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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Splitting Eights Against A Ten: A Close Decision

24 September 1996

Always split pairs of eights. It's a towering tenet of blackjack belief. But, when the dealer's upcard is 10-valued, players aplenty are puzzled whether this rule is really right.

Some solid citizens simply won't make the second bet to play the eights as separate hands. A few surrender if the option is offered. Others hit the 16. Endangered species stand.

Why the resistance? Many blackjack buffs, while acknowledging "the book says 'split,'" worry whether that venerable volume is valid. I often hear remarks such as "Sure, 16's a stiff. But eight's weak against 10, too, so there's no sense losing twice instead of once." Bettors also frequently make comments like, "One benefit of splitting is the chance to double