Bot This Too: Robots Don't Have Girlfriends

Phil Laak

Last column we discussed a poker "bot" named Polaris. This device is a sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) program that plays Limit Hold'em about as well as any sentient human.

The brainchild of the Computer Poker Research Group at the University of Alberta's Calgary campus, Polaris has earned its stripes by beating several experienced professionals in heads-up play.

We examined a number of features of the bot itself in the last column. Here I'd like to explore some of the psychological factors of man vs. machine play.


When a bot plays against a human, there is a compelling affective asymmetry. Humans feel. Bots do not. Humans experience the pain of loss and the euphoria of a win. They alter their games in reaction to emotional stress.

A run of bad cards can make some feel insecure and they gear down their aggression; others are provoked and become hyperaggressive. Some react strongly to being challenged by an opponent; others ignore such affronts.

If your girlfriend just dumped you, it probably won't do much for your game. Polaris doesn't have a girlfriend. It is devoid of affective states; it's as dead as a post.

Allen Cunningham
Full Tilt pro Allen Cunningham: So good that if he didn't have a girlfriend, he'd be suspected of being AI.

In various circles, this lack of emotional response in an AI is a topic of considerable discussion. Debates range from discourses among neuroscientists and philosophers on the links between cognition and emotion to musings among sci-fi enthusiasts over whether androids should be portrayed as less than human by virtue of being bereft of emotions.

Is Polaris's lack of emotional reaction a long-term plus or a long-term minus? Frankly, I have no idea. It could be a bonus because its game won't get derailed by two or three horrific and mathematically unlikely beats.

But this lack of emotion could hurt because Polaris never gets "stoked" by events and take its game to a higher level as a result. This line of argument, of course, depends on there being a higher level to the game that bots can't attain (yet).

The accepted wisdom is that the absence of emotional reaction in an AI is a benefit. This may be right today; tomorrow, it may not be.


Cognition is thinking; cognitive functions are those that are involved in deliberation, decision making and analysis - processes critical to any intellectually complex task. They include those that are overt and conscious, like calculating pot odds to determine the expected value of a call.

They also include processes that are covert and unconscious, such as experiencing a vague, intuitive sense that you're just beat in a hand. But, no matter how you cut it, these cognitive functions involve knowing, in any of the several senses of the word.

Well, one of the signature features of Polaris is that it doesn't know anything about poker! Despite its ability to outplay some of the Limit Hold'em players in the world, it's just a collection of on-off gates.

In fact, it doesn't know anything about anything. Just like feeling, knowing isn't part of what it does. An AI is just a program running on a silicone-based device we call a computer. It's affectively, epistemically empty.

Phil Laak
Phil Laak: If he didn't have a girlfriend, he might be legally common-law with Antonio Esfandiari.

Oh, sure, you could program Polaris to say things like "Hmmm, I've got to think this one through," or to laugh when it steals a pot or throw a tantrum when it ends a session with a big loss, but it wouldn't be thoughtful, happy, sad or angry.

It would just be a bunch of on-off switches instantiated in a sea of transistors simulating these states. This raises questions about exactly what we mean by thinking or feeling, not to mention whether it is possible to ever build an AI that can become truly aware of itself and the world about it.

Such speculations, of course, go somewhat beyond poker but they are worth contemplating.

Reading a Bot

Can a human player "read" a bot?

Perhaps. If you can ascertain the patterns of play that have been programmed in, you ought to be able to put the device on a range of hands, just as you would a human opponent.

When chess champion Gary Kasparov defeated Deep Blue I, this was his strategy. Deep Blue II was made less transparent and Kasparov, no longer able to make such inductions, lost. It's worth noting that one of Polaris's programmers (who plays high-stakes poker) says he cannot beat it.

Online, where "tells" are usually timing tells, it's going to be "advantage Polaris." I suspect that some of the difficulty that professionals have had playing Polaris can be traced to the hazards of trying to read its silicon "mind."

Daniel Negreanu
PokerStars pro Daniel Negreanu: If anyone could read Polaris' mind, it's Negreanu.

Bots Reading You

The flip side here is also important. Can Polaris read you?

Actually, it's likely to be better at this than you think. Because of its enormous computational capacity, it will divine patterns in your game faster and more accurately than you will in its.

And, because it is an AI, it has subroutines that enable it to learn from experience. In order to have a chance to beat Polaris, a player is going to have to take the adage "mix up your game" to new heights.


Bots like Polaris generate paranoia for two reasons. One, they play very good Limit Hold'em.

Two, they would likely pass a restricted version of the Turing Test. Alan Turing argued, famously, that if a computer were switched with a person with whom you were conversing and you didn't realize it, then the computer could be called a genuine "artificial intelligence."

A full Turing test doesn't place limits on the topics, so Polaris couldn't meet that sort of challenge, but it does appear to satisfy such a test so long as the topic is Limit poker, played heads-up.

You can't get a copy of Polaris, and the designers won't allow it to be used by anyone. But there are other bots around, many available commercially.

None are very good, so keep your paranoia bottled up. Their main use is making pre-flop "fold" decisions, enabling one to play more tables. But the future will be different; it usually is.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Limit Hold'em. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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Darse Billings 2010-10-20 20:50:59

The U of A is in Edmonton. That's where we developed Polaris. But i'm from Calgary, so i'll give you part marks. :)

Emotion is a big handicap for humans. Polaris always plays at its peak. It is "stoked" 100% of the time.

Humans are just a bunch of on-off switches, with delusions of grandeur that cloud their thinking.

Polaris has *many* girlfriends. It's a regular chick magnet.

Cheers, - Darse. (sorry i'm a late:)

Arthur S. Reber 2008-08-14 22:01:00

There are actually several campuses of the University of Alberta and, yes, the largest is in Edmonton. But the research group that developed Polaris is at the one in Calgary.

PL Webmaster 2008-08-05 20:04:00

Thank you for your much valued feedback. We have corrected the article.

Curtis 2008-08-02 01:20:00

The University of Alberta is in Edmonton, Alberta. Not Calgary.

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