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The End is Nigh! Or is it?
It all began in 1992 when a
thing called Chinook took on a man called Dr. Marion Tinsley. Who he and what
it, I expect youre wondering?
Well, Tinsley was as close to god
as you can get in the sleepy world of draughts (checkers). In his World
Championship career from 1955 to 1991, or 46 years, he lost precisely 7 games
and no matches to all human challengers, a feat not equalled in any game or
sport of the past or present. And never will be.
Chinook was and is a
computer program that plays draughts. It was developed by Jonathan Schaeffer, a
research professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, holding the Canada
Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence. He saw the lateral thinking ability
of humans playing games as the challenge he needed to understand how computers
could develop their own intelligence. So he went after draughts, arguably the
easiest game to translate into computer based thinking.
After a year of improving development,
Chinook placed second to Tinsley in the 1990 US Championships and earned the
controversial right to play Tinsley for the world title. In August 1992 the two
went into battle and Tinsley won 4-2 (and 33 draws!), the closest match
hed had in 47 years. (Read about this in his
Shaeffer's book on the
subject) Two years later they did battle again but, after 4 draws, Tinsley was
taken ill with a hitherto undiagnosed cancer (he died 7 months later). Chinook
was declared the winner. Another two years and Chinook defended against the
second best human, Don Lafferty, drawing the match 1-1-18, and thus retaining
the title. That same year, 1996, it crushed the field in the US Championships
and was then taken out of service by Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer.
later, on the 11th May 1997, the chess playing computer Deep Blue, created by
IBM, defeated Gary Kasparov, the greatest chess player of all time (although he
said they cheated). This was a different type of victory, as IBMs massive
budget and development team had spent millions on creating an enormous parallel
processing super-computer just for the job. It was all for publicising
IBMs name and it did just that.
All very interesting, Im
But now Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer is back - and this time its
personal To me and to you. Aside from draughts, Schaeffer has headed the
University of Alberta Computer Poker Research Group (CPRG), an ongoing concern
for about 15 years. (Although Jonathan was the administrative head of the CPRG,
Dr. Darse Billings was the lead architect all of the research ideas
prior to 2005 were his, while several M.Sc. students and programmer-analysts
did the actual coding.).
The early years were tougher than they wished
and it wasnt until 2003 that serious and usable programs appeared. The
first was Sparbot, based on pseudo-optimal player strategy, or changing your
playing style and seeing if you do better against a given opponent. Then came
Vexbot, a program based on adaptive game theory, or learning what works over a
long period of time. These two programs were combined in 2005 and released in
the Poker Academy software, a commercially available learning tool for Texas
In July of that year Phil Laak took on a version of the
new upstart bot called Poki-X in Las Vegas and won a narrow victory in less
than perfect conditions. In 2006 Daniel Negreanu released Stacked, a poker
entertainment game containing a version of Poki-X. A month later, in Boston, an
updated version of Sparbot won the first and little-known artificial
intelligence poker competition without much of a fight.
And so to the
July 2007. A big hotel in Vancouver, Canada. Over four
sessions of play, in two days, the new challenge to life as we know it stepped
up to the plate in a $50,000 match with Phil (The Unabomber) Laak
and Ali Eslami, a big limit player. The program has been renamed Polaris and
the competition that took place was four 500-hand duplicate matches. In each
match the same series of cards were dealt in two parallel Man vs. Machine
heads-up games, teammates playing the opposite hands in each game. The
duplicate idea was to reduce the element of luck in being dealt good cards. The
game was $10/20 limit holdem and the combined stacks of both players
would determine the winner of each session. (within 25 small bets of the start
stack being declared a draw)
Play was conducted in a big meeting room,
one human visible, one human in another room, each with a terminal screen in
front of them. An audience of 50 or more people watched on huge display screens
and the human present (swapping each session) gave a running commentary on
Round 1 was drawn with the humans being down a mere and
insignificant $70. Round 2 saw the humans being crushed, Eslami losing $2495
but Laak winning $1570, a total of -$925. The humans looked dispirited, as well
they might. Then something strange happened. The CPRG team had chosen the
specific style of bot (computer program) to use by modelling 10 different ones
against the expected opponents - and used just one to play rounds one and two.
For the final rounds they switched to a multi-bot scenario, a master bot
switching modes to try and outmanouvre the humans. A storming victory, it
seems, was not enough - they wanted blood.
On first sight that would
appear to be a mistake. People seem to be reluctant to believe that a
consistent line of attack can win and will often outplay themselves, as when up
against a super-aggressive player. What the CPRG were up to was trying to stop
the humans learning the types of play that would work consistently against
their bot. It was intended that the bots would start acting like humans
themselves; but Laak put in another fine win, up $1455 whilst Eslami again lost
$635. Round 3 total, + $820 but still down $175 overall. Sessions one apiece
and one draw.
Then came the final session, with Ali Eslami
commentating for the audience. Reading from the tickertape-style blogging of
the event it was clear that, although Eslami felt the experience was tortuously
tough, he had come to see the weakness in the bots play. Quite contrary
to the CPRGs intentions. He turned his early stack loss of $600 into a
final victory of $460, and with Laak winning $110 the boys had won. Just. Up
$395 in 4000 hands of $10/20 limit holdem.
Basically, that is a
draw in anyones book. Ali Eslami admitted as much in his speech, going on
to say that if they had been forced into time constraints, they would have
lost. The humans pocketed $5000 for each session victory and $2500 for the
drawn one (I dont know why), for a grand total of $12,500 - plus
expenses, of course.
Now all this computer-based algorithmic research
into uncertain risk strategy may well have a solid goal of improving decisions
in politics, finance and even war, but why pick on us? Are we just innocent
victims because we play the toughest game on earth, or are the CPRG just out to
make a lot of money?
I for one dont like the look of this, not
that I play limit holdem. And Im not starting now. But I did decide
to download the latest version of the Poker Academy software to see how good it
was at no-limit. Bloody hell! Sacre-bleu for the French Canadians. I want to
make dam sure that Im up against real people from now on, even when
Im playing bricks-n-mortar poker!
There may soon come a moment
when we have to send a cyborg assassin back in time to bump off Mrs Schaeffer.
I see Arnold Schwarzenegger in the part. Whose side will you be on?
 It is not quite correct to say that no useable program appeared
until 2003. They had winning bots for multi-player games shortly after the
inception of the CPRG in 1997. They won consistently in games with average to
decent human players for tens of millions of hands. However, the weaknesses of
those programs showed up most prominently in the two-player game (where tricky
play is most important), which is one of the reasons they shifted their focus
to the two-player game. Back
On July 36, 2008,
Polaris competed against six human professional poker players in the Second
Man-Machine Poker Championship, held in Las Vegas at the 2008 Gaming Life Expo.
Polaris defeated the human players with three wins, two losses and one tie.
Each of the six sessions was a duplicate match of 500 hands against two
different players, resulting in six thousand hands played. Across all six
sessions, Polaris won 195 big blinds. The version of Polaris used in the 2008
match was much stronger than the 2007 version, both in the quality of the
component strategies and in its ability to learn which component strategy to