Poker AI: Can a Super Computer Beat 4 Top Pros?

80,000 hands of Heads-Up No-limit Texas Hold'em will be played in a two-week contest. Who will come out on top?


In a contest that echoes Deep Blue’s chess victory over Garry Kasparov and Watson beating two Jeopardy! Champions, computer poker software developed at Carnegie Mellon University will challenge four of the world’s best professional poker players in a “Brains Vs. Artificial Intelligence” competition beginning April 24 at Rivers Casino.

Over the course of two weeks, the CMU computer program, Claudico, will play 20,000 hands of Heads-Up No-limit Texas Hold’em with each of the four poker pros. The pros – Doug Polk, Dong Kim, Bjorn Li and Jason Les – will receive appearance fees derived from a prize purse of $100,000 donated by Microsoft Research and by Rivers Casino. The Carnegie Mellon scientists will compete for something more precious.

“Poker is now a benchmark for artificial intelligence research, just as chess once was,” said Tuomas Sandholm, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon who has led development of Claudico. “It’s a game of exceeding complexity that requires a machine to make decisions based on incomplete and often misleading information, thanks to bluffing, slow play and other decoys. And to win, the machine has to out-smart its human opponents.”

“Computing the world’s strongest strategies for this game was a major achievement - with the algorithms having future applications in business, military, cybersecurity and medical arenas.”

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Though an earlier version of the computer program, called Tartanian7, decisively won the Heads-Up, No-limit Texas Hold’em category of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s Annual Computer Poker Competition last July, Sandholm said that doesn’t mean it necessarily is the equal of human players. Computers have demonstrated they can outplay humans at the simpler game of Heads-Up Limit Texas Hold’em, he noted, but not the far more complicated no-limit version.


Tuomas Sandholm, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, has led development of Claudico.

“I think it’s a 50-50 proposition,” he said of Claudico’s chances. “I think there’s a good chance we’ll lose this thing.”

“I imagine that the humans have an edge here,” Polk said, citing the extraordinary programming challenge for a no-limit game. “However, it is very difficult to determine an outcome with any sort of stability, as I do not know what I am going to be up against.”

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Polk is widely considered the world’s best player of Heads-Up No-Limit Texas Hold’em, with total live tournament earnings of more than $3.6 million. Kim, Li and Les are also among the Top 10 players in the professional game, which is largely played online.

“My strategy will change more so than when playing against human players,” Polk added. “I think there will be less hand reading so to speak, and less mind games. In some ways I think it will be nice as I can focus on playing a more pure game, and not have to worry about if he thinks that I think, etc. So I am looking forward to the match.”

The competition has been designed to ensure that the outcome is scientifically significant and not a result of luck. In addition to the large number of hands, the players will be paired to play duplicate matches - Player A will receive the same cards as the computer receives against Player B, and vice versa. One of the human players will be in isolation, to prevent any comparison of the cards. The same arrangement applies to Players C and D.

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