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Mages then struck a deal with Los Angeles public relations executive Darren Shuster to set up the Las Vegas contest -- dubbed the World Series of Poker Robots -- and just after Memorial Day their partnership convinced Antigua-based axebet.com to put up the prize money.
Even though GoldenPalace bans robots, the publicity-craving virtual casino was a natural target, having spent $28,000 last fall for a cheese sandwich that was said to bear the image of the Virgin Mary. The sandwich is now on tour.
Organizers have further headline-grabbing gambits in mind: They plan to invite the winner of the human poker World Series to go up against the winner of their robot contest, though no one expects the computer code to triumph -- at least, not this year.
Entrants in the robotic-poker tournament so far include Gabriel, Lo, programmers from Florida, Canada and Spain, and Hilton Givens of Lafayette, Ind., who started working on a robot more seriously after he was laid off from his software job.
Most of the confirmed competitors have run their programs on PartyPoker.com, which forbids such activity and confiscates the accounts of those it catches.
The cat-and-mouse game between robots and online game sites is not limited to poker. Whenever any free multi-user computer game gets big enough, cheaters use programs and other means to boost their rankings, collect useful game tools or exact revenge on competitors.
Gabriel, for one, cobbled together an unbeatable Scrabble robot, which he inflicted on Yahoo Games opponents. But the problem is especially acute for sites like PartyPoker, which has a million real-money players registered and so presents a tempting target.
And site parent PartyGaming might soon have to worry about spooked investors as well as spooked players. Gibraltar-based PartyGaming, which reported $350 million in profit last year, is gearing up for a multibillion-dollar initial public offering in London, where Internet gambling is legal. That IPO will be the United Kingdom's largest in at least four years, underscoring investor enthusiasm for the $8-billon online gaming market.