Superhuman AI for Multiplayer Poker

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Revision as of 18:39, 26 November 2020 by S69hussa (talk | contribs) (Nash Equilibrium in Multiplayer Games)
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Presented by

Hansa Halim, Sanjana Rajendra Naik, Samka Marfua, Shawrupa Proshasty


A superintelligence is a hypothetical agent that possesses intelligence far surpassing that of the brightest and most gifted human minds. In the past two decades, most of the superhuman AI that was built can only beat human players in two-player zero-sum games. The most common strategy that the AI uses to beat those games is to find the most optimal Nash equilibrium. A Nash equilibrium is a pair of strategies such that either single-player switching to any other choice of strategy (while the other player's strategy remains unchanged) will result in a lower payout for the switching player. Intuitively this is similar to a locally optimal strategy for the players but is (i) not guaranteed to exist and (ii) may not be the truly optimal strategy (for example, in the "Prisoner's dilemma" the Nash equilibrium of both players betraying each other is not the optimal strategy).

More specifically, in the game of poker, we only have AI models that can beat human players in two-player settings. Poker is a great challenge in AI and game theory because it captures the challenges in hidden information so elegantly. This means that developing a superhuman AI in multiplayer poker is the remaining great milestone in this field, because there is no polynomial-time algorithm that can find a Nash equilibrium in two-player non-zero-sum games, and having one would have surprising implications in computational complexity theory.

In this paper, the AI which we call Pluribus is capable of defeating human professional poker players in Texas hold'em poker which is a six-player poker game and is the most commonly played format in the world. The algorithm that is used is not guaranteed to converge to a Nash algorithm outside of two-player zero-sum games. However, it uses a strong strategy that is capable of consistently defeating elite human professionals. This shows that despite not having strong theoretical guarantees on performance, they are capable of applying a wider class of superhuman strategies.

Nash Equilibrium in Multiplayer Games

Many AI has reached superhuman performance in games like checkers, chess, two-player limit poker, Go, and two-player no-limit poker. Nash equilibrium has been proven to exist in all finite games and numerous infinite games. However, the challenge is to find the equilibrium. It is the best possible strategy and is unbeatable in two-player zero-sum games since it guarantees to not lose in expectation regardless of what the opponent is doing.

To have a deeper understanding of Nash Equilibria we must first define some basic game theory concepts. The first one being a strategic game, in game theory a strategic game consists of a set of players, for each player a set of actions and for each player preferences (or payoffs) over the set of action profiles (set of combination of actions). With these three elements, we can model a wide variety of situations. Now a Nash Equilibrium is an action profile, with the property that no player can do better by changing their action, given that all other players' actions remain the same. A common illustration of Nash equilibria is the Prisoner's Dilemma. We also have mixed strategies and mixed strategy Nash equilibria. A mixed strategy is when instead of a player choosing an action they apply a probability distribution to their set of actions and pick randomly. Note that with mixed strategies we must look at the expected payoff of the player given the other players' strategies. Therefore a mixed strategy Nash Equilibria involves at least one player playing with a mixed strategy where no player can increase their expected payoff by changing their action, given that all other players' actions remain the same. Then we can define a pure Nash Equilibria to where no one is playing a mixed strategy. We also must be aware that a single game can have multiple pure Nash equilibria and mixed Nash equilibria. Also, Nash Equilibria are purely theoretical and depend on players acting optimally and being rational, this is not always the case with humans and we can act very irrationally. Therefore empirically we will see that games can have very unexpected outcomes and you may be able to get a better payoff if you move away from a strictly theoretical strategy and take advantage of your opponents irrational behavior.

The insufficiency with current AI systems is that they only try to achieve Nash equilibriums instead of trying to actively detect and exploit weaknesses in opponents. At the Nash equilibrium, there is no incentive for any player to change their initial strategy, so it is a stable state of the system. For example, let's consider the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, the Nash equilibrium is to randomly pick any option with equal probability. However, we can see that this means the best strategy that the opponent can have will result in a tie. Therefore, in this example, our player cannot win in expectation. Now let's try to combine the Nash equilibrium strategy and opponent exploitation. We can initially use the Nash equilibrium strategy and then change our strategy overtime to exploit the observed weaknesses of our opponent. For example, we switch to always play Rock against our opponent who always plays Scissors. However, by shifting away from the Nash equilibrium strategy, it opens up the possibility for our opponent to use our strategy against ourselves. For example, they notice we always play Rock and thus they will now always play Paper.

