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Libratus wins

A computer program with a massive data base and the ability to improve itself in real time went head-to-head against four poker pros and won. This happened over one year ago. Now the news is that Libratus has joined the United States military. Is this good news?

Libratus Proves That Artificial Intelligence Can Be Superior to Human Intelligence in Some Circumstances

Perhaps you remember that about one year ago an Artificial Intelligence (AI) called Libratus defeated poker pros in heads up competition.  Libratus is back in the news because it has “joined” the United States military.  For our purposes, this is a good time to go back on the amazing series of wins Libratus produced in head to head play against top poker pros.

The Value of Poker Online

These days, many poker players who compete in live tournaments get their starts playing poker online.  There are many advantages for erstwhile poker players to develop their individual styles playing online poker.  Poker takes on a new dimension when a player moves to the live poker arena.

An important aspect of learning poker online is that players are far more anonymous online than they are in live poker.  There is a demonstrable intimidation factor involved when new players start out.   Certainly there are many online players who play online for the convenience rather than the anonymity and for these players there is a much smaller intimidation factor. 

The new poker players who don’t feel intimidated by their opponents are a minority.  Most benefit greatly by playing online.

Libratus is Completely Anonymous

One aspect of playing against Libratus was that it was far more like playing online poker than like playing live poker.  For one, the pros couldn’t “see” their opponent.  More important than that, Libratus had no tells and showed no emotion.  So, the pros only had hand analysis to go on in making their decisions and Libratus had been programmed to be able to analyze far more hands in a far shorter period of time than any human could do.

Libratus had a Major Advantage

The pros played dozens of hours and thousands of hands against Libratus.  It is inconceivable that the pros didn’t get tired during the rigorous completion against Libratus.  Therefore, we can assume that some of the mistakes the pros made were born of being tired rather than of being inferior poker players.

It is also inconceivable that Libratus got tired in any way.  Thus, Libratus benefited from being pitted against humans rather than another AI.  It would be interesting to see how two AI programmed to play poker would fare against each other.

Head-to-head Competition

When a poker tournament reaches the final two players, the nature of the game changes.  Players can stay in pots with very poor hands that they would have mucked were there a full table of players.  There is no longer the problem of being out of position.  Each player is one of the blinds so that factor is removed as well.

We can extrapolate from the way the AI played in head-to-head play that it benefited from not having to be programmed to analyze positional play.  Similarly, the computer didn’t have to “study” a range of opponents in real time.

Human Brain versus Computer Brain

We still say that the human brain is the most powerful computer in the world.  In other words, our brains may perform more functions than even the most powerful computer can perform.  Libratus used well over 2 petabytes of information.

The big difference between Libratus using so much data and the pros straining to compete is that Libratus’s use of data was all in its “conscious” mind while the human poker pros used far less data in their conscious minds even though they may have used far more data in their unconscious minds.

Libratus could focus its entire brainpower on making good poker decisions while the humans had to let their brains perform the myriad functions that keep us all alive and healthy.

So, we could say that pitting humans against a powerful computer in head-to-head poker competition was forcing the human to play on an uneven playing field.

In sports, we talk about the home field advantage.  For Libratus, the table was like its home field wherever the “table” was simply because it could not be affected by such things as air conditioning, lighting, outside distractions, intruding thoughts, hormonal changes in the moment, pressure, and so on.

Libratus Improved in Real Time

In sports, we also talk about adjustments a player or team must make to improve.  Coaches put in some of these adjustments at the halftime period of matches.  Poker pros also make adjustments “over the table” as it were.

However, most poker players make adjustments based strictly or primarily on their opponents’ play.  The pros can analyze a series of hands and can make reasonable analyses based on opponents’ play.  However, it is far more difficult for a poker player to make adjustments based on their own play.

Libratus was programmed to realize its own weaknesses and to adjust to them.  Thus, on the second day, the pros were surprised to discover that the computer had altered its own strategy based on weaknesses in its play and the way the pros had taken advantage of those weaknesses.

Computer Body Versus Human Body

Chess seems like a completely cerebral game.  However, in order to play chess at the highest level, a chess player has to be very careful to eat properly, stay hydrated with healthy liquids, sleep well, and exercise every day.  In other words, chess is a cerebral game that requires tremendous physical training and stamina.

Professional poker players have the same requirements as top chess players.  Even the need to relieve oneself weighs on a human’s mind but not on a computer’s mind.  Libratus faced none of the physical challenges the pros faced.

Imperfect versus Perfect Information Games

Games like chess and checkers are called perfect information games because each player sees the reality directly in front of him or her.  Poker is an imperfect information game because there are always hidden cards.  Neither the human player nor the AI can know with 100% certainty what the hidden cards are.  Daniel Negreanu is famous for predicting the hidden cards time after time based on the betting behavior of the opponent and the science of hand ranges.

As simple as that may sound, Negreanu is recognized as the maestro of such analyses.

The really big news about Libratus is not that a computer was able to defeat human poker pros.  The big news is that Libratus can analyze imperfect information situations to an unparalleled degree.  War and preparation for war is a perfect, albeit very sad, example of an imperfect information “game” so it is very good news that Libratus has joined the US military.