July 11, 2008 at 9:08 PM ET
One year after a famous man-vs.-machine poker tournament, the machine finally won out over a team of living, breathing poker professionals. The University of Alberta's Polaris poker-playing software came from behind for the victory in a six-round match held July 3-6 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The outcome wasn't clear until the final scores were tallied up from the final game. Each of the games involved 500 hands of limit hold 'em, with Polaris playing head-to-head against each of the professionals. In the end, Polaris won three of the games, the humans won two, and one was a draw.
Polaris' programmers rejoiced.
"It's hard to describe how good that felt," research team leader Michael Bowling said in a report from the University of Alberta. "As a group, we may not all be great poker players, but all of us really, really want to win."
Bowling pointed out that this was just a first step. "This was really the simplest form of poker," he said. "There's a lot more we can look at, such as playing without betting limits, or playing with more than two opponents. One of the reasons I got excited about this line of research is that it's not just a one-off. It's a really challenging path of research."
Historically, computers have been better at games where all the information is essentially out there on the board - for instance, chess and checkers. Poker is trickier, because players have to make judgments based on different amounts of information about the state of play.
"In general, problems in the real world are going to be more like poker than chess," Bowling said.
Polaris and other pokerbots have been around for years, and it's almost a given that some of those bots have been employed on online gaming sites against not-so-professional human players. Check out this archived report on the subject from Michael Brunker, one of my colleagues at msnbc.com, and this more recent report on a real-money pokerbot (it's actually the first part of an ongoing series).
If robo-poker isn't your cup of tea, here are some other weekend field trips you can take on the Web:
The last word, as always, is yours. What do you think about the rise of the pokerbots, the state of the solar cycle or the state of science in society? Feel free to add your comments below.
Update for 4:54 p.m. ET July 13: I've revised the reference to how pokerbots are being used on gaming Web sites, in response to comments below.