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PAULíS POINTERS: SPLITTING ACES AND EIGHTS

by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests 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 in the November issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

If youíve sat around a blackjack table for any appreciable length of time, youíve no doubt heard someone utter the age-old axiom, "you always split Aces and Eights." Do you always follow that advice? Should you? This month weíre going to take a closer look and see why splitting Aces and Eights is the way to go.

Pair Splitting: An Overview

For every pair you are dealt on your first two cards, you have the option to stand, hit, double-down (hopefully), or split the pair into two hands. Granted this should be obvious, but a closer look at basic strategy reminds us that for almost any combination of pairs, any of the above options is the right play depending on the two cards you are dealt and the dealerís up-card. Some pair decisions stand alone. For example, you should never split a pair of fives; double-down or take a hit. Never split tens or ten-count cards (Jacks, Queens, and Kings). Take your 20 and youíll beat the dealer many more times than not. This leads us to this monthís subject. Basic strategy tells us to always split Aces and Eights. However, many people fail to do so, primarily the Eights. Weíll look at each of those playing situations in subsequent sections below.

What is the purpose of splitting a pair? You should have a clear objective and understand why you are making that playing decision. You should split a pair for one of three reasons. The first is to create a situation where you should mathematically win more over time by making that play. This is generally the situation when "attacking" a dealerís bust card (her upcard of 2-6). Another situation that is a bit more difficult to realize is the concept of losing less over time by splitting versus an alternative strategy decision. Finally, you should split a pair to turn a losing hand into a long-term winning hand.

Ace-Ace: Always Split

Whether you are a pro, frequent player, or first-time novice, most players understand the advantage of splitting Aces. If you are dealt a pair of Aces, split them immediately. Donít hesitate. By splitting Aces, you have two starting 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, it is 21 (i.e., you donít get paid a 3-2 payoff, only even money if you win). Still, getting 21 is pretty nice; especially if you do it twice. Drawing a Nine or even an Eight isnít all that bad either. Remember that when splitting Aces, youíre only allowed one additional draw card on each split ace.

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. Youíll see three of them much more frequently. Iím increasingly seeing more Las Vegas casinos not allowing Aces to be re-split on six-deck games. This is a travesty and those games should be avoided if at all possible. The freedom to re-split Aces decreases the house edge by 0.05%. Not much, but it does help. Youíll appreciate it when it happens to you.

The average winning hand in blackjack is 18.3. Six of every thirteen cards put you above that threshold with a total of 21, 20, or 19. Drawing a seven to make 18 isnít the end of the world either. Plus, the dealer still has to play their hand. Iíve won on both split Aces many times with combos like A-2, A-5. Anything can happen in the short-term, but remember, always splitting Aces, no matter the dealerís up-card, is the correct long-term play. Iíve seen people get scared off by the dealerís ten-count card and not split their Aces; no doubt fearing the dealer has a 20. By failing to split, you have a 2 or 12. Can you think of anything worse when the next two cards are face cards and you bust instead of winning twice? Iíve been on a table and seen it happen. Donít be that player. Always split Aces!

Eight-Eight: Always Split

Splitting a pair of Eights is a bit tougher to grasp for many players. I like to think of splitting Aces as on offensive play, while splitting Eights is a defensive play. Remember our reasons as to why you should split a hand? A pair of Eights together totals 16. Thatís a losing hand. By splitting, you can undue a losing hand and give yourself a chance to win one or both hands.

Most players understand they should split their Eights when they have the advantage; for example the dealer has a 2-7 showing. Most players also understand splitting Eights against the dealerís 8 with the idea that they may draw two face cards and earn two "pushes" against the dealerís anticipated total of 18. Pushes arenít glamorous, and I believe there are good pushes and bad pushes. In the example with the 18ís, youíve preserved some chips in your session bankroll by avoiding a loss. Thatís a smart play.

Things get a bit murky for many players when their pair of Eights is up against a Nine, Ten, or Ace. Many players will resign themselves to tucking this hand. When questioned, theyíll often reply, "I never hit 16." Others will take a hit and hope for the best. If queried, they generally remark, "At least Iíll only lose once."

I understand this thinking and believe me; you look and feel like an idiot when you split and lose your two Eights against the dealerís ten, which is a 20 with the hole card and you just drew a pair of face cards and are setting on two 18s. Iíve lost three Eights in that scenario before. It happens. Winning blackjack isnít for the faint of heart or those with a thin skin.

Remember, I said that splitting Eights is often a defensive play. Many times, Iím just hoping to "steal" one of the hands and get a net push when Iím the underdog against the higher-value dealer up-card. Eight isnít a great starting card, but it is something you can work with. All things being even, six of every thirteen possible cards (9, 10, J, Q, K, A) give you a "pat" hand (17 or greater). Thatís 46% of the possible cards in the deck helping you; certainly a nice step up from your 16. Also if you draw a smaller card, you can draw again. Remember that unlike Aces, you can draw as many cards as you like when splitting all other pairs. If youíre on a game that allows doubling down after splitting, a Deuce or Three can quickly turn your defensive hand into an offensive hand. Couple the chances of drawing a Deuce or Three with the six pat-hand draws and suddenly the odds of improving your hand with just one card balloon to 62%. Not bad!

Putting It All Together

Pair splitting can be confusing. Splitting Aces and Eights shouldnít be. Basic strategy tells us to always split these hands. What it doesnít tell us is why. Aces are pretty easy to comprehend. Youíre starting with an 11 and itís the best starting card you can have. Four out of every thirteen cards in a deck (31%) will give you 21! When it comes to Aces, think offense! You want to increase your chip count.

Splitting Eights is a much tougher sell. When it comes to Eights, think defense! Often you are just trying to get away from a losing 16 by splitting them. When up against a strong dealer up-card, winning one and losing one for a net push, isnít a bad thing. Often the hand can go your way, especially if youíre allowed to double-down after splits and draw a Two or Three. This can often give you a strong double-down opportunity.

"Always split Aces and Eights" is good advice and it is the correct plays according to the basic strategy of blackjack. I hope any confusion or trepidation you might have had, especially with Eights, has been cleared up. Sometimes youíll lose both Aces against a dealerís bust card. Other times, you may win both Eights against a dealerís face card. Thatís part of it in the short-term.

Remember basic strategy is about winning the most or losing the least in any given situation. As a player, itís important to stay in the game. By splitting Aces and Eights, youíll increase your chances of doing so in the long-term.

Until next time, when it comes to Aces and Eights, alt-rock band the Offspring got it right, "You gotta keep 'em separated!"

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