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Robot wars break out on poker sites

Poachers, gamekeepers and game theory

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Bot-running accusations fly

He was considering whether poker sites themselves would ever offer clearly labelled bot opponents. “More than 10 years ago, Aaron Davidson and I wrote a poker-playing program called Poki that could win consistently in low-stakes Limit Hold'em. Despite its age, Poki is still state-of-the-art. Poki is a decent player, but it is definitely beatable by experienced players above the intermediate level. However, if there was a maximum amount that any one person was allowed to win against it, the program would certainly be good enough to net an overall profit against the entire field of opponents.”

Dr Mike Bowling, who currently heads up the University of Alberta's Poker Research Group, says no poker site has ever approached him about building bots to run in their poker rooms. “We think its a nice idea, we'd probably pursue it. Not just because of commercial side, but because of gaining more data. We'd negotiate getting access to hand logs,” he says.

“My take on why we haven't been approached is that for most part, the online poker sites don't really want to talk about bots. I don't think they want to be associated with them.”

Full Tilt has been accused of running its own bots in the past. It kicked two customers off the site in 2009 because it suspected they were using bots. They then sued the site in return. Lary “pokergirl z” Kennedy and Greg Omoto filed their complaint accusing the site of fraud, libel, slander, false advertising, and racketeering. The pair had had more than $80,000 confiscated.

The suit also accused Full Tilt pros Chris Ferguson and Andy Bloch of creating bots. Both players are well known for being able to develop computer models to improve their game. The case was dismissed.

Both have won several million dollars as professional players, and both independently developed game theory-based computer simulations to model thousands of poker hands. Ferguson became a big tournament winner, with very little tournament experience, because of the edge he had.

Bloch has an MSc and a BSc in Electrical Engineering from MIT and a Harvard Law degree. He was a member of one of the MIT blackjack card counting teams that won millions from the Las Vegas casinos. The story was told in the book Bringing down the House, and the Kevin Spacey film 21.

Ferguson has a PhD in computer science from UCLA (focusing on virtual network algorithms) and has written several game theory poker research papers with his dad, a maths professor at UCLA.

Interestingly, the upside of playing a bot is that they are always ready to play and are nice and polite about it. “They're much better-behaved than most humans protected by anonymity!” Billings says.

If you want to play poker against the University of Alberta's human beating Polaris software, it has been licensed to Poker Academy. ®

Update: This story has been updated with Dave Martin's discussion of the "bot score."

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