UPPER HAND. A few years ago, computer scientists studying computers' ability to play games against people seemed to think it was a good bet that machines would meet their match when it came to poker. Sure, they said, Deep Blue mastered Garry Kasparov in chess, and computers had bested humans in checkers and backgammon. But those games can be played with algorithms. And nothing is hidden ' a look at the board gives participants full information about the status of the game. When it comes to poker, though, computers can't see the other players' cards. And although they can easily determine probabilities and even detect patterns for when a player might bluff, they can't read the other players' faces or notice their tics. In that kind of game, humans still hold the edge. But computers are closing in.

After 2,000 hands of poker last week between man and machine, man emerged victorious ' but not by much. Professional players Phil Laak and Ali Eslami sat down in Vancouver with Polaris, the reigning world champion computer program developed by researchers at the University of Alberta. Laak and Eslami played the computers separately with identical hands but the opposite cards ' Eslami played the hands dealt to the computer playing Laak and vice versa. Each pairing played four rounds of 500 hands, and the humans won 2 rounds to 1 with one draw.

Researchers will no doubt return with a better poker-playing program: Computer scientists expect that a machine will leave the table a winner within a decade. Meanwhile, the rest of us can raise a glass to professional poker players with sometimes questionable nicknames (Laak calls himself The Unabomber) as the last bastions of man's superiority over machine.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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