Humans have taken the upper hand in a game of poker against artificial intelligence, although just barely. Four of the world's best Heads-Up No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em players faced off against the computer in a contest that lasted 80,000 hands played over a two-week span.

Although human players bested the AI software, the contest was close enough to be called a statistical tie. At the end of the event, combined winnings from the four humans were $732,713 over that of their digital opponent. Although that may sound significant, it is just a small fraction of the $170 million bet during play.

"We knew Claudico was the strongest computer poker program in the world, but we had no idea before this competition how it would fare against four Top 10 poker players. It would have been no shame for Claudico to lose to a set of such talented pros, so even pulling off a statistical tie with them is a tremendous achievement," said Tuomas Sandholm, the computer science professor from Carnegie Mellon University who directed the development of the artificial intelligence program.

The computer came in fourth in total winnings out of the five players in the game, edging out Jason Les, who has collected more than $465,000 in poker winnings over his career. The top winner in the poker showdown between artificial and biological intelligence was Bjorn Li, who was holding on to more than $529,000 in chips at the end of the contest. Doug Polk placed second in the showdown, with $213,671 in winnings, while Dong Kim came out with nearly $70,491 worth of chips.

No-limit Texas Hold 'Em is a unique game to design a computer to play well. Unlike chess, where all the pieces can be seen, some cards in a player's hand are unknown to opponents. Bluffing - where a player will bet heavily on a poor hand in hopes the other opponent will give up - is also a vital part of the game. This illogical thought is an example of fuzzy thinking which will be vital to developing advanced forms of artificial intelligence.

"The research team built Claudico using algorithms that analyzed poker rules to devise a winning strategy. Claudico is not based on the experience of expert human players, so its strategy for playing can differ markedly from seasoned pros," Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh reported.

The human Texas Hold 'Em participants were paid from a cash purse of $100,000 donated by Microsoft Research and Rivers Casino. At the end of the two-week contest, Li told reporters he was glad humans remained superior to computers at playing the game - at least for now.

Photo: Zdenko Zivkovic | Flickr

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