The sound of shuffling stacks and splashing piles of colorful chips filled the cavernous poker room of the Rivers Casino. It was noon on a Wednesday, and on one side of the hall, dozens of men at a handful of tables were peering at their cards, placing bets and taking one another’s money. On the other side sat two players, roped off from the rest. They were carefully deploying sophisticated poker strategies and tactics, drawing on the sum of human knowledge about the game. Yet they held no cards and stacked no chips. Their faces were lit by the blue glow of computer screens, and their opponent, an artificial intelligence program running on a brand new Hewlett Packard supercomputer, sat unblinking in a suburb 15 miles away. The two poker pros were playing for more than money. Pride, and the future of poker, was on the line.
Those two players, Jason Les and Daniel McAulay, are part of a four-person team, along with Jimmy Chuo and Dong Kim, taking on Libratus, a poker superprogram. The pros and the program are both experts in a type of poker called heads-up no-limit Texas Hold ’em. The game is one-on-one, and each player is dealt two private cards and uses up to five shared, public cards to make the best hand. Each round, players can place bets of any size, up to and including their entire cache of dollars (in this case digital and ersatz).