It’s been an interesting week in the online poker community. The big news is that four top poker professionals squared off against a robot called Libratus and got crushed. In a less-noted story, for the first time on PokerStars NJ, a Spin & Go paid out $100,000 to first place.
These two stories stuck together in my head because of the contrast. The story of world class poker players taking on a highly advanced machine illustrates what the game looks like at the top of the food chain. At the other end, you have the story of a player on PokerStars hitting a jackpot on a small buy in tournament that was over in about 10 minutes. This contrast speaks to the continuing divergence between the game of poker and the business of poker.
Computers Defeat the Pros
Dong Kim, Jason Les, Jimmy Chou and Daniel McAuley are high stakes poker players who agreed to play heads up no limit hold ’em against a computer program for 20 days. While they weren’t playing for real money, there was $200,000 to be split up between them based on how they did relative to one another. They all lost to the machine, and they lost badly.
This wasn’t the first time this experiment has been tried. In 2015, these same four players faced off against a different robot called Claudico. That time, the pros won. A similar result was largely expected this time around.
These incredibly advanced artificial intelligence programs were written by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Tuomas Sandholm and his student, Noam Brown. If you’re interested in a deeper dive on the theory behind Claudico and Libratus, I recommend their paper.
Right Place at the Right Time
A Spin & Go Tournament, for those unfamiliar, is a 3-person tournament where players buy in for a set amount (ex. $10) but don’t find out the prizes until the tournament starts. Usually the winner of the tournament gets two times the buy in, but on rare occasions they can win as much as 10,000 times their entry.
In New Jersey, PokerStars has been running a promotion since March, 2016 that gave each $10 Spin & Go a 1 in 500,000 chance of having a $120,000 prize pool with a $100k first prize. The biggest prize had not actually occurred at all until this month, when the player known on PokerStars as VaderWolf took down the top prize. Upon realizing he was playing for the jackpot, he recorded the whole thing on his phone. It’s not a high quality recording, but it’s worth watching to get a vicarious feel for the excitement of being in this position.
Poker, the Game vs. Poker, the Business
Over the last several years, elite level poker has evolved tremendously. While high stakes cash players have long been separate from the mainstream, the same thing has now happened with the best tournament players. Tournaments with a buy in of $25k-100k now occur on numerous occasions throughout the year, along with a handful of even higher buy in events like the $300,000 buy in Super High Roller Bowl at the Aria.
The game is advancing steadily at the elite level, and the handful of players at the top are putting space between themselves and their peers. Those attempting to perfect AI poker strategy may be catching up to those who push the limits of human strategy, but both are getting better all the time. The top end of poker thinking is now almost entirely focused on advanced game theory. So much for all those images of cowboys in smoky rooms.
While elite poker players are trying to beat the world’s smartest machines, today’s poker businesses are focusing more and more on how to create an exciting experience for amateur players, often diverging from traditional forms of the game. They’re finding that many casual players like games that are over within a few minutes, along with the jackpot/lottery aspect unique to the Spin & Go format.
High volume regulars on PokerStars have come to dread announcements about changes to the rewards program, which nearly always lead to redistribution of funds away from professional grinders. And PokerStars has learned to embrace the idea that they can live without a certain subset of customers and still make more money overall.
One of poker’s biggest appeals during the poker boom was the idea that any player could square off against the world’s best and had a chance to come out victorious. Things are changing though. The world’s best are working hard to expand the parameters of how to think about the game. That’s what it takes to stay ahead of the competition at nosebleed stakes, or to compete with the world’s smartest poker robot or win a $100,000 buy in tournament.
The masses are moving in a different direction. For many, poker’s a diversion, often competing for their attention with other forms of entertainment like iPhone games and Netflix.
As the distance between elite poker theorists and casual gamers continues to grow, it looks more and more like all these people are not in fact part of a larger community. They’re really not even playing the same game.