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20/10/2006 No. 69
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Friday Oct 20th, 2006
How to play poker
(How to play ran from issue 16 to 69)
New Poker Column Here

Have you been following the story about the chess players and the toilet breaks? During a top-level match, Bulgarian chess champion Veselin Topalov complained that his opponent, Vladimir Kramnik, was going to the loo 50 times per game. That certainly is a lot of bladder relief, however nerve-racking the tournament.

The suspicious Mr Topalov (doesn't that sound like a great variety act?) was apparently worried that Kramnik might be consulting a hidden computer. I'm more of a card player than a board game girl, but I am told that technology has evolved since Deep Blue and that computers can now beat people at chess quite easily.
This is fast becoming a relevant question in poker. The internet is full of robots (known as "bots"): computer programs that play for real money against real people. Greedy techno-wizards build or buy these programs to play on their behalf. Despite the best efforts of most sites to eliminate them, you will often find yourself playing online poker against a machine rather than a person. And when I say "find yourself", you are unlikely to notice the difference. A robot won't type comments into the chatbox, but neither will many flesh-and-blood players. (In fact, I have looked across plenty of live poker tables at silent, grimacing, iPod-wearing Swedes that I couldn't swear were 100% human either.)

How much of a disadvantage to you is the robot invasion? Well, it will never be as dangerous as it might be in chess. The psychological thrust of poker, and the crucial element of bluff, will always give the smart human player an edge that a computer can't have. On the other hand, it is hard to compete with a machine's ability to calculate its mathematical chances. Also, a computer never gets tired. It never loses focus. It never goes "on tilt" and plays like an idiot because it's annoyed. It never lets bad luck or losses affect its game.

The best defence is to make yourself more like a computer, without losing your human skills. Programmes such as PokerTracker (, which can run alongside your favourite poker websites, offer probability graphs, plus historical statistics of the hands you and your opponents generally play. This information lets you calculate with vastly improved accuracy your chances of being ahead in any situation, and the amount you should bet. Throw in some unexpected human moves, plus luck, and you may crush the robots.

Many serious players now run PokerTracker at all times when they are online, constantly calculating each hand, playing more and more like machines. It's very clever, and usually profitable against both robots and human opponents. As far as I can see, there is only one downside. Where's the bloody fun in it?


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