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A Computer Masters Texas Hold’em, Poker Face and All

Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event in Las Vegas.

If you lose at Texas Hold’em, don’t blame your cards.

A breakthrough in artificial intelligence has allowed a computer to master the simplest two-person version of the poker game, working through every possible variation of play to make the perfect move every time. When performed without mistakes, just like the childhood game tic-tac-toe, there’s no way to lose. In this case the player is Cepheus, an algorithm designed by Canadian researchers.

“We have a strategy that can guarantee a player won’t lose,” said Michael Bowling, a computer scientist from the University of Alberta, who led a team working on the program. “It’s going to be a break-even game. It’s only when someone makes a mistake that they could end up losing.”

You don’t have to take their word, though, their work is published today in the journal Science. The researchers are calling for poker players to test the program for Limit Texas Hold’em by challengingCepheus online. The results may cause gamblers to rethink some common moves, Bowling said in a telephone interview.

“Not only did we prove some things that most people already believe, like the dealer holds a substantial advantage, we got some answers where the poker community isn’t settled yet,” he said. “For example, re-raising with very low pairs. Most good poker players wouldn’t do that.”

The term for what Bowling and his colleagues did was “solve” the game, creating an optimal way to play that will never lose. It’s the first time that researchers have solved a game played competitively by humans that involves imperfect information, meaning that players don’t know everything, such as their opponents’ cards, as it progresses, said Tuomas Sandholm, from Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science department in Pittsburgh, in an editorial that accompanied the article.