The main story in the poker world over the last week has of course been the World Series of Poker Main Event, but another story has seemingly flown under the radar as far as buzz within the poker community despite widespread coverage in mainstream publications the world over. I’m referring to the news that Facebook AI managed to defeat pro poker players in a 6-handed No Limit Hold’em game for the very first time.
Pretty incredible development here on the AI front: Facebook makin’ some serious waves in the poker world; beating humans at 6-handed Hold’em play?!
Definitely worth a read; some talented poker pros players vouching for it; this is very real. Wow!https://t.co/Qcs6dJPVwI
— Robbie Strazynski (@cardplayerlife) July 11, 2019
In the poker media, we typically celebrate any instance of our beloved game getting mainstream coverage, and this should be no exception. Then again, while the achievement represents another massive leap forward as far as the capabilities of artificial intelligence, I’d hesitate to say that this news qualifies as “good for poker.”
A Solved Game
For years now, poker players have lamented how “the games keep on getting tougher.” Tricks and strategies that used to work “back in the good old days” just don’t cut it anymore in an era where hordes of players are “hitting the lab” and brushing up on their poker math. While “practice makes perfect” might be an adage that generally applies in life, in poker practice alone isn’t enough, with players enrolling in an increasing number of poker sites to try and improve every aspect of their game.
The quest for poker perfection has led to the terms “GTO” and “solvers” becoming part of the standard poker lexicon, even becoming familiar among recreational players. The pros, naturally, have taken this quest to a whole new level. Throughout the World Series of Poker as I walked around the multiple ballrooms at the Rio, the distinction between play in the High Roller bracelet events versus in the three- and four-figure buy-in events was crystal clear. The players might all be using chips and cards, but the high rolling pros are playing an entirely different, superior brand of poker, plain and simple.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that “the machines” have gotten this good at poker this quickly? Just as both recreational and professional poker players have been striving to enhance their skill sets, so too, research scientist Noam Brown quite literally lived “in the lab” developing Pluribus along with his team. Poker might take “five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master,” but AI is ever so slowly beginning to erode the validity of that statement. A lifetime for a human, perhaps. For artificial intelligence though? Far less time, it seems.
There’s just one critical caveat to all of this though…
Hold’em is Poker, but Poker isn’t just Hold’em
As I wrote just 2.5 short years ago in my op-ed entitled “In Defense of Humanity“:
In short, no AI program could possibly be considered “the best” at poker unless it masters all poker disciplines against every possible number of opponents (i.e., heads up, short-handed, and full ring game).
Indeed, AI has now progressed to the point where it can defeat multiple players, but it’s STILL just in one poker discipline, namely Texas Hold’em. A whopping 55 of the 90 bracelet events at the 2019 WSOP were variants of Hold’em. The $10,000 Main Event, of course, is a Hold’em tournament. In common discourse, the terms “poker” and “Texas Hold’em” are practically interchangeable, but all poker players know that there are numerous other poker games. The two WSOP Dealer’s Choice events, for instance, featured no fewer than 20 different poker variants a participant can choose from when it’s his/her turn to pick a game that will be played in the following orbit.
While Hossein Ensan might have just been crowned poker’s new champion after having won the WSOP Main Event, I respectfully doubt that anyone would consider him to be a superior overall poker player to Phillip Hui, who won the WSOP $50,000 Poker Players Championship (which features an eight-game mix) earlier this summer. Dare I suggest that the same could be said of any of the participants in the Poker Players Championship? To be considered one of the true greats in poker, you’ve got to be an all-around star, well versed in ALL of the different games.
It’s Time to Act, and Gravitate Away from Hold’em
I’ve long been an advocate of playing mixed games. For over a decade and a half, my home game has featured a Dealer’s Choice mix, and this summer when deciding that after 16 years it was finally time to play my first bracelet event, it was the $1,500 Dealer’s Choice tournament I registered for.
Besides being loads more fun than “boring old Hold’em”, mixed games are the true test of a poker player’s skill and mettle. Moreover, as the majority of the games are played limit, rather than no-limit, your bankroll almost by definition has the potential to last a lot longer in mixed game play.
While it’s wonderful to see that live poker (as opposed to online poker) is not just alive, but thriving, it’s somewhat dismaying to see just an umpteenth of the crowds that show up for Hold’em events partake in mixed game tournaments and cash games.
Perhaps, then, the “rise of the machines” is that long-awaited wake up call that poker players need to realize that they should direct their efforts towards the study of mixed games? If you’re nervous about dipping your toes in the water, try “hitting the books” with the Upswing Mixed Game Mastery course. If you don’t want to spend that much, take a couple hundred dollars and come out to your local $4/8 mixed game to get some reps in.
Bask in the beauty of badeucey.
Dabble in the drama of drawmaha.
Play a resounding round of razz.
I promise you’ll enjoy it… plus you won’t (ever?) have to worry that a computer will beat you.