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Today marks day one of the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event.  For many professionals and amateurs alike the Main Event is a chance for poker glory and immortality.  Although, the Main Event is certainly enough excitement for a day in the poker community, there is another gripping and unusual poker competition beginning today; “Man versus Machine II”.

One year ago, on July 23-24th, a Texas Hold’Em playing program called Polaris was set against poker professionals Phil Laak and Ali Eslami in what was called “Man versus Machine”.  The match took place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver, Canada.  It consisted of four duplicate matches in which 500 hands were played per match.  To reduce variance, the program was set up so that Polaris would receive the same cards as the human that it was not playing.  So, Polaris against Phil would get the same cards that Ali was getting against Polaris and they were placed in different rooms to eliminate cheating.  In the end, after 16 hours of play over two days, Phil and Ali had won two matches, drew one, and lost one.

According to Wikipedia Polaris was developed by a computer poker research group at University of Alberta, Canada which is one of the foremost artificial intelligence studying agencies in the world.  The research group working on Polaris consists of 15 researchers, graduate, and undergraduate students whose main focus is artificial intelligence. Polaris, which had been in production for 16 years before 2007, contains a number of fixed strategies but also an adaptive component which attempts to model the play of the opponent and adapt accordingly.  “It’s possible, given enough computing power, for computers to play ‘perfectly,’ where over a long enough match, the program cannot lose money,” said associate professor Michael Bowling, leader of the university’s computer poker research group. “Humans will always make some mistakes, meaning the program will have an advantage.”  Polaris will rely on this “perfect” play in its match beginning today.

Starting today and ending July 6th the Polaris system will be pitted in against six new opponents in a limit cash game.  The opponents include Nick Grudzien, IJay Palansky, and Matt Harilenko who have each won more than one million dollars in online cash games. The match will take place alongside the World Series in the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino as part of the 2008 Gaming Life Expo.

Although this match certainly has entertainment value, Bowling contends this game is an academic pursuit.  Bowling states, “Games are an excellent domain for artificial intelligence research because games have well defined rules and clear goals. The techniques that are learned from succeeding at games can be applied to real-world problems where the ‘rules’ are not so well defined.”  It will be interesting to see if Polaris’s improvements have made it capable of beating human professionals.  Although it starts the same day as the Main Event, Man versus Machine II will be over four months sooner.  The outcome of this match will display the progress of artificial intelligence and the prowess of professional poker players at the same time, providing excitement and potentially powerful real world applications all in one.