A team of researchers at the University of Alberta have designed a computer program that, by their account, has pretty much figured out how to play heads up Limit Hold’em perfectly. This gambler from the future is called Cepheus by its creators, after a king from Greek mythology. Apparently this new program is to the game of Poker what Deep Blue was to the game of chess. So if you’ve always pictured yourself as a Poker professional, the designers say that you should expect to land in the second place.
The program was trained by playing billions of hands against itself, learning by trial-and-error what the optimal strategy is for heads up play. While they say that you can’t call its strategy a perfect one, they are convinced that in the long run it would never lose money against a human player. In the past computers have figured out certain games pretty easily. For example games like checkers or chess have been practically solved by computers. The main reason is that both players can clearly see all of the information. That is where Poker is unique because both players have a limited knowledge of what is actually going on in the game.
What can Cepheus teach us?
Even though humans could clearly beat Cepheus, the program could prove useful for players who are trying to learn the game. By paying close attention to what decisions the computer makes, players can learn a lot since it will always make the correct play in any given situation. The computer has already proved that the player in the dealer’s position has a huge advantage when playing a heads up game. It also demonstrated that raising is generally preferable to calling since it gives you a way to immediately win the hand. The most remarkable part about how Cepheus plays is that he is never afraid of playing loose. He will always go against any competition with horrible hands, confident that he can use strategy to push the other players off a better hand. This makes his style of play very similar to certain Poker professionals like Phil Ivey and Gus Hanson.
Even though Cepheus is being boasted for its poker-playing abilities, the researchers want people to know that training a computer to become a master gambler is just a side effect. They look at the imperfect-information game of Poker as a stand-in for other more pressing real-world situations.
Back to the Casino
Will this mean that the world of high-stakes poker is about to be revolutionized by this technology? Why play a game if somewhere there is a computer who has all the correct answers? The short answer is no, mostly because Cepheus’s chosen game, heads up Limit Hold’em is already one of the least popular versions of Poker. Even though researchers are hard at work on solving the no-limit version of the game, they admit that it might be impossible.