In all the years I have been playing poker, I have lost money against the best of them. I have lost against poker legends such as Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott and I have lost against idiots. On Tuesdays I lose against my friends around a table in Belsize Park, north London.
But enough of human opponents. I have now lost more than a grand against a computer program from Canada, a chunk of steely-eyed software that if it were flesh and blood would be wearing a black hat and smoking a slim cigar. Cepheus is said to be unbeatable and my experience over the couple of hours that we fought it out does not lead me to challenge that claim.
My added concern is that we did not establish before we started which currency we would be using. If the 1,500 I lost is in pounds, or even Canadian dollars — well, let’s just say I hope Cepheus does not know where I live.
While it has been nearly two decades since IBM’s Deep Blue beat the chess world champion Garry Kasparov, artificial intelligence researchers have found poker a tougher nut to crack. It is a game of random chance and incomplete information: while chess players can see all the pieces, poker players can only guess at what cards their opponents are holding.
The computer poker research group at the University of Alberta now claims to have come up with a program that is better than the best human players in the world. How? It has practised more than they have. And it doesn’t make mistakes.
Michael Johanson, a PhD student at Alberta, said: “It learns to play poker without any human expert knowledge, and instead learns only by constantly playing against itself. We used a cluster of 200 computers, each with 24 cores, for about 70 days to do this. Over this time, it played over six billion hands of poker against itself per second.”
Rather than actively going out to win, Mr Johanson said, Cepheus simply waits for its opponent to make mistakes. “Cepheus is essentially unbeatable even by a perfect opponent.”
Yes, but what about me? I don’t want to dwell too much on the details of the 340-odd hands of heads-up limit Texas hold ’em that we played. There were times, frankly, when I thought Cepheus was a bit of an idiot. There were times when I made bets at the end of a hand with, frankly, not very much, and Cepheus called with even less. Honestly, Ceph, what were you thinking?
Unfortunately there were rather more occasions when Cepheus had better cards than I did. When my bluffs were called by genuine hands. And, no doubt, when it bluffed me out of pots. As for the time that my full house ran into four aces — well, that was all a bit disappointing.
I am, however, not going to let my defeat get me down. And even if Cepheus is unbeatable, the experts do not sound worried. Victoria Coren Mitchell, the only player to have won two European Poker Tour events, said: “I believe they’ve also invented machines that are better than people at moving quickly, and yet there still seems to be a 100m event at the Olympics. Usain Bolt’s making a perfectly decent fist of it.”
Anyway, limit hold ’em isn’t really my game. Pot limit deuce-to-seven triple draw, that’s a decent game. So how about a rematch, Cepheus — on my terms? Bring all your money.