Aces Guide to Gambling

Blackjack Strategy & Rules :

Splitting pairs can improve odds--sometimes

About The Author

John Grochowski is the author of four gaming books including The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Casino Answer Book.

Grochowski was recently named by Casino Player magazine as one of the 100 best gaming authors of the 20th century.

He also runs a gaming column in the Detroit News and the Chicago Sun-Times, which examines issues ranging from blackjack and video poker strategy to casino etiquette.

BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI

Several years ago, on a crowded Saturday afternoon at Harrah's Joliet, I managed to find a seat at a $10 blackjack table.

There was still an hour before I could leave in those days of cruise requirements, and the only other open seats I could see were at high-limit games outside my budget. Before long, others looking for a place to play were two deep behind me.

Nothing outside an extended run of 16s was going to make me give up my seat.

A friend who'd lost a little money on a slot machine decided to pass time by watching me play. Just as he arrived, I was dealt a pair of 8s. The dealer turned up a Queen.

My friend gave a low whistle. "What do you do with that?" he asked.

I did what basic strategy says we should always do with a pair of 8s. I split 'em by putting up a second bet equal to the first. Each 8 then was used to start a separate hand.

Did it work?

Nope. I drew a 10-value card on each 8 for two 18s that both lost when the dealer turned up another 10 for a 20 total.

"I'll bet you're sorry you split them," my friend said. "You turned one losing hand into two."

That I did, but I'd make the same play again. In fact, I do, every time I'm dealt a pair of 8s.

Splitting 8s, you see, is sometimes an offensive measure, and sometimes pure defense. When the dealer shows a 10, we split the 8s not because we expect to win. We split because in the long run we lose less money. We accept some double losses along the way because we know an 8 is a stronger starting point than a 16. We'll still lose more often than we win, but we'll win often enough to cut our overall losses on the hand.

Other times, we split 8s as a money-making opportunity. When the dealer shows a 6, we turn a losing situation into a winner by splitting 8s. If we stand on 16, we lose the 58 percent of hands that a dealer starting with 6 makes 17 or better. If we hit instead, we lose the 62 percent of time we bust when starting with 16. By splitting the 8s, we create two hands that win more often than they lose, giving us a chance at profit.

There are four hands that are absolutes: We always split Aces and 8s, and we never split 5s or 10s.

Basic strategy for other pairs depends on the dealer's up card, as well as on house rules.

Some casinos allow players to double down after splitting pairs, and that makes a difference.

If we split a pair of 4s and are dealt a 7 to make one hand a two-card 11, we want the option to double down.

If we have that option, we split the pair. If not, we just play the hand as an 8.

Offense and defense, dealer's up card and house rules all are taken into account in these basic strategy rules for splitting pairs in a multiple-deck game:

* Pair of 2s or pair of 3s: If we can double after splits, we split 2s or 3s whenever the dealer's up card is a 2 through 7. If doubling after splits is not permitted, we skip splitting against 2s or 3s. Then we split only when the dealer shows 4, 5, 6 or 7.

* Pair of 4s: If we can't double after splitting the pair, it's not worth splitting 4s. But if doubling after splits is permitted, we have an opportunity to maximize profits when the dealer shows a 5 or 6. That's when we split.

* Pair of 5s: Never split.

* Pair of 6s: Split against 3, 4, 5 or 6 in any game, and split against 2 if permitted to double after splits.

* Pair of 7s: Split whenever the dealer shows a 2 through 7. Splitting against a 7 sometimes is a stumbling block for players who fear creating two losing hands, but we're far better off starting 7 against a 7 than 14 against a 7.

* Pair of 8s: Always split.

* Pair of 9s: This is the trickiest pair-splitting hand. Split when the dealer shows 2 through 6, as well as when the dealer's up card is 8 or 9. Stand when the dealer shows a 7, 10 or Ace.

* Pair of 10s: Never split.

* Pair of Aces: Always split.

Note that allowing players to double after splits is a rule that works in players' favor. Players should be on the watch for favorable rules, and be wary of rules that increase the house advantage.

We'll check some of those out here.

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