Overreacting to a Computer Beating Poker Pros

Newspapers trumpeted a landmark event last week: a computer program beating professional poker players head-to-head at Limit Hold-Em. Parallels have been drawn to Big Blue‘s victory over Gary Kasparov roughly a decade ago.

Those parallels are not very meaningful.

First, heads-up Limit Hold-Em is a very simple version of poker — exactly the kind of game that a computer should be good at.

Second, unlike chess, which is deterministic, there is an enormous short-run luck component in poker. The variances are so high in poker that you need weeks if not months of play to confidently determine whether you are a winning player. There is no way with standard poker and two competent players that you could determine who is better in a short period of time. To try to remedy this shortcoming, the man vs. computer contest was actually run differently to lower the variance according to this report:

The matches will be duplicate matches of 500 hands of heads-up Limit Hold-Em. Each match will involve two separate human opponents playing simultaneously against Polaris. The same hands (hole cards and board cards) will be used in both matches but the humans will be dealt opposite sides of the cards. So if on the first hand one of the humans is dealt aces on the button, then Polaris will be dealt aces on the button in the first hand against the other human. If one player gets lucky in the 500 hands, their partner necessarily will be getting bad luck in their 500 hands, helping reduce to the luck factor in deciding a winner. The winner is determined by adding together the teams’ winnings (or losses). If either side [wins] by 25 small bets or more in total, then they are the winner, otherwise it is considered a draw.

This is a very clever structure (based on duplicate bridge) and greatly reduces the variance by making sure that the pairs of humans and pairs of computers receive the same set of cards. I have never seen any calculations done, but I suspect that even playing poker with duplicate hands has a huge variance in outcomes over such a short time horizon.

I actually think there are two things coming out of this poker contest that are more interesting than who won or lost: the design of the contest is very interesting, for instance.

Whenever someone wants to learn “the truth” in a world beset with randomness, reducing the variance is a critical part of solving the problem. This structure of poker where the luck of the cards is eliminated is a great example.

I could imagine lots of different settings in business or life where one could steal the insights of this duplicate poker design to learn more quickly about the world.

The second thing I find really interesting is the following: If duplicate poker reduces the luck factor in poker, is there a broader market for duplicate poker? You might think so. There is a website online where you can play duplicate poker, but I’ve never actually heard of anyone playing there.

Why is that?