But poker- popularized recently by televised tournaments for pros and celebrity amateurs

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But poker- popularized recently by televised tournaments for pros and celebrity amateurs -- is a far more human game, one in which psychology matters as much as probability.

That's why in poker there's no such thing as an absolutely correct play, except in retrospect. If someone, or something, bets heavily with a lousy hand and everyone else folds, that was the right bet.

This makes poker bot design fascinating to academics like Jonathan Schaeffer, a computing science professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who for 14 years has headed a project to build poker programs.

Schaeffer said cards were more likely than chess to produce computing approaches useful in the real world because poker players must deal with incomplete information. But before such research can contribute dramatically to solving real-world problems, Schaeffer said, it has to solve the challenge of poker -- and that's several years away. For now, only the poker players with the poorest skills -- people like Gabriel, for instance -- have much to fear. Typically, a user signs on to an online game site manually, launches the poker bot and lets it run. Gabriel's BlackShark, for example, displays a window on his computer that collects information from the poker site and then calculates odds before making a bet.

Like most of his peers, Gabriel, who is working five nights a week to get BlackShark ready for the Las Vegas tournament, is an engineer first and a poker player second. He said his poor game skills are his biggest handicap. "The hard part is: What if I've got two 10s? What am I going to do?" As he scans poker books for strategy tips, Gabriel is laboring to add an enormous set of rules telling the machine what to do with different cards and how to react to the frequency with which other players fold, call and raise.

Other robot designers, such as Ken Mages of Evanston, Ill., are further along. But though their electronic progeny may win at small-stakes tables, they usually fall apart when the human competition is stiffer. After two weeks of programming, Mages said, "I could sit down at a 50-cent table, put 50 bucks in the account, go to bed and wake up with at least $75." The most Mages said he won that way was $250; he never lost.

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