Computer scientists at the University of Alberta have just finished a ten-year long project to build poker software that can beat every human player on the planet.
The program is called Cepheus and it plays "perfect" Heads-Up Limit Hold'em poker.
Mainstream media outlets have jumped on the idea that poker has been "solved" and we've entered the age of the machines.
As poker players, we're screwed, right?
Well, not exactly. Not even, really, all that much.
What is the Cepheus Poker Bot?
There have been a lot of attempts to create poker software equal to virtual chess players. Since former chess world champion Garri Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, we know that machines are ultimately the better players.
In poker, many have dreaded the moment someone would come up with similarly superior software. Is their nightmare now coming true?
Project leader Mike Howling and his team have used adaptive software. They saved every single possible situation of a poker game – in a heads-up game, that’s 316.000.000.000.000.000 different situations (!) - and then had the machine play against a copy of itself.
The goal: beat Heads-Up Limit Hold’em. 200 processors took 70 days of calculations and generated a data base of 11 terabytes ... and then poker was solved!
The machine went from making completely arbitrary decisions to playing reasonably and then, eventually, perfect. It's even capable of bluffing.
The reason why it's mimicking human play so well is because it’s using a random generator for certain situations.
As you know, in poker, there is often no single right answer. Instead, theory will tell you that in a specific situation you should call 70% of the times and fold in 30%, for example.
Cepheus doesn’t make a decision here; its action is determined by the random generator. That makes the software as unpredictable as a human player.
Of course, Cepheus doesn’t win all the time. It will get bad beats just as anyone else. But in the long run, nobody should be able to beat it.
In fact, nobody will.
Cepheus: Way Superior to Ordinary Human Mind
Just like Deep Blue, Cepheus is way superior to the ordinary human mind when it comes to calculations.
Computer software can go through a myriad of situations at ridiculous speed. Did you see the number above? That’s 316 quadrillion!
However, that’s also where one of the software’s weaknesses lies. Humans can rule out the vast majority of moves as they are obviously wrong.
In chess, this is easier to picture. For example, you wouldn’t move your king early in the game unless it becomes absolutely necessary. So the software must go through every possible move before it decides.
Also, although Cepheus is unbeatable, it’s not the best player in the world. Sounds paradoxical? It’s not.
As poker guru David Sklansky said in a recent response to the unveiling of Cepheus: “If the computer is playing a bad player, it will win, but it won’t win as quickly as a human being playing a bad player.”
“I will destroy that beginner to a greater degree than this computer program will.”
In other words, while it’s an advantage for Cepheus tobe unemotional and insensitive to tilt, it’s also lacking the killer instinct.
Yet, if Sklansky would play Cepheus, he would get beat by the machine. It just might take a while.
By the way, you can test the program yourself. The software is online and you can play Cepheus here.
Is This the End of Poker?
No. And the explanation for this is surprisingly simple.
Even if a computer program can now play better than any human, you have to play it to lose.
How many guys do you know who play Heads-Up Limit Hold’em? Does anybody? I checked the lobby of market leader PokerStars.
There were 58 open heads-up LHE tables at $1/$2 or higher. At 57 of them, some shark (I guess) was waiting for a victim.
Only one table was actually active.
Also, Cepheus is useless as soon as there are more than two players at the table. The interaction is too much for the program.
So, Cepheus is not going to have a large effect on the poker world.
What's Poker AI Good For, Then?
The most amazing thing about Cepheus is that it can beat every player’s strategy. In fact, it’s not even trying to find out what these strategies are. It doesn’t care.
This is going to be exploited in a lot of different ways. Cepheus is going to be used in different fields – medicine, security, the fight against terrorism.
In Alberta, they are already working on software that helps to develop individual plans to manage diabetes. Sounds far-fetched, but Cepheus’ is going to be of great help there because of its capability to make good recommendations.
At the University of California, scientists are building “a system for deploying air marshals on flights and coastguard patrols at ports.
In the same way that Cepheus found a way of not being beaten at poker, the USC project is aimed at devising policies that cannot be exploited by any adversaries," writes The Independent.
So, Cepheus is indeed a milestone with regards to game theory software, but it’s not going to destroy anything in poker.
Keep on playing. Just stay away from the $1/$2 LHE HU tables, because me and my new friend Ceph might be sitting there. Waiting.