Trying to approximate a Nash equilibrium is hard in theory, and in games with more than two players, it can only find a handful of possible strategies per player. Currently, existing techniques to find ways to exploit an opponent require way too many samples and is not competitive enough outside of small games. Finding a Nash equilibrium in three or more players is a problem itself. If we can efficiently compute a Nash equilibrium in games with more than two players, it is highly questionable if playing the Nash equilibrium strategy is a good choice. Additionally, if each player tries to find their own version of a Nash equilibrium, we could have infinitely many strategies and each player’s version of the equilibrium might not even be a Nash equilibrium.

Consider the Lemonade Stand example from Figure 1 Below. We have 4 players and the goal for each player is to find a spot in the ring that is furthest away from every other player. This way, each lemonade stand can cover as much selling region as possible and generate maximum revenue. In the left circle, we have three different Nash equilibria distinguished by different colors which would benefit everyone. The right circle is an illustration of what would happen if each player decides to calculate their own Nash equilibrium.

Lemonade Example.png
Figure 1: Lemonade Stand Example

From the right circle in Figure 1, we can see that when each player tries to calculate their own Nash equilibria, their own version of the equilibrium might not be a Nash equilibrium and thus they are not choosing the best possible location. This shows that attempting to find a Nash equilibrium is not the best strategy outside of two-player zero-sum games, and our goal should not be focused on finding a specific game-theoretic solution. Instead, we need to focus on observations and empirical results that consistently defeat human opponents.

Theoretical Analysis

Pluribus uses forms of abstraction to make computations scalable. To simplify the complexity due to too many decision points, some actions are eliminated from consideration and similar decision points are grouped together and treated as identical. This process is called abstraction. Pluribus uses two kinds of abstraction: Action abstraction and information abstraction. Action abstraction reduces the number of different actions the AI needs to consider. For instance, it does not consider all bet sizes (exact number of bets it considers varies between 1 and 14 depending on the situation). Information abstraction groups together decision points that reveal similar information. For instance, the player’s cards and revealed board cards. This is only used to reason about situations on future betting rounds, never the current betting round.

Pluribus uses a builtin strategy - “Blueprint strategy”, which it gradually improves by searching in real time in situations it finds itself in during the course of the game. In the first betting round pluribus uses the initial blueprint strategy when the number of decision points is small. The blueprint strategy is computed using Monte Carlo Counterfactual Regret Minimization (MCCFR) algorithm. CFR is commonly used in imperfect information games AI which is trained by repeatedly playing against copies of itself, without any data of human or prior AI play used as input. For ease of computation of CFR in this context, poker is represented as a game tree. A game tree is a tree structure where each node represents either a player’s decision, a chance event, or a terminal outcome and edges represent actions taken.

Screen Shot 2020-11-17 at 11.57.00 PM.png
Figure 1: Kuhn Poker (Simpler form of Poker)

At the start of each iteration, MCCFR stimulates a hand of poker randomly (Cards held by player at a given time) and designates one player as the traverser of the game tree. Once that is completed, the AI reviews the decision made by the traverser at a decision point in the game and investigates whether the decision was profitable. The AI compares its decision with other actions available to the traverser at that point and also with the future hypothetical decisions that would have been made following the other available actions. To evaluate a decision, Counterfactual Regret factor is used. This is the difference between what the traverser would have expected to receive for choosing an action and actually received on the iteration. Thus regret is a numeric value, where a positive regret indicates you regret your decision, a negative regret indicates you are happy with decision and zero regret indicates that you are indifferent.

The value of counter factual regret for a decision is adjusted over the iterations as more scenarios or decision points are encountered. This means at the end of each iteration, the traverser’s strategy is updated so actions with higher counterfactual regret is chosen with higher probability. CFR minimizes regret over many iterations until the average strategy over all iterations converges and the average strategy is the approximated Nash equilibrium. CFR guarantees in all finite games that all counterfactual regrets grow sublinearly in the number of iterations. Pluribus uses Linear CFR in early iterations to reduce the influence of initial bad iterations i.e it assigns a weight of T to regret contributions at iteration T. This leads to the strategy improving more quickly in practice.

An additional feature of Pluribus is that in the subgames, instead of assuming that all players play according to a single strategy, pluribus considers that each player may choose between k different strategies specialized to each player, when a decision point is reached. This results in the searcher choosing a more balanced strategy. For instance if a player never bluffs while holding the best possible hand then the opponents would learn that fact and always fold in that scenario. To fold in that scenario is a balanced strategy than to bet. Therefore, the blueprint strategy is produced offline for the entire game and it is gradually improved while making real time decisions during the game.

