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  • September 27, 2020

Has two-player limit Texas hold'em poker finally solved by a computer?

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All your poker chips may soon belong to the computers. A new algorithm has taken the first big step in figuring out poker, by solving a two-player version known as heads-up limit Texas hold’em according to a study published in Science today. Scientists have designed a computer program, named Cepheus, with a strategy for the game that is so close to perfect that statistical analysis shows it can’t be defeated by a human poker player
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It’s been almost two decades since the IBM computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Since that stunning moment in 1997, computer algorithms have solved games such as Connect Four and checkers by analyzing all the possible plays and figuring out the perfect strategy for each move starting from the beginning of each game. But computers face a different challenge in consistently winning at poker, because each player has two hidden cards that represent information hidden from the opponent. By solving an “imperfect-information game” such as poker, computer algorithms could also potentially handle real-world scenarios with similar levels of uncertainty.
“We’re not saying that it’s guaranteed to win money on every single hand,” says Michael Bowling, a computer scientist at The University of Alberta and a co-author of the study. “What we’re saying is that, in the long run, if you looked at all the hands that could happen and you averaged all of those, then the computer can’t be losing, at a losing rate — it has to be either breaking even or winning.”
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Poker presents an especially steep challenge because, unlike in chess or checkers, a computer does not know its opponent’s situation, his cards. And the number of theoretically possible situations in which players must estimate odds and choose whether to bet, call, raise or fold is so huge, 319 trillion, that it taxes any machine’s computational and memory capacity.
Cepheus plays two-person limit Texas hold ’em. (“Limit”  means the size of bets and number of raises are capped.) The dealer gives each player two cards face down, and then lays out five shared cards, one at a time and face up. Players bet after each deal and use the shared cards to assemble the best possible five-card hand.
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