Thursday, July 10, 2008

The "Deep Blue" of Poker?

Robin Hanson:

A computer has beaten top human poker players:

Humanity was dealt a decisive blow by a poker-playing artificial intelligence program called Polaris during the Man-Machine Poker Competition in Las Vegas. Poker champs fought the AI system to a draw, then won in the first two of four rounds (each round had Polaris playing 500 hands against two humans, whose points were averaged.) But in the final two rounds of the match, Polaris beat both human teams, two wins out of four, with one loss and one draw. IBM's Deep Blue beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997.

This has gained very little news coverage, in stark contrast to the Chess case, even though far more people play poker than chess. To explain both facts, note that most people can more easily see that they lack chess than poker expertise. They can watch a poker expert fold or raise and imagine that they would have done the same, but know they have no idea why a chess expert makes his moves.

This fools people into thinking they could be a poker champion, which is why so many more people try at poker. And being less impressed by existing poker champions, people are less impressed by a computer who beats those champions. The moral: beware of underestimating computers by underestimating the difficulty of the tasks at which they excel.

I am a bit surprised this hasn't gotten more coverage, but think Hanson is correct in his explanation. Poker is similar in golf in that every now and then even a novice by chance can play a perfect hand or hit a perfect ball that convinces him that he can do it again. Chess doesn't have this stochastic dimension to it, making people more in awe of those who excel at it. What separates the poker and golf champions from normal mortals is not their ability to sometimes play a good hand or hit the golf ball with great skill, but their consistency in doing so. The ability for a computer to consistently outplay the best poker players in the world is tremendous accomplishment in the world of artificial intelligence, similar to that of Deep Blue.

The other explanation I would offer is that chess is held in higher esteem by many people in society, being thought of as relatively pure and having a certain beauty in the pure intellectual challenge of the game. In contrast, many people view poker as a bit more base -- often associated with shady activities that many people find distasteful such as gambling, smoking, drinking, etc. I think fewer people appreciate the skills and intellectual prowess required to be a star poker player than those who appreciate the skills of a chess master.

One question remains about this recent advance: Will this destroy online poker?

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