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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Internet Casinos and the Invasion of the Androids

16 April 2001

Say you could focus faultlessly on any task despite distracting influences, had infallible memory, and could accurately and rapidly do intricate calculations in your head. Would these robotic aptitudes make you a force to be feared in the casino? Certainly. At least at blackjack and in "live" stud poker.

Casinos already monitor blackjack games for the presence of "card counters." These players use rudimentary methods to ascertain when the cards remaining to be drawn have a surfeit or shortage of nines, 10s, and aces. Such information is used to size bets prior to each round and vary the "neutral" Basic Strategy for each hand, accounting for shifts in probabilities as the game proceeds. When done properly, even elementary card counting gives the player a small long-term advantage over the house.

Likewise, stud poker experts continually adjust their tactics according to the cards that have been exposed -- still showing as well as mucked. They're evaluating the chances of achieving various final results themselves, weighing the likelihood of opponents having or making alternate hands, and calculating "pot odds" for betting decisions. While poker involves psychology as well as statistics, a savant with the postulated abilities would have a significant leg up in a game.

Only a properly-programmed computer would be this good, of course. And you can get in trouble bringing a computer into a casino. So the scenarios are just sci-fi fantasies. Or are they?

They are, with respect to your friendly, neighborhood gambling joint. But some solid citizens are betting real money at virtual casinos on the Internet. And in this milieu, players with the talents described have already appeared. Not humans, but types of "intelligent interface agents" -- sophisticated programs which web sites can't distinguish from mere mortals like you and me.

One of the earliest such agents was BargainFinder. This program searched retail sites on the Internet to find the best price for an item. Since it picked off "loss leaders" without ordering anything else, it cut into e-commerce vendors' income. On-line sellers found a way to block this particular agent because it operated, not on individual users' computers, but from a central location whose network address could be detected.

Researchers at the University of Florida applied similar concepts to an intelligent agent for on-line blackjack. But their software runs on users' computers, sending signals to the virtual casino that are indistinguishable from mouse clicks and keystrokes a person might originate. Once launched, the agent operated without manual intervention. Taking about 11 seconds per hand, it performed calculations to interpret the screen, size the bet, and determine the optimal action for the cards presented. When the test started, the agent made money. During the trial period, the casino changed rules and began shuffling after every hand so the agent's skills became irrelevant. The researchers don't know if these changes were a response to their or some other agent, or merely an attempt by the casino to enhance its advantage.

No interface agents are known to exist for on-line poker. Not yet, anyway. The requisites would be more complex than for blackjack. But the concepts are no secret, and incorporating artificial intelligence and decision support would make the software very powerful. If potential profits warrant, stimulus for development will be strong. Moreover, since virtual poker rooms derive earnings by raking the pot and not from winning it, they have few if any incentives to catch and counteract interface agents. The result may be that the unsuspecting on-line poker public is pitted against a clandestine invasion of androids.

If you believe that math is only secondary in gaming, ask Gary Kasperov if he can beat a computer at chess. His answer may call to mind the musings of the beloved bard, Sumner A Ingmark:

When matching wits against machine,
You're fighting on your foe's demesne.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.