Poker playing robots? Surely not

Beware! There's a new player in town - and he's got a mean poker face. Terry Kirby meets the latest card robots as they prepare to clean up in Vegas

They don't wear eyeshades or smoke cigars, and their capacity to bluff is somewhat limited. But a new breed of robotic poker player is sending a shiver of fear through the world of the green baize table. It is a poker game being contested in cyberspace, with the ultimate prize being a share of the mega millions being gambled on online poker sites. After all, when you are sitting around a poker table, you've a pretty good chance of telling if your opponent is a robot; competing online is another matter entirely.

Welcome to the strange world of the poker "bot" - bot being short for robot. But what we are talking about here are not supercomputers like Deep Blue, the IBM creation that trounced chess genius Garry Kasparov in 1997, but pirate computer programs, created in secret by players determined to challenge the new hegemony of the online gaming houses, where bots are outlawed.

"The online people are very scared about poker bots. The idea that a machine can be used to defeat players online is terrible PR for them,'' says Crispin Nieboer, head of the Poker Channel, a recent addition to the Sky portfolio of niche television channels. But now, the online industry, scared that people will not play online because they have no chance of beating the bots, is fighting back.

The existence of a television station devoted entirely to poker is a testament to the current popularity of the game. Poker has moved out of the darkened rooms of backstreet gambling dens and the bright lights of casinos to become both a post-dinner party entertainment for members of the middle classes and something close to an obsession for those addicted to solitary online playing, which has boomed since it was first introduced to the internet in the late 1990s.

Only last week, the London-based company Party Gaming, which runs the online site Party Poker, floated on the stock market with a value of £4.6bn - making it bigger than British Airways or Boots, and giving some idea of the vast amount of cash being traded; its profits come by simply taking a commission for hosting games.

Poker bots have been in existence for more than a decade, and were originally conceived as computer software to teach people to play and to compete against on their computer at home. As online gaming exploded in popularity, a small number of competitors who were better at writing computer programs than playing poker began to create their own bots to compete on their behalf. When playing online, they sign in manually and then launch their bots to compete against other players. No one knows how many poker bots are out there playing in cyberspace, but the numbers are believed to be substantial. And they never lose concentration or suffer from fatigue.

But, says Brian "Catfish" Edwards, an IT administrator and bot creator from Florida, they are not infallible. "Bots are not that good yet, and no one has come up with the perfect program,'' he says. "Poker is not like chess. Poker is about adapting and being flexible, about bluffing and about who is sitting around the table. Humans can keep a database of experience and use that to compete and figure out the strategies of their opponents. Computers are much better at carrying out numerous but routine tasks.''

Edwards claims that he does not use his bot online, but has developed it simply to help him play better. "Most of those who play with bots online compete on low-limit games. A decent player can still defeat a bot by adapting and changing their game - which bots cannot do.''

Another bot designer, Roger Gabriel, a software engineer from California, believes bots will eventually take over. "If computers can play chess, they can play poker," he says.

Both men are among six bot operators who have been invited to compete in the first World Series of Poker Robots (WSOPR), which takes place in Las Vegas, starting on 12 July, an event that will be entirely machine vs machine. All software designers or artificial intelligence experts, they have been tempted away from their computer screens by the lure of a $100,000 (£54,0000) first prize and the chance for the winner to challenge, Deep Blue style, the winner of the World Poker Series, which is taking place at the same time.

However, all is not quite what it seems. The WSOPR is actually sponsored by Golden Palace, an online casino, whose chief executive, Steven Baker, is frank about the reason for his involvement: "We need to become more knowledgeable about the world of poker robots. We see this as an opportunity to learn more about poker robots and how they are developing. It is in the best interests of online poker rooms to find out.''

Baker's company is busy developing ''counter-bot'' software programs. But he adds: "At the moment there is no definite means of determining whether a player is a bot or not.''

Although many believe that it will be some years before a bot is created that can beat all-comers, it is clear that the online poker companies are feeling jumpy. At Party Gaming, a spokesman says that the company has more than 100 people working on fraud detection, but declined to discuss what it is doing about bots. He adds: "We have an anti-bots policy and we have had a fair degree of success in weeding out bots. But I'm not going to get into details of how many or how we detect them.''

For an expert's view, The Independent turned to Liam Flood, a player for more than 20 years and a former European champion who recently won $250,000 in a televised tournament. He says: "Playing online is a completely different experience to playing around a table: you can't see the dealer, see how people hold their cards or sense moods. Whether you are playing a bot or a human, you have to play completely tight - take no risks, play straight and assume that your opponent always has the best hand, which is not always the case in normal poker. That's the way to beat 'em.''

Flood believes online gaming will survive the challenge of the bots, but adds: "I think they are going to do very well; they will eventually begin to beat the system. You see, a poker player plays with life's experiences behind them and no matter how tightly you play, you will have to take chances at some point. Machines don't do that.''

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