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Adjust Your Poker Play to Conditions

A common technique for training people to make critical decisions in real-time, under stress, is the use of computer simulations as a substitute for experience. Need to learn how to land a fully loaded 747 airliner in a thunderstorm with half of its engines out? With modern computer simulators, a pilot can practice this maneuver repeatedly without risking lives: Police trainees learn how to use their weapons by practicing with life-size videos of realistic encounters. They learn when it is correct to shoot someone and when it is a mistake, again without actual lives being at risk.

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Playing Poker Against a Computer

For game players, computers are programmed to simulate opponents. Without actual money or prestige on the line, students of a game can spend hours practicing under realistic conditions. Chess players, for example, routinely train with personal computers against inexpensive computer programs that play at the master level. While computers play chess differently than humans, that difference has become harder to detect. For the average chess player, it is difficult to beat a computer. Today, chess programs that run on powerful machines routinely beat grandmasters. If you want a strong opponent, with infinite patience, to teach you chess, computers are a good substitute. Learn to play chess well against a computer and you are on your way to beating people:

Can you learn poker by playing against a computer?

There are computer simulations of live casino poker available for purchase. I recommend use of poker programs to teach the mechanics of the game, how to act in turn, place bets, read cards, and count winnings. But be warned, success against a computer tells you nothing about success against people. Unlike in chess, it is easy for a mediocre poker player to beat a computer. It is also instructive to examine the reasons why the two games (chess and poker) are so different in this respect.

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Chess has a clearly defined object: checkmate your opponent's King. All chess moves and the plans motivating them have checkmate as their long-range goal. Since checkmate is easily defined mathematically, programming the computer's goal is straightforward.

Poker also has a straightforward object: to win money. The problem is that money means different things to different people, and to a computer, money means nothing. To complicate matters further, money can mean different things to the same person. When I play poker on the first Friday of every month, year after year, with the same six friends, the motivation is to socialize and be entertained. The difference between a good or bad night is whether I win or 10se $20. That is not a meaningful amount of money to any of us. The result is an evening where we play loose junk poker games that require no strategic thinking.

 

When I play in Atlantic City, I behave differently. I risk several hundred dollars with the goal of winning a few hundred. To me, that amount of money is meaningful, but not an amount so large that it will cause me financial harm if I 10se. Unlike Friday night poker, the games I play in are tightly structured. My motivation is the thrill of competition. I put on a game face and think carefully about the decisions I make. I feel good when I win, frustrated when I 10se.

I do not play Hold'em at the $10-20 level or above. At these stakes, I would have to risk one or more thousand dollars. I can afford to 10se a thousand dollars, but I am unwilling to. There would be no fun playing with money that I would be unwilling to 10se. I would be unable to make correct decisions. Constantly, I would think about the money, rather than whether the bet or raise I was making was right for the situation.

I certainly would not risk an amount of money that could lead to financial ruin. If you routinely risk financial ruin in any activity (poker, blackjack, slots, investing, shopping), you have a serious problem and should immediately stop the activity and seek professional help. For poker to be a meaningful competitive activity, the amount of money at stake has to be large enough that players find it worth winning and protecting, but not so large that they fear losing.

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I have told you my motivations and budget limitations. Each of my opponents has a different set of reasons for playing and a different budget. Even though we play in the same game, the meaning of the money is different for each of us. At a poker table, why people play the way they do depends not so much on the cards they are dealt, but what the money means to them and their reasons for playing. That means I must adjust my play to them.

It is the inability to adjust that makes computer programs bad for poker. Chess players must adjust to changing situations, but not in the same way poker players do. Chess positions usually have a best plan of action and often a best move. It is the position that matters, not the opponent. Chess players are taught to always assume their opponent will make the best move and plan accordingly. If their opponent fails to make the best move, the task usually becomes easier. Mastering chess involves learning thousands of positions and the best plan of action for each of them. However, in poker, best play depends not on the cards, but the situation. Players must make continual adjustments to their underlying strategy. For the same cards, correct strategy may change completely depending on the situation. Consider a five-hour session I had playing poker in Atlantic City.

