Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chess versus poker

I stopped playing chess on a regular basis a long, long time ago.

When I DO play abstract strategy games, I usually play go.

Once upon a time, though, I was a serious player: a member of the United States Chess Federation (USCF), a player in tournaments, even a (losing) contender for the run-off to challenge for the championship of the US Virgin Islands.

Of the many world chess championships, many have been spectacular failures. There have been lunatics, apparatchiks, and monomaniacs (of course, being a monomaniac might be a prerequisite for being the world's best at almost ANYTHING). One that I've admired, though, has been Kasparov, who wrote this article about chess and computers:
erhaps chess is the wrong game for the times. Poker is now everywhere, as amateurs dream of winning millions and being on television for playing a card game whose complexities can be detailed on a single piece of paper. But while chess is a 100 percent information game—both players are aware of all the data all the time—and therefore directly susceptible to computing power, poker has hidden cards and variable stakes, creating critical roles for chance, bluffing, and risk management.

These might seem to be aspects of poker based entirely on human psychology and therefore invulnerable to computer incursion. A machine can trivially calculate the odds of every hand, but what to make of an opponent with poor odds making a large bet? And yet the computers are advancing here as well. Jonathan Schaeffer, the inventor of the checkers-solving program, has moved on to poker and his digital players are performing better and better against strong humans—with obvious implications for online gambling sites.

Perhaps the current trend of many chess professionals taking up the more lucrative pastime of poker is not a wholly negative one. It may not be too late for humans to relearn how to take risks in order to innovate and thereby maintain the advanced lifestyles we enjoy. And if it takes a poker-playing supercomputer to remind us that we can't enjoy the rewards without taking the risks, so be it.

HT, again, MR!

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