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Isaac Haxton: 'Most Of The Top Poker Players Are Studying AI To Work On Their Games'

Poker Pro Discusses AI, New Deal With partypoker And WSOP $1M Event

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Online poker legend Isaac Haxton in January found a new home on the internet when the web betting platform partypoker announced that Haxton was its latest sponsored poker pro.

The 32-year-old, who has $16 million in lifetime tournament scores and several million more from online cash games, left PokerStars in early 2016 after taking issue with changes the site made to its VIP rewards program. Over at partypoker, Haxton was brought on to “help facilitate open and effective communication channels” between partypoker and players. Haxton, who has been playing for a living for more than a decade, is one of the game’s most reputable stars.

In a major move last year, partypoker was able to bring on Mike Sexton as its chairman, which forced the Poker Hall of Famer to leave his long-held position as WPT commentator. Haxton said that he has been “very impressed” with partypoker’s renewed “commitment to growing the game.”

Despite his new sponsorship deal, Haxton said that at the end of the day he is still “first and foremost a professional poker player.” He explained that if there’s a juicy cash game running he would likely sit in that game over competing in a highly-publicized tournament—and his new online poker partner fully supports that. Still, Haxton doesn’t often miss a high roller event these days. According to Haxton, the competition in those tournaments is becoming even stiffer thanks to advancements with poker bots. In early 2017, a poker bot from Carnegie Mellon famously defeated a group of poker pros in heads-up no-limit hold’em.

“I think the power of AI in poker is becoming more apparent in live tournaments as well,” Haxton said. “Most of the top poker players are studying AI to work on their games at this point. I think that’s just going to become truer going forward.”

Card Player had the chance to speak with him not only about his new sponsorship deal and artificial intelligence, but also his plans for the $1 million buy-in at the upcoming WSOP.

Brian Pempus: How did your deal with partypoker come about?

Isaac Haxton: We first started talking about it at the World Series last summer. [Partypoker] was talking about wanting to put together a team of top tournament and cash game players, people who are visible playing high stakes in high-profile games. They want to put together a team of pros who are going to play high buy-in tournaments on TV and playing all their super high rollers. I think it was really important to put together a team of people who are genuinely among the best players in the world, not just the guys who put the most time into self-promotion and creating content. They wanted to find a team of people who are top players first and foremost. It’s an honor to be a part of it. It’s definitely a group of people I’m happy to work with.

BP: Does representing an online poker site once again give you renewed motivation for traveling and grinding tournaments?

IH: I don’t know if I needed any renewal in that regard. I just love playing live tournaments, especially high buy-in ones. I have barely missed a $50K-plus buy-in since events at those stakes started to become common. I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon, deal or otherwise. It is nice to be a part of a team and getting out there and getting the logo on TV is an extra motivator.

BP: With regards to the WSOP and the amount of grinding that needs to be done to put yourself in a position to win bracelets, does this deal give you a push to play more tournaments this summer? Is winning your first bracelet on your radar at all?

IH: The last few summers in Las Vegas I have played more cash than tournaments. I’ve played a lot of the small field, high buy-in stuff at Aria as opposed to the bigger field, lower buy-in World Series events. I’m not a big bracelet chaser, and I don’t think this [deal] will really change that. I want to play the most profitable poker I can. If that means cash games that are under the radar, that’s fine by me. That’s the thing I like about this deal and the people I’m working with, they understand that I am first and foremost a professional poker player. If there are cash games where I can quietly be earning a nice hourly, as opposed to going to the Rio [casino] and chasing the glory, they totally understand and support that.

BP: Regulated online poker in the U.S. is showing progress. Pennsylvania legalized it back in the fall. New York is considering a bill. What are your thoughts on the state of U.S. online poker?

IH: I’m by no means on an expert on U.S. online poker right now, but it does seem like good things are happening. I’m cautious in my optimism when it comes to legal developments in the U.S. When Black Friday happened, going on seven years ago now, I thought it was going to be six months to two years before it was all sorted out. Surely all this money wouldn’t be left on the table indefinitely and somebody would figure out how to sell online poker to Americans and make it legal. With seven years having gone by and that not have happened yet…I’ll believe it when I see it. But it does seem like there have been positive developments lately.

BP: Last year, there was a high-profile contest between a bot from Carnegie Mellon University and a group of poker players. Do you follow developments in AI with regards to poker? Do you have any thoughts on where AI is taking poker and the quest to “solve” heads-up no-limit hold’em?

IH: Solved is a tricky word in that context. You can properly say heads-up limit hold’em is solved. You can quantify how close to perfect the heads-up limit hold’em AIs are, and they are so close to perfect that in a lifetime of playing against it you wouldn’t be able to observe the difference between what it is doing and literal perfection. When it comes to no-limit hold’em, it’s not quite solved to that extent. But if you have a bot that can beat the best humans that might not be solved, but it’s an important development for poker in general and especially for the game of heads-up no-limit. It makes anti-bot measures for online sites all that much more important. If you took the best bot a few years ago that could hold its own at mid-stakes, but now the best bot in the world could beat most humans, it’s really important for sites to ensure people are playing against other people. Beyond the online world, I think the power of AI in poker is becoming more apparent in live tournaments as well. Most of the top poker players are studying AI to work on their games at this point. I think that’s just going to become truer going forward. That doesn’t mean the end of poker or anything like that. The best AIs beat humans in chess, and chess is still a healthy and thriving game. Humans are studying AI to improve at it, same goes for backgammon, apparently GO now as well. I think it’s the future of game playing. Computers are going to be better than people at most games pretty soon. Mastering a game is going to be in large part about learning from those computers as effectively as you can.

BP: Is it fair to say that now what separates players from each other at the highest level is the time they put in away from the tables studying the game and hand histories?

IH: I think it’s a big factor, but not the only factor. I think executing at the table is still a real challenge, especially in live tournaments with a shot clock, playing for huge stakes. The players who perform the best in that scenario are not necessarily the same people who would perform best on a written test of poker knowledge.

BP: The $1 million buy-in One Drop event at the WSOP is returning this year. Are you looking forward to that event? Does the event still carry the same significance and prestige that it had when first running in 2012?

IH: Yeah, I will almost certainly be playing that and it should be a lot of fun. When it was first announced people thought it was a joke and unthinkable. Back then most people I know didn’t consider trying to put together backing to play it. Now, there’s a $100,000 buy-in every couple weeks, and the action-selling marketplace is very well established. It’s a little less out-of-this-world than it once was but there’s still nothing like it. It’s the highest buy-in tournament in the world, and it only runs every other year or so.

BP: Given the stakes and the prize money on the line, would you try to play less poker in the week before to get some extra rest or alter your schedule at all to be at the top of your game for it?

IH: Nothing too extreme, but I would make sure to be on a good sleep schedule going into it. I wouldn’t be putting in all-nighter cash game sessions two days before One Drop. Obviously training for poker is a bit different than training for an MMA fight or something. You don’t fatigue or injury yourself in the same way as you do training for poker (laughs). But I will be making a point to show up as healthy and well-rested as I can.