1St hour (late morning): I began at a full table and everyone played in almost every hand. Passive play ruled-no one raised pre-flop or in any other betting rounds. Mostly players called. In this environment, I played looser than otherwise. Drawing hands became profitable because I could see the flop cheaply and know that a big pot waited for me if I hit the draw. Drawing hands were playable from almost any position since I "knew" everyone would call and no one would raise. I had to fold high pairs quickly if they didn't improve on the flop, because with so many people in the hand, someone always hit a draw. It generally took trips or better to win, and with the pots large, there was always a showdown, so there was no point in trying to bluff. The big pots also covered my mistakes.

2nd hour (lunch time): The game was frequently short-handed because players kept leaving for 20-30 minute intervals to eat. Sometimes only 5 to 6 players were present which lead to confusion on blinds, since people kept missing their blind. My cost to play went up because I stayed at the table, so my blind position came up more frequently. Players remained passive. I played aggressively, especially with big pairs and premium starting cards. Drawing hands became unplayable from any position since there were so few players to contribute to the pot. Two pair, especially if one was large, often won. Fewer showdowns occurred, so I stole some pots with aggressive raising. I needed to steal pots or the frequent blinds would eat up my chip pile.

3rd hour (early afternoon): The table filled with aggressive players. Almost always a pre-flop raise occurred. Playing cards appropriate for my position became critical. I could-not limp in with weak starting cards because I would be raised. I needed to have premium starting cards and be prepared to raise or call a raise to stay in a hand. Mistakes became costly since the aggressive play meant I paid dearly to chase.

4th hour (mid-afternoon): The action dried up and the game tightened considerably. Most players folded their starting cards. Whether my hand was mediocre or a monster didn't matter much since I couldn't attract bettors either way. With little money in play, my earnings potential dropped to near nothing. While keeping my seat, I started scouting other tables, considering a switch.

5th hour (late afternoon): Frustration with the lack of action set in. Someone raised pre-flop, there was a re-raise, and then someone yelled "cap it." Everyone put in three bets to see a flop. Suddenly, the entire table was on a tilt. Chips flew everywhere, even when players held the flimsiest of cards. Wild swings occurred in everyone's bankroll. To play profitably, I needed a lot of money and the very best cards. Playing with anything less than premium cards from any position wasn't worth it, because the pre-flop expenses became too high. I needed to be a heavy favorite pre-flop to justify putting up so much money.

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Notice that as the day progressed, strategy that was correct one hour became incorrect later on. This is hardly ever true at chess, where a strong move is always a strong move. Poker players must constantly adjust to the changing social dynamic. Computers are very poor at adjusting.

The great British mathematician, Alan Turing, argued in a famous article entitled "Computer Machinery and Intelligence" published in 1950 in the phi10sophical journal, Mind, that a computer could be said to "think if interacting with the computer proved indistinguishable from interacting with a human. Put a human and the computer in two separate rooms, and allow a human to interrogate them unseen. If the interrogator, through a series of probing questions, can't distinguish the computer's answers from the human's, the computer is said to pass the "Turing Test" and, according to Turing, is actually thinking.

Restrict interactions to the microcosm of chess, and computers today can almost pass the Turing Test. Based on chess moves alone, it is difficult for the expert to distinguish a human grandmaster from a computer. But when it comes to poker, is the Turing Test even meaningful? There is an insidious problem with programming computers to play poker that in my opinion raises the Turing test to a higher level. The problem is not whether people can figure out if they are up against a computer. It is whether the computer can figure out people, especially the ever changing social dynamics in a randomly selected group of people. Nobody at a poker table would care whether or not the computer played poker like a person. In fact, people would welcome a computer, since computers tend to play predictably. Computers are, by definition, predictable, which is the meaning of the word "programmed." If you play a computer simulation for a short amount of time, you will learn the machine's betting patterns, adjust your play, and soon win consistently. But predictability doesn't mean the computer is distinguishable from a person. Many people play poker as predictably as a computer. They are welcomed at the table, too. If you find a predictable poker opponent and learn his or her patterns, you can exploit that knowledge for profit.

Most people, however, are unpredictable and human unpredictability is an advantage at poker. To play poker successfully, computers not only have to develop human unpredictability, they must learn to adjust to human unpredictability as well. Computers fail miserably at the problem of adjusting to ever-changing social conditions that result from human interactions. That is why beating a computer at poker is so easy. Of course, the same requirement, the ability to adjust to unpredictability, applies to poker-playing humans who want to be successful. Go back and study how I adjusted each hour in my poker session. However, as humans, we are more accustomed to human unpredictability, so we are far better at learning how to adjust.

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