Software Showdown in Vegas

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on July 12, 2005.

Brian "Catfish" Edwards might be the only professional poker player who got his nickname from the Economist magazine.

Of course, he is also probably one of the few poker players competing in a $100,000 tournament who describes himself as "just a middle-of-the-road player."

In this particular tournament, though, that doesn't matter. When Jacksonville resident Edwards shows up in Las Vegas today for the World Series of Poker Robots, he won't actually be playing: The software he's been working on for the past seven years will be.

Edwards, an IT administrator for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, decided to create what's known as a poker robot in order to learn more about computer programming. Figuring out how to use a programming language like Java to create software that could learn how to bluff seemed like it would make for a fun project, he said.

Creating the bot has helped Edwards -- who lost $40 the first time he sat down in a Vegas casino -- develop both poker and programming skills. "I've gotten a little better at poker," he said. "But I'm a much better Java developer."

Edwards, 29, will face competitors from Spain, Hong Kong, Canada, Indiana and California this week, with the six players sitting around a table at Binion's Horseshoe with their laptops. When Edwards was invited, organizers told him he needed a nickname, so he picked "catfish" based on an article about catfish tickling in the Economist.

The competitors are the cream of the amateur poker bot world: Instead of full-time researchers who study artificial intelligence at universities -- the equivalent of professional poker players -- the World Series of Poker Robots invited guys who got into programming bots because it seemed like fun. In Edwards' case, the organizers of the tournament, the first of its kind, found him through his Web site,

This is the first year for this sort of tournament, although other, non-prize-awarding, contests have been held. Usually, programmers give their bots a workout on a variety of research-oriented Web sites, and can also have them play -- usually against the rules -- at online casinos.

During the tournament, the competitors' program will enter a virtual poker room set up by Poker Academy, which sells poker-playing software and is looking for breakthroughs in the field.

"We've been working on it for 10 years," said Kurt Lange, founder of Poker Academy. "We want to see it get to the point like a Deep Blue," the first computer system to win a chess game against a reigning world champion.

Starting today, players will be eliminated one by one, until two bots are left. The losing players will compete for a wildcard slot, and then the three machines will face off for $100,000.

The winner will also get to send his program into head-to-head competition with Phil Laak, a professional poker player who has won the World Poker Tour.

The tournament is sponsored by online casino -- despite the fact that the Web site bans poker bots in its games.

The contest will give the casino a better look at how bots work, however. Of course, the contest should provide more publicity for the site, whose past headline-grabbing stunts have included buying a grilled cheese sandwich featuring the face of the Virgin Mary and a cereal bowl that prophesied (incorrectly) that the Philadelphia Eagles would win the Super Bowl in Jacksonville.

Unlike chess, checkers or backgammon -- all of which computers can play better than most human beings -- poker forces programmers to deal with more uncertainty, luck and psychology.

"There's no magic recipe for strong computer poker," said Jonathan Schaeffer, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. Schaeffer helped create one of the leading checkers-playing programs, and is one of the world's leading researchers into poker bots. When computers like Deep Blue tackle games like chess, all of the information is known to the machine, Schaeffer said, and it can plot out a perfect game. In poker, other variables come into play.

"Luck is luck," he said. "That's what makes the game very interesting. You can play a game perfectly and still lose."

None of the six competitors are heavy hitters in the poker artificial intelligence field, Schaeffer said, and it's unlikely that any big research advances will be made as a result of the competition. Still, just as the World Series of (human) Poker has attracted more attention to the game, the showdown between softwares is likely to bring more attention to the field.

"There's nothing that motivates people more than the thrill of competition," said Schaeffer.

"And the $100,000 is pretty nice, too."

For Edwards, the possibility of winning is a nice motivation, but getting the money probably won't change much. "If I don't win, I'll be back at my job Monday," he said.

"And if I do win," he paused, "I'll be back at my job Monday morning."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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