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The Sunday Read: ‘How A.I. Conquered Poker’

If you didn’t think poker and artificial intelligence could be bedfellows, think again. Keith Romer delves into the history of man’s pursuit of the perfect game of poker, and explains how the use of A.I. is altering how it is played: individuals using an algorithmic “solver program” to analyze potential weaknesses about themselves and their opponents, thus gaining an advantage.

While it feels futuristic, this desire to optimize poker isn’t new. Romer explains how this pursuit harks back at least as far as the 1944 publication of “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” by the mathematician John von Neumann and the economist Oskar Morgenstern, who wanted to correct what they saw as a fundamental imprecision in the field of economics. He explains their thesis, and profiles the current poker players for whom adopting A.I. has become imperative if they are to keep up with the competition.

With the dominance of A.I. in poker, older players bemoan what they see as a fundamental change in the game’s fabric. As Romer shows, there are downsides to this optimization, despite the evident advantages: The emotional swings that come from winning or losing giant sums and the fatigue of 12-hour sessions remain the same challenges as always, but now even the top players have to put in significant work away from the tables to succeed.

Are these new generations of A.I. tools merely a continuation of a longer pattern of technological innovation in poker, or does it mark an irreversible structural shift? One thing’s for certain: The stakes are high.

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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Emma Kehlbeck, Parin Behrooz, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Jack D’Isidoro, Elena Hecht, Desiree Ibekwe, Tanya Pérez, Marion Lozano, Naomi Noury, Krish Seenivasan, Corey Schreppel, Margaret Willison, Kate Winslett and Tiana Young. Special thanks to Mike Benoist, Sam Dolnick, Laura Kim, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin, Blake Wilson and Ryan Wegner.

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