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Don't bet against the poker 'robots'

July 18, 2005|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Perhaps one day soon, the automatic card-playing programs known as robots will rule the poker world, dominating this most human of battles as computers have already conquered chess and backgammon.

But not today. Not on Phil Laak's watch.

Late Friday night at Binion's Gambling Hall, an old-fashioned casino in the old-fashioned part of Las Vegas, the poker champion drew a line in the felt.

Buoyed by a cheering crowd ("Hu-mans! Hu-mans!"), Laak topped a pair of kings with his own pair of aces and held on to win the last hand in a three-hour exhibition match with PokerProbot, a sophisticated program written by a 37-year-old car salesman from Indiana.

Laak let out a whoop and accepted congratulations from the audience, $100 from a side bet with his opponent's owner and a hug from girlfriend Jennifer Tilly, the actress who last month won the $158,000 top prize in a major women's poker tourney. "You don't want the human player to be obsolete," Tilly said.

Still, the unprecedented spectacle left Laak, 33, more relieved than proud, and the predominant feeling among the pro players and fans watching was that he had merely staved off the inevitable. The human monopoly on trickery and deceit had never appeared so fragile.

"In three to five years, they're going to win," said Kenneth "The Clone" Jones, a poker pro and sometime software engineer who said he has played against a dozen underground robots.

For most players, the display at Binion's made clear, the day of reckoning could be now.

It took more than 300 hands for Laak to put away PokerProbot. He emerged with deepened respect for the program and its rival "bots," which include five it defeated in an earlier three-day contest for $100,000 and the right to take a shot at the delegate from humanity.

"It would for sure make money online," Laak -- known as "the Unabomber" for hiding his emotions behind sunglasses and a hooded sweatshirt -- said of PokerProbot. At least in the simpler versions of Texas hold 'em with betting limits, "bots are better than the average person."

The programs pose no imminent threat to live games at casinos and card clubs, which generally bar technological aids. But online poker, which has exploded in popularity, is another matter.

PokerProbot is one of many bots already winning surreptitiously on Internet card sites based offshore.

That's why among the gamblers watching Friday night, those who play online were the most alarmed: They saw programs that bluffed, sniffed out bluffs, didn't tire, didn't get aggravated, figured the exact odds and learned from every play.

Few were pulling as hard for Laak as Erez Savion, an executive and investor at Check n Raise Poker, a Curacao-based gambling site. Savion would have greatly preferred that the match had never taken place.

"It may be a negative for the people who want to play online," he said. "A novice player may say to himself, 'What's to stop someone buying that software and having bots all over the place?' "

According to Laak, nothing: Anyone smart enough to write a poker program that wins can write one that evades detection.

Even during the first rounds at Binion's that pitted machine against machine, some online regulars walked by, wondered aloud why anyone would watch, and then stayed with increasingly grim fascination.

"It would be very sad if a machine could duplicate human decisions in this game," said Taylor Berkowitz, a 26-year-old teacher from Clifton, N.J. "It kind of takes something away from it."

The invitation-only programming contest coincided in timing and location with the main-event finals of this year's World Series of Poker at Binion's. It coincided in nomenclature until World Series owner Harrah's Entertainment observed that the name World Series of Poker Robots was a little close for comfort.

The re-christened World Poker Robot Championship drew entrants from Hong Kong, Spain, Canada and Florida, along with Roger Gabriel of Newport Beach and Hilton Givens, the Indiana car salesman who came with his fiancee and left planning a more expensive honeymoon.

A weak card player himself, Gabriel worked on his program until the day the dealing began. It was knocked out in less than two hours because a flaw had it calling too many bets when it should have folded.

Givens, who has won poker-tournament money without digital assistance, intensified his programming after losing a software job. In some of the highest drama of the week, Givens' PokerProbot fell to less than $4,000 in chips Thursday night, out of $30,000. Givens finally drew enough good hands in a row to make a comeback, emerging with the $100,000 prize.

In a special playoff the next day, luck helped PokerProbot come from behind again to defeat Poki-X, a slapped-together variation of software developed over a decade by computer science experts at the University of Alberta, in Canada.

Laak, who hosts one of the many poker shows on cable television, had trained heavily against another version of the Alberta software. After dispatching PokerProbot, he played Poki-X, concentrating harder than he had the previous match. "It feels like I'm playing a human," he complained early on. "It's probably outplaying me." After an hour, Laak realized the machine was playing too aggressively, and he moved to take advantage, winning in the early morning on Saturday.

"Chess is a game that's over for humans," said Darse Billings, the leader of the Alberta effort, as his stack of chips thinned. "Poker is still alive."

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