Little Bastard: The Computer Poker Machine

A fascinating piece in New York Times Magazine on the advancement of artificial intelligence in how machines play poker:

The machines, called Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up Poker, play the limit version of the popular game so well that they can be counted on to beat poker-playing customers of most any skill level. Gamblers might win a given hand out of sheer luck, but over an extended period, as the impact of luck evens out, they must overcome carefully trained neural nets that self-learned to play aggressively and unpredictably with the expertise of a skilled professional. Later this month, a new souped-up version of the game, endorsed by Phil Hellmuth, who has won more World Series of Poker tournaments than anyone, will have its debut at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. The machines will then be rolled out into casinos around the world.

They will be placed alongside the pure numbers-crunchers, indifferent to the gambler. But poker is a game of skill and intuition, of bluffs and traps. The familiar adage is that in poker, you play the player, not the cards. This machine does that, responding to opponents’ moves and pursuing optimal strategies. But to compete at the highest levels and beat the best human players, the approach must be impeccable. Gregg Giuffria, whose company, G2 Game Design, developed Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up Poker, was testing a prototype of the program in his Las Vegas office when he thought he detected a flaw. When he played passively until a hand’s very last card was dealt and then suddenly made a bet, the program folded rather than match his bet and risk losing more money. “I called in all my employees and told them that there’s a problem,” he says. The software seemed to play in an easily exploitable pattern. “Then I played 200 more hands, and he never did anything like that again. That was the point when we nicknamed him Little Bastard.”

Read the rest here.

A Hodgepodge: Games People Play

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a series of op-eds on “Games People Play.”

My favorite quotes (with links to the originals) below.

Francine Prose on solitaire and the “fireworks” on your computer:

No wonder so many writers (including myself) play more solitaire than we should. All I have to do is complete a decent paragraph to feel I’ve earned the right to take a break and play a few games. Like many sports, it’s right on the border between addiction and pastime. That’s why teaching someone to play computer solitaire can feel like the equivalent of a giving a junkie that first shot, though the toll it takes isn’t in money or health, but in time, the writer’s most precious gift.

Of course, there are moments when I think: what a ridiculous waste! I keep resolving to quit. But how could I ever give up that little burst of hope whenever a new game deals itself out, or the lightly adrenalized buzz of seeing the cards, when I’ve won, bounce in joyous cascades across the screen and set off computer solitaire’s version of fireworks?

Pico Iyer on the ping-pong culture in Japan:

In Japan, Ping-Pong is how you keep your wits about you and your reflexes, limbs and senses intensely sharp. Almost every afternoon for nine years, I’ve walked 15 minutes uphill to our local health club, here in suburban Nara, or taken a bus to an ancient gymnasium in a nearby park, to engage in furious bouts of table tennis with a group of 30 or so Japanese neighbors who teach me about engagement in their retirement years as once they did with co-workers or family members.

I soon begin sweating even on mid-February days while some of my pals are swathed in jackets, mufflers and gloves and our breath condenses in front of us, indoors. When it hits 100 degrees in the old wooden space in July, I slip away discreetly after 90 minutes, while my aged friends continue for up to four hours. “Pico-san,” they say, next time they see me. “What’s up? You’re the youngest by 20 years and you’re the first to stop.” “I’m the only non-Japanese,” I want to say.

James Atlas on the “love-love” of tennis:

 By the end of two hours, I’m dripping as if I’ve just exited a Navajo sweat lodge. Why do we put ourselves through this ordeal week after week? Our exertions have changed nothing in our lives. But it’s not about athletic prowess; it’s about forgiveness. To forgive the teammate who double faults (a small number when you consider how many faults most of us commit in a day); the opponent who, having sensed that you’re about to poach, slams a wicked passing shot down the line; above all, to forgive yourself for the netted volley, the backhand that went long, the drop shot that failed to drop. And, having forgiven, to persist. I cite the tennis enthusiast Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Charles A. Murray on the diversity of poker (it is America):

A poker table is America the way that television commercials portray it but it seldom is. A normal table of 10 at Charles Town has at least two or three Asians, one or two blacks, maybe a Latino, another one or two players who hail from some other part of the world, and maybe four or five plain-vanilla whites like me. Age is distributed from young guns in their 20s who raise relentlessly to geezers like me who are too tight and passive.

And last, but not least, Jason Lucero on the fluidity of ultimate frisbee:

It’s fluid in the way basketball and hockey are fluid — fast-paced and constantly evolving between offense and defense. But even in its most contested moments, the culture of the game requires civility. It’s only a matter of time until professional football players carry handguns during games. In ultimate, there is no bullying — no hard fouls to earn respect, retaliatory fouls to show even less respect, none of it. We don’t have or need referees — we play with a commitment to fairness. Our hippie forefathers reasoned well: ultimate is a game; it should be fun and only fun. It is.

If I had to pick a favorite of the five, it’s probably Pico Iyer’s piece, simply because the dialogue made me laugh out loud. But all of these are a quick read and worth reading.