial intelligence programs that play chess or checkers, such as Deep Blue, the famous chess-playing computer. Chess and checkers are games with perfect information. There is always a perfect move that can be chosen, and both players have all the information needed to make that decision right in front of them. Poker is a game of imperfect information, and even a game of misinformation and deception. You do not know what your opponent is holding, and chances are he is trying to make you think he is holding something completely different. That is what made poker the more interesting choice. Although the research was meant to be just that, research, a world-class poker playing program was a wonderful side effect.

Can you imagine playing a machine that actually adapts to your play and calls your bluffs? A little unnerving, is it not? That is the point of the group's research. To create an adaptive artificial intelligence that not only learns your style of play, but wins because of it.

Alberta had a few different bots along the way. Loki used to make the rounds on IRC while researchers kept track of the progress. Poki is a program that is still a winning player at the group's website. Sparbot is where things really get interesting. Sparbot was created to play heads-up poker, where more hands are seen, creating more results and more growth for the artificial intelligence. Sparbot is meant to play not to win, but to NOT lose. A good player playing against Sparbot will break even, but if a player makes a serious mistake or two, he or she will lose money. The latest and most dangerous machine opponent is Vexbot. Vexbot is based completely on opponent modeling; that is, it studies you constantly and will attempt to take advantage of every small weakness it thinks it has found, forcing opponents to adapt their own play constantly.

All of this research and all of these programs have driven the group to the point it is at today: currently producing and maintaining what may be the best poker software learning tool available, Poker Academy Pro. Poker Academy Pro is not just a poker video game. No, not at all. Poker Academy Pro allows you to increase your skills while playing, and it is enjoyable to play often and on a long time line. Your opponents are the result of more than 10 years of research – they are not predictably boring and simple to crush. You will find yourself trying to understand what the machine is thinking!

To go along with the ability to play (for 'play' money) against a competent opponent whenever you wish, Poker Academy Pro produces a plethora of statistics that tell you anything you may want to know about your game: win-loss graphs, positional win rates, win rates based on hand levels, etc. One of my favorites is the Luckometer, which answers the question "Am I playing well, or just catching cards?" There is a showdown calculator and a hand evaluator as well. No Limit, Limit, and Tournament games are all available. Another 'feature' that should be mentioned is the automatic (and free!) updates that are often offered. The group has added a ton of features for existing Poker Academy users free-of-charge, including adding new AI!

The AI is amazing, and creates a fantastic learning experience, as well as a game that can be played for a long time to come. The group receives emails from folks who have become winning players when they were not before using Poker Academy, but I think one anecdote in particular deserves a tell.

Mr. Lange regularly plays in a home game that includes his mom, and he had grown accustomed to doing well, as well as watching his mom do not-so-well. One tournament in particular, however, he found she was playing completely different than what he was used to seeing from her. In fact, it came down to the two of them heads-up for the win! To his surprise, Mom was the victor. When he asked how she had learned to play like that, she said she had been using Poker Academy, ironically.

Poker Academy Pro is a great poker program, both as a learning tool and as entertainment. If nothing else, it is worth it to marvel at the research that has went into it. I think you will find out what is meant by 'long-term playability'. I am thoroughly impressed. I enjoy the software, and it has taught me that my computer is smarter than I am. Great.

On another note, I have found out through sources that the poker AI technology developed by the University of Alberta is going to be part of the "engine" that runs the new video game "STACKED", which stars Daniel Negraneau, and will be out later this year on X Box. Its always nice to see people who do good research work developing a practical application for that work. Nice job, guys.

Thanks go out to both Kurt Lange and Anthony Giombetti from Poker Academy for talking to me and putting up with me. Not everyone likes to do both.

Good luck and good odds!

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