This winter Jason Les and a crew of talented heads-up No-Limit specialists were finally beaten at their own game by poker A.I. Libratus.
It was not a completely unexpected outcome as Les himself had said it was only a matter of time before A.I.s finally got the best of them.
It was an international story that pushed poker to the forefront of publications around the world. It also made more than a couple poker players wonder about the future of the game.
The Future of Poker AI
PokerListings’ caught up with Les on a break from the $3,000 6-Max No-Limit Hold’em at the 2017 WSOP to get his thoughts on poker A.I., the future of poker and the rise of Bitcoin use amongst high-stakes poker professionals.
PokerListings: You’re in the commentating booth a lot lately. Do you enjoy that side of the game?
Jason Les: Yeah it’s a lot of fun, particularly on the new PokerGo stream here at the World Series.
I think it’s an incredible production and super fun just to be a part of it, working alongside great commentators like Norman Chad and Lon McEachern.
PL: What do you think of PokerGO as a product? Do you think it’s good for the industry in general?
JL: I love it. Anytime I’m not playing an event here, I’m at home or on my phone watching the PokerGo stream.
The quality of the coverage is just amazing. It’s like being able to watch the Main Event every day. I just love what they’re doing.
PL: Let’s go back to February and the Brains vs. Poker A.I. Challenge for a minute. How did you guys feel after losing?
JL: I would say that about halfway through we were pretty aware we weren’t going to win.
Part of the skill in being a heads-up player is being able to effectively rate yourself against other players, not having this false bravado of blind confidence.
We’re honest about our play and we could tell we were being outplayed. It’s not the type of thing you can come back from. It wasn’t like a human where you might be able to find a weakness.
It was very clearly an approximation of Nash Equilibrium strategy that we were not going to be able to beat. We were pretty much content with just showing up every day, for the next 10 days, to play it all out.
At the end I wouldn’t say we were sad or upset. We knew what was going to happen. I think we were realistic and knew that one day AI would overtake us.
PL: I think you mentioned that when I talked to you a couple years ago…
JL: Yeah, it was going to happen eventually, right?
Every other game or other parts of our lives AI has just taken a step in and become better than humans at stuff. It makes our lives better, not worse.
I think the fact you can show that much progress in A.I. — I mean we handily defeated it that first time — and two years later we get beaten handily.
It shows that this technology is rapidly moving and improving.
PL: What is the future of the Challenge? I suppose everything is pretty much finished at this point…
JL: For heads-up they won decisively. It’s very clear that Libratus is better than humans at heads-up No-Limit.
There are lots of other forms of poker where A.I. hasn’t been successful yet. Heads-Up No-Limit is a very small part of poker in general.
The A.I. is not really there yet for full ring No-Limit or games like PLO.
PL: Is that something the team at Carnegie Mellon is interested in moving into?
JL: They haven’t specifically said that they will.
I mean their goal was never to make poker A.I.s. Their goal was to make a game-solving, problem-solving A.I. and use Heads-Up No-Limit as the benchmark.
So they don’t really have an interest in just tackling different kinds of poker. I’m sure there are other teams out there that do have an interest in that.
Maybe we’ll see challenges for those types of games in the future.
PL: What did you think about the mainstream media attention the challenge received? It seemed like there was a bit of a “Poker is dead now” vibe, which seemed like an overreaction…
JL: The mainstream media loved the story. I think it was a good story because we won the first time and the second time the A.I. won.
No one really cared about poker players winning. No one cares about that. The story is “A.I. is beating top humans at this game” and people loved that.
I do feel like the “poker is dead” stuff is really exaggerated. Heads-Up is a very small portion of poker that’s played. It’s really only played online.
I think a lot of people have the idea that because this A.I. can win at heads-up they can just throw it into whatever game and it’s going to win. It doesn’t work like that at all. Full-ring games are exponentially more difficult to play.
For heads-up, yeah you should be a little more cautious, even though it does cost a ton of money to run Libratus right now. I’m not sure in the future.
PL: Would you still feel safe playing heads-up online these days?
JL: I don't know. That whole experience has made me a bit more cautious about it. I think frankly heads-up isn’t really much of a thing anymore, regardless of the A.I. stuff.
There have been a bunch of changes and not many people play heads-up any more. Period. It’s not as profitable as an endeavor as it once was.
PL: Why is that?
JL: Heads-up online started dying long before A.I. and I think that had to do with the changes that PokerStars made to the games.
PokerStars is basically where heads-up existed for high-stakes. There was nowhere else you were playing $25/$50 and higher heads-up.
When they changed it to all Zoom tables and increased the rake, that made the game a lot less profitable. It wasn’t really the same. I saw a lot less people playing it because of that.
PL: It seems like the high-stakes community has embraced Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. Can you explain that?
JL: I think it’s an emerging technology — I mean you can’t even say emerging anymore, it’s been around for seven years or so — but I think poker players, because they are in the business of sending money online, were one of the first movers as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies move into mainstream adoption.
A ton of people are investing right now, just as speculation on the future.
Regardless of that, I’ve seen it make people’s lives a lot easier. The traditional banking system doesn’t make it easy to move money all over the world. You can do that with Bitcoin.
Not only are people wanting to invest but it’s also making a lot of poker players' lives a lot easier.
PL: I saw a Tweet where you asked the rest of the $300k Super High Roller Bowl players if they wanted to just throw the whole $15m+ prize pool in a cryptocurrency. That was a joke right?
JL: Yeah it was. Over the last couple months there have been so many random Bitcoin alternatives that have been going crazy, like 5X, 10X or 100X.
I just thought it was a funny joke. Let’s dump the $15m in some shitcoin and we’ll run it up to like 5X or whatever.
PL: Would it have worked?
JL: It would have depended on how shitty the coin was. [Laughs]