Aces and eights in blackjack have a special place in basic blackjack strategy, but these cards are also legendary in all card games. There is a certain mystique about pairs of aces and eights. In poker, holding a black pair of each of them is even known as the “Dead Man’s Hand” because this is the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot and killed.
Our discussion is about blackjack, and how aces and eights should be played when paired at the blackjack table. There is a long-held belief about these cards regarding basic strategy, but when it comes to making the correct decision in live blackjack play nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Basic Strategy For Aces And Eights
In blackjack basic strategy, the rules for playing a pair of aces or eights is simple and straightforward. Basic strategy states that you should always split these pairs. There is a prevailing reason for splitting each of them.
A pair of aces should always be split because the total of these two cards is 12, a very bad total for the blackjack player. The more important reason, however, is that when you split aces there is a better than average chance that you will receive a ten-valued card on one or both of them. This gives you a total of 21, an unbeatable hand in blackjack. This fact alone makes splitting aces a worthwhile proposition most of the time.
There are a few things you need to know about splitting aces. In most casinos, split aces only receive one additional card. This means that after you split them into two separate hands, you cannot act further to improve the resulting hands. You also won’t be allowed to split the aces a second time if another one falls after the initial split.
A pair of eights should also be split each time you get them according to basic strategy. This is good advice because a pair of eights equals 16—the worst total a player can have at the blackjack table. Whenever you split a pair of eights each eight receives a new card and becomes a separate hand. You can then act on that hand according to the rules of blackjack by hitting, standing, or doubling down. You can even split the eights a second or third time.
This is how aces and eights are handled at the blackjack table according to basic strategy. It is one of the easiest rules to remember at the blackjack table. Always split aces and eights.
Well, not so fast. The true professionals of blackjack know that every rule has an exception. If you want to improve your blackjack game you need to know when to break the rules.
When You Shouldn’t Split Aces
There are times at the blackjack table when splitting a pair of aces is not in your best interests, and the only way you will ever know that time is by learning how to count cards. In addition, you should be using a counting method which keeps a side count of the aces in play.
Whenever the deck is favorable to you the count will be very high–+4, +5, +6 or more. If you find yourself in this situation, splitting aces is almost always a good decision. When the count is high this means that the deck has more ten-value cards left in it than low cards. This increases the chances that you will receive a ten on each ace and make a total of 21.
If the count has reached a negative number such as -1, -2, -3, you need to pause for a moment before you automatically split those aces. A count in the negative range suggests that the deck is favorable to the house. There are more low cards remaining in the deck than ten-value cards and this can be a nightmare for the player, especially if the dealer shows a ten. Let’s look at an example.
With a running count of -4 you are dealt a pair of aces. The dealer shows a ten. You split the aces and receive a 4 on one of them and a 6 on the other. You now hold two separate hands with totals of 15 and 17. Remember, you cannot act further on split aces. Therefore, you are now trying to beat the dealer’s ten with totals of 15 and 17. You are in big trouble.
As you are playing blackjack one must always assume that the dealer has a ten in the hole. In this case that gives him a total of 20 and your money just got applied to the casino’s electric bill. But what if he doesn’t have a ten in the hole? What if he has a 5 or a 6? Well, you are still in trouble because the running count is negative. This increases the chance that the dealer will “draw out” on you, meaning that he could receive two small cards in a row to make a total greater than yours.
When the count is negative and the dealer shows a power card—8, 9, or 10—do not split your aces. Hit them instead. Because you have what is known as a “soft” hand there is no card in the deck which can bust you. You can only improve the hand.
The point here is that sometimes splitting aces can turn one losing hand into two losing hands. If you do that very often, you’ll be out of the game.
When You Shouldn’t Split Eights
There are a couple of scenarios when splitting eights is not in your best interests. When the count is highly positive and the dealer shows a 9 or a 10, either hit your eights or surrender the hand.
Why? The reason is the same as the one we mentioned for aces. If you split a pair of eights against the dealer’s 9 or ten when the deck is positive, the chances are good that you will receive a ten on each eight. This gives you two 18-value hands. Unfortunately, the dealer also has a very good chance of having a 10 in the hole which will give him either a 19 or a 20. You lose both hands. You’ve now taken one losing hand and turned it into two.
Many blackjack players have a hard time executing the surrender option at the blackjack table, especially when it comes to a pair of eights. You must remember that a pair of eights is still a 16. That is the worst hand you can have at blackjack. Don’t make matters worse by splitting your eights into the teeth of a monster hand by the dealer. It is far better to surrender half of your bet and live to fight another day.
Opportunities With Aces And Eights
It should be said that, despite the warnings we have given above, splitting aces and eights is most often the correct decision. When you split them at the correct time, your opportunities for profit at blackjack will skyrocket. Here’s a hand from our own blackjack playing experience.
With the deck in a negative range we were dealt a pair of eights in a multiple-deck game. The dealer showed a 6. In this situation, splitting the eights is always the preferred play. We split our hand and, wonder of wonders, received another eight on each hand. According to the rules of the casino we split them again. Hand 1 received a 10 for a total of 18. We chose to stand. Hand 2 received a 3 for an 11 and we doubled down, receiving a 10! Hand 3 received another 10 and we chose to stand on 18. Hand 4 was dealt a 2 for a total of 10. We doubled again and received one card, a 3, for a total of 13.
The dealer turned over their hole card and revealed a 10 and was forced to hit the total of 16. Another six came next, busting the dealer with a total of 22. We won all four hands.
While this actually happened in one of our playing sessions, we realize a situation like this is very rare. Even so, these situations with aces and eights do happen. When they do you need to be armed with the information necessary to capitalize.
Successfully playing aces and eights demands that you understand basic strategy. It also demands that you know how to count cards. You also need to maintain a side-count of the aces so that you will know how many of them remain in play. Learning these skills takes time and practice. You cannot master them in one or two hours of practice time.
You must practice counting and basic strategy until you can react instinctively. This is particularly true where aces and eights are concerned. In live blackjack play you will be called upon to make decisions quickly. You must evaluate whether splitting those aces and eights is in your favor.
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