Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chess, Poker and the Fate of Our World

Most games experts hold that Chess is the most sophisticated, intricate and elegant of popular competitive games. That it's the most complex and difficult to master. That it requires the highest level of comprehensive intelligence to play well at the highest levels. Not that I'm an expert, but this always struck me as intuitively true, and I'm not questioning this intuition now.
However, imagine that tomorrow our world was invaded by aliens of apparently sophisticated intelligence. They communicated to our leaders that the only way to stop them from subjugating and enslaving mankind would be for one of our humans to defeat a computer they had programmed at either Chess or No Limit Hold Em Poker (with deep stacks), and we could choose which game we would play. Since Chess is the most complex, sophisticated, elegant, and difficult of games then many people would likely conclude that our best chance at defeating the computer is in Chess, but they would be wrong.

In reading a profile of Norwegian Chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen in this week's New Yorker, it is mentioned that the best modern Chess programs are effectively unbeatable. No human opponent can match the computer's raw computational power. Since Chess is a game of complete information, the computer need only look at the board at any juncture of the game, compute all possible permutations of moves 10, 20, 30 steps ahead, and then choose the strategically optimal move. An opponent that never makes a mistake is almost possible to beat.

Conversely Poker is a game of incomplete information. In Hold Em your opponent's two hole cards are unknown. Thus, though there are many mathematical fundamentals involved in the game; and though computers can be programmed for pattern recognition, to get a 'read' on human opponents; the psychological aspect of the game combined with the incomplete information makes it a tough nut to crack for the computer. Which is why, even with the awesome computational power of today's computers, the best No Limit Hold Em players can still beat the best NLHE artifical intelligence, as far as we can tell. Though the NLHE AI is always being worked on and improved, so this won't always necessarily be the case. The important point is that, for the computer, Chess is an easier nut to crack.

I'm not saying that big-bet poker is an inherently better, or more sophisticated, or more difficult game than Chess. All I'm saying is that if the Fate of the World ever depended on us beating a computer at one game or the other, we should definitely send Phil Ivey in to play the computer at No Limit Hold Em, rather than take the suicidal option of trying to beat a computer at chess.

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