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PAULíS POINTERS: CRACKING ACES: WHY THE MYSTERY?

by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man. Some of his interests, skill sets, and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. Heís an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned last month, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

In blackjack, an Ace counts one or eleven. Itís the best starting card you can get in your hand. Aside from being the cornerstone of a blackjack, it provides a large degree of flexibility for the player depending on the dealerís up-card. In the past month Iíve probably seen more combined gross errors in live table play involving Aces than in my entire playing career. So this month weíre going to discuss playing hands involving an Ace. Some decisions should be obvious; some maybe not as much. Without further ado, letís get crackiní.

Ace-Ace: Always Split

Our first topic is one you probably know Ė splitting Aces. If you are dealt a pair of Aces, split them immediately. By splitting Aces, you have two hands of 11 with a chance to draw a 10-count card to make 21. When the dealer gives you the face card or 10, remember itís not a blackjack; but it is 21. Thatís pretty sweet; especially if you do it twice. Drawing a nine or even an eight isnít all bad either.

If you are dealt a third Ace, and then a fourth; split them too if itís allowed on your table. All other things being equal, try to play games that allow you to re-split Aces up to four hands. Most casinos allow you to re-split Aces on six- or eight-deck games; it varies on double-deck games. Unfortunately, most Las Vegas casinos donít allow the re-splits of Aces on their double-deck games, but there are still a few that do. You arenít going to see four of eight aces come out very often, but play enough and you will on rare occasion. The freedom to re-split Aces decreases the house edge by 0.05%. Not much, but it helps.

While waiting to buy-in at a double-deck game in a local casino recently, I saw a woman fail to split her pair of Aces. Not that it matters, but the dealerís up-card was an eight. The player drew an 8 to make 20 and won the hand when the dealer turned over a 9 in the hole for a 17. She was last to act on the table and I noticed the next card out to begin the next round was a face card. Although she won the hand, had she split, her two hands would have equaled 19 and 21. Many, many years ago, when I had first started to play blackjack I saw a man fail to split Aces. He was promptly dealt two face cards and busted with 22 instead of having a pair of 21ís. Even though I was a relatively new player I remember thinking, "He deserved that for misplaying that hand." These are just two examples made with the benefit of hindsight, but splitting Aces, and re-splitting when able, will make you money in the long-run. In the short-run, anything can happen.

Ace-6 Is Not 17

This hand is one I see misplayed frequently. Many players realize that you should stand on 17, but often fail to correlate that Ace-6 is not really 17. Think about when you have a hand totaling 17. How many ways can you win that hand? Only one; the dealerís total has to exceed 21. They have to bust or break. Other than a dealer bust, you might get a push and get to keep your bet. Play this hand as seven and draw at least once to improve your hand. Four, three, two, or another Ace improves you hand. Thatís four of every 13 cards (almost 31%) in a deck that can improve your hand. Also, drawing a ten, Jack, Queen, and King will give you whatís known as a "hard 17" and now you should stand. Thatís close to another 31% of the cards allowing you to make 17. Failing to draw any of the eight cards mentioned above, you can now draw a fourth card to try to improve your hand. Only on the fourth or subsequent card, do you even have a chance of busting your hand and going over 21. Ace-6 and most "soft" combinations (hands with an Ace in them where the Ace counts one) allow for a "free" hit. What I mean by this and the numbers above is that you canít bust by hitting Ace-6.

Palace Station, a localsí casino in Las Vegas, offers a side bet that pays 10:1 if the player and dealer push a particular hand. I hate side bets and this one in particular. I see players stand on Ace-6 against a dealer 7 up-card all the time on this game. I understand the logic and maybe this is an exception when 7ís really do equal 17. However, unless you are counting and know the remaining deck is rich with 10-count cards when the hand is dealt, itís still probably not your best play. In this example you are betting the dealer has a ten in the hole, just like taking insurance when an Ace is showing. By now it should be obvious (if it wasnít already), donít tuck your Ace-6 against a dealer face card! I have seen this numerous times of late. Play your Ace-6 as a seven and give yourself a chance.

Ace-7 versus Dealer 10 Or 9

Do you know the total of the average winning hand in blackjack? Itís important to realize when confronted with the above situation. Basic strategy tells us to hit our Ace-7 (8 or 18) versus a dealer up-card total of 10 or 9. Why? Youíve already got 18. If youíre supposed to stand on hard 17, then isnít an 18 even better? The answer is tied to the question above. The average winning hand in blackjack is 18.3. I played at a casino a few years back that offered a side bet guarantying the player an 18. This was an independent bet, but if the dealer busted or made 17, it was a winner. If the dealer made a 19, 20, or 21, it was a loser. Iíve only seen this in that particular casino, but by offering it at all, itís pretty much telling the player that 18ís arenít enough in the long-term.

Iíll admit, hitting soft 18 against a 9 is one of my least favorite plays, but I do it. Iím more comfortable hitting soft 18 against the ten-count up-card even though the thinking is generally the same. Basically the thought process is that over time, standing on Ace-7 for a total of 18 is going to get you beat more often than not by dealer 20s and 19s. Itís important to realize that by hitting this hand, you arenít going to improve it very often with the third card. Only 3, 2, or another Ace (3 of 13 or about 23% of the cards in a deck) will improve your hand immediately. Be prepared to draw that fourth card and realize itís not the end of the world when you have less than 18 after your third card. This is an example of an Ace giving the player options. Use them and hit that soft 18 against the dealers faces, tens, and nines. For the record, I rarely see anyone hit this hand against ten-count up-cards. Besides myself, I can probably count the number of times Iíve seen it hit against a dealer nine on one hand. Itís not easy, but itís the correct play over the long-term when playing basic strategy.

Soft Hands Versus Dealer Bust Card Ė Donít Be Afraid To Double-Down!

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