Thursday, July 14, 2005

The pentultimate day in Vegas

The WSOP tournament area was beginning to look like a morgue yesterday. Sure, there were still plenty of people in the room, either playing the last tournament, a $1,000 NLHE, or watching the final six tables of the main event. Some participated in the few cash games remaining. But the pavilion had a different feel, just knowing that the greatest poker tournament ever put on was about to end. Many tables had been folded up and placed against the walls and the satellite area was silent.

At the featured table, I saw Greg Raymer stare down an opponent with his lizard eye sunglasses. The other player folded and the patrons cheered for the crowd favorite.

I walked over to the $1K tourney and spotted Ted McNeely bust out. The Oregon timber and cattle farmer and I have crossed paths numerous times during the trip and he has become almost like a father figure for me during the trip. We shared a cab back to downtown (he is staying at Binion’s) and a buffet at the Plaza. We chatted about his business and I told him my own father, by day a middle school history teacher, raises some cattle on the side.

“Every time I lose a thousand dollars in a tournament I just remember I have to let one cow out of the gate,” he said.

Ted owns thousands of acres of timberland in Oregon and said he has bought some, sold the timber and essentially got the land for free. “It’s like poker, you only make money when you cash out,” he said.

We walked over to the poker room to check on the Ultimate Poker Challenge, that day a $2,500 buy-in event. They are all no limit hold’em. I spotted Andy Bloch, Eric Lindgren and Max Pescatori still in the field with half of the 53 players eliminated.

I walked over to Binion’s to check on the progress of the robots and was able to chat with Ken Mages, the event’s organizer. Mages told me he was hired by one of the online poker sites to study how people “cheat” online. The quotation marks are Mages own because he doesn’t feel using a robot to play online is cheating, though the sites (and many players) are of a different opinion.

Mages created his own software to play poker and told me that a ‘bot essentially has two parts. The decision engine can quickly calculate mathematically the odds of a card coming that would allow the robot to win the hand.

The second part is a series of if-then statements, often hundreds of thousands of them. For example, if the flop has a certain card and the other players bets, then the robot would fold.

Mages first built his robot in April and put it to use playing low limit tables on one site.

“At first I lost and then I got the hang of how people at those levels played so I adjusted my if-then statements,” he said.

While Mages slept, the robot played. Mages would usually wake up to find a modest profit in his account.

“Was I cheating?” he asked. “I would argue no. I programmed the robot to make the decisions I would make if I was awake.”

Mages argues that players can use calculators while sitting in front of their computers, which is essentially half of a robot’s function.

Mages bought the URL and started selling robot software for $60 each. He sold 300 in two weeks, but later got out of the business when technical support became a headache.

There are a handful of other poker playing robot creators and six of the best have gathered in Las Vegas to compete in the World Robot Poker Championship (, which started at Binion’s on Tuesday. One robot is eliminated during each of four qualifying rounds. One of those four losing robots who wins a tournament against the other three losers will compete with the two remaining for the robot championship.

The robot creators study the play and take notes. Every two hours they go in and change their if-then statements in the code to adjust to their opponents.

“They get better and better as we whittle it down,” Mages said. “They’re the same adjustments you would make against your opponents when you play poker except it’s happening on the computer.”

The event is sponsored by Golden, they of the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich and other oddities, and the winner will receive $100,000. The winner will also probably face pro player Phil Laak on Friday, as well as a robot from the University of Alberta, an institution that has studied artificial intelligence of this sort for years.

“When Kasparov lost to Deep Blue people were depressed,” Mages said. “I think a lot of people who are passionate about poker will feel the same if the robot beats a pro.”

He doesn’t think they should, however. Mages said the project has received both positive and negative responses from passers-by.

“There’s a guy that’s a regular here who said he’s got a million in a lockbox and he wants to put $100,000 up and play a robot,” Mages said.

On Wednesday, Poker Probot squared off against CatFish and Gobot in the last qualifying round. Hilton Givens from Lafayette, Ind., the creator of PP, said he mainly created his robot just to see if he could do it. The computer technology graduate of Purdue University likes to play with his robot online.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said. “It’s like you write your own book and you’re reading it to see your own strategy.”

Givens was leading in the qualifying round as we watched the robots go at it on a plasma screen.

“It’s early,” he said.

I went back to the Four Queens for some rest before trying for the final table trifecta at the 8 p.m. tourney at Binion’s.

It was not to be.

A young punk, clad in cap, sunglasses and iPod, who was playing aggressively, raised from the cutoff seat to 300. I had 100 in the big blind and looked down to find A-K. Rather than blow him out of the pot (because I thought he didn’t have much) I just called to try and trap on the flop. Those first three cards of A-8-2 were perfect. I checked, he bet 400 and I check raised to 1,000. He thought for nearly a minute before calling. I figured the turn of 8 missed him so I bet again. He put me all in for the little I had left and turned over 7-8. Oh well. I returned to Binion’s later to look for Ted, who was also playing this event, and found neither Ted nor the young punk among the four tables remaining. I was glad for the latter.

Andy made the final table at the UPC as Eric Lindgren was eliminated on the bubble in eighth. The final table is filmed today.

The final 27 players gather today at Binion’s to play down to nine. Tomorrow, someone will be crowned the new world champion and receive $7.5 million. Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow and Greg Raymer are all still in it. Maybe Raymer’s statement to me won’t come true. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing him win again. He’s a great guy and a good ambassador for the game of poker.

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