Experimental Results

To test how well Pluribus functions, it was tested against human players in 2 formats. The first format included 5 human players and one copy of Pluribus (5H+1AI). The 13 human participants were poker players who have won more than $1M playing professionally and were provided with cash incentives to play their best. 10,000 hands of poker were played over 12 days with the 5H+1AI format by anonymizing the players by providing each of them with aliases that remained consistent throughout all their games. The aliases helped the players keep track of the tendencies and types of games played by each player over the 10,000 hands played.

The second format included one human player and 5 copies of Pluribus (1H+5AI) . There were 2 more professional players who split another 10,000 hands of poker by playing 5000 hands each and followed the same aliasing process as the first format. Performance was measured using milli big blinds per game, mbb/game, (i.e. the initial amount of money the second player has to put in the pot) which is the standard measure in the AI field. Additionally, AIVAT was used as the variance reduction technique to control for luck in the games, and significance tests were run at a 95% significance level with one-tailed t-tests as a check for Pluribus’s performance in being profitable.

Applying AIVAT the following were the results:

Format Average mbb/game Standard Error in mbb/game P-value of being profitable
5H+1AI 48 25 0.028
1H+5AI 32 15 0.014

"Figure 3. Performance of Pluribus in the 5 humans + 1 AI experiment. The dots show Pluribus's performance at the end of each day of play. (Top) The lines show the win rate (solid line) plus or minus the standard error (dashed lines). (Bottom) The lines show the cumulative number of mbbs won (solid line) plus or minus the standard error (dashed lines). The relatively steady performance of Pluribus over the course of the 10,000-hand experiment also suggests that the humans were unable to find exploitable weaknesses in the bot."

Optimal play in Pluribus looks different from well-known poker conventions: A standard convention of “limping” in poker (calling the 'big blind' rather than folding or raising) is confirmed to be not optimal by Pluribus since it initially experimented with it but eliminated this from its strategy over its games of self-play. On the other hand, another convention of “donk betting” (starting a round by betting when someone else ended the previous round with a call) that is dismissed by players was adopted by Pluribus much more often than played by humans, and is proven to be profitable.

Discussion and Critiques

Pluribus' Blueprint strategy and Abstraction methods effectively reduces the computational power required. Hence it was computed in 8 days and required less than 512 GB of memory, and costs about $144 to produce. This is in sharp contrast to all the other recent superhuman AI milestones for games. This is a great way the researchers have condensed down the problem to fit the current computational powers.

Pluribus definitely shows that we can capture observational data and empirical results to construct a superhuman AI without requiring theoretical guarantees, this can be a baseline for future AI inventions and help in the research of AI. It would be interesting to use Pluribus's way of using non-theoretical approach in more real life problems such as autonomous driving or stock market trading.

Extending this idea beyond two player zero sum games will have many applications in real life.

The summary for Superhuman AI for Multiplayer Poker is very well written, with a detailed explanation of the concept, steps, and result and with a combination of visual images. However, it seems that the experiment of the study is not well designed. For example: sample selection is not strict and well defined, this could cause selection bias introduced into the result and thus making it not generalizable.

Superhuman AI, while sounding superior, is actually not uncommon. There has been many endeavours on mastering poker such as the Recursive Belief-based Learning (ReBeL) by Facebook Research. They pursued a method of reinforcement learning on partially observable Markov decision process which was inspired by the recent successes of AlphaZero. For Pluribus to demonstrate how effective it is compared to the state-of-the-art, it should run some experiments against ReBeL.

This is a very interesting topic, and this summary is clear enough for readers to understand. I think this application not only can apply in poker, maybe thinking more applications in other area? There are many famous AI that really changing our life. For example, AlphaGo and AlphaStar, which are developed by Google DeepMind, defeated professional gamers. Discussing more this will be interesting.


As Pluribus’s strategy was not developed with any human data and was trained by self-play only, it is an unbiased and different perspective on how optimal play can be attained. Developing a superhuman AI for multiplayer poker was a widely recognized milestone in this area and the major remaining milestone in computer poker. Pluribus’s success shows that despite the lack of known strong theoretical guarantees on performance in multiplayer games, there are large-scale, complex multiplayer imperfect information settings in which a carefully constructed self-play-with-search algorithm can produce superhuman strategies.


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Brown, N., Bakhtin, A., Lerer, A., & Gong, Q. (2020). Combining deep reinforcement learning and search for imperfect-information games. Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems, 33.