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Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan Lend Their Likenesses To Updated Heads-Up Limit Hold'em Machine Featured

Story Of The Slot-Like Machines Unique Development Using Artificial Intelligence Featured In New York Times


Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth at G2EThe Global Gaming Expo (G2E) saw 455 companies from all sectors of the gaming industry showcase their newest games, products and services at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas from Sept. 23-26. Somewhere between an “Avatar”-themed slots and the classic bat-mobile was a less ostentatious line of gaming machines that featured the video-likenesses of Poker Hall of Famers Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan playfully needling their living, breathing opponent.

Unlike most every other product on offer at this gambling smorgasbord, this particular game wasn’t simply running an algorithm that randomly doles out a prescribed jackpot based on a pay scale. The Texas Hold’em Heads Up Poker machine, the result of billions of hands of poker being run by complex neural nets playing against each other, actually plays against the customer using the game-theoretical optimal strategy that it and it’s creators developed for one-on-one poker.

The model on display at this year’s gaming expo, the flashy new version featuring Hellmuth glowering at players and uttering catchphrases, comes almost two years after gaming giant International Game Technology (IGTNYSE) first introduced the machine into casinos. Currently there are roughly 200 machines spread across large, live poker markets like Nevada, California and Mississippi. In Las Vegas alone the machines can be found at The Bellagio, Aria, The MGM Grand and The Palazzo, drawing everything from slot enthusiasts to the highest caliber poker professionals.

Numerous threads have been started in poker strategy forums, with plenty of big names weighing in with their take on the machine, it’s strategy and the possibility of achieving a consistent win rate against it. In a post on the 2+2 forum high-stakes limit pro and World Series of Poker bracelet winner Anthony Rivera gave his opinion.

“I’ve seen about 10 different [heads-up] pros playing the bot, all with their own special strategy which they are convinced is the one that beats the bot. I feel less than 95 percent certain that they are all losing players against it, and at least one of their assumptions has always been wrong. I feel after 100 hours of play against it I can break even against it. I think I’d rather play craps, though.”

Former Norwegian defense engineer Fredrik Dahl, who used to apply artificial intelligence to combat situations, utilized a similar approach first to the study of backgammon and then to heads-up limit hold’em. Malcolm Davis, who had been impressed by Dahl’s work on both games, encouraged him to try to use his research to create a gaming machine. One of the first big hurdles was the fact that gaming regulations ruled out the adaptive play that Dahl’s program was capable of.

“The neural net’s learning needs to be frozen, “Dahl told the NYTimes’ articles author, Michael Kaplan. “Ordinarily, you figure out weaknesses in your opponent and find ways to exploit those weaknesses. But because our program needs to be stable, it can’t do that. So instead it does everything it can to prevent itself from being exploited.”

Through a mutual friend Davis was able to help Dahl connect with Gregg Giuffria, a former rock star who had transitioned into designing and building gaming machines. It was Giuffria’s company, G2 Game Design, that helped take the work they had done and build it into something that they could take to IGT. The gaming giant released the machine in early 2011, and with this recent update is looking to increase the popularity of it’s unique gaming machine.