Man vs. Machine: Laak, Eslami take on computer

Phil Laak
Phil Laak takes on pokerbot Polaris.

The Man-Machine Poker Championship will come down to one final 500-hand battle this evening as Phil Laak and Ali Eslami take on Polaris, the world's leading poker-playing computer program.

So far, three of the four sessions have been played, with a technical tie called for the first session played Monday afternoon, Polaris winning the second session Monday and Phil Laak and Ali Eslami pulling off a win during today's afternoon session.

The game they're playing is Limit Texas Hold'em with blinds at $10/$20. To be considered a win, Polaris has to beat the combined totals from both players by 25 small bets or more. A less than 25-bet margin equals a technical tie between the players and Polaris, and if the players come out more than 25-bets ahead, they win.

The first session saw Eslami up by $395 after 500 hands. At the same time, Laak was playing a duplicate match, only he was getting the hands the computer was getting in Eslami's game. His result after those same 500 hands was -$465.

They had a combined total for the day of -$70, which was only a seven-bet difference to break even, so the round was declared a draw.

During the evening session on Monday, Polaris started playing ultra-aggressive - or "sick" in Laak's own words. The result was a win for Polaris.

Eslami came out $2,515 in the hole, and Laak couldn't make up enough of the difference with his $1,560 win. The -$955 total for the session was more than enough to give Polaris the win.

Laak and Eslami can't communicate during the poker sessions, but in between they have a chance to talk about how the hands went and can formulate a plan of attack for the next session.

Whatever they came up with last night after the second session worked for them, because they walked away with a win in the third session this afternoon.

During the third session Laak took his turn playing in front of the audience who came to observe the match. He talked his way through his decisions so the audience could see why he was playing the way he was and what his strategy was for this session.

To mix it up a bit and hopefully keep Polaris from getting a read on him, Laak was alternating between playing aggressive and playing conservative.

He also gave some insight to how he though Eslami was probably doing during the session as well. He made comments about certain hands he knew Eslami was going to hate after seeing his own outcome on them, and also explained during certain hands why Eslami may do well on them even though the computer didn't do so well against Laak with them.

That doesn't take anything away from the program though. At one point during the match, play had to be stopped for a quick break and when the audience clapped for Laak he said, "Your clapping should be for the bot. It's strong, you know; its kung fu is strong."

He doesn't think Polaris has surpassed humans yet, though. Right now, Laak explained to media, a poker pro hopes to just break even against Polaris, and Polaris hopes to break even against the pro players.

It's like a game of chess where if both players are playing a perfect game, it should come out a draw.

Computers have already proven they can be better at games such as chess and checkers, but poker poses an interesting challenge for programmers because there is more uncertainty to the game with the added human behavior as well as uncertainty from only partial observability and imperfect information.

"These elements make poker an interesting research challenge and are also prevalent in real-world problems for which [Artificial Intelligence] techniques are being sought," said the University of Alberta team that created Polaris.

The team's goal is to eventually produce a poker program that will be stronger than all human players. To accomplish that, the program needs to be tested against very strong human players with real money on the line.

"Right now I think Polaris is a phenomenal player," Laak said, and he added that eventually it will be better than humans, just not yet.

It remains to be seen who will be declared the final winner of the challenge. The last session plays out this evening, and will bring you the final results tomorrow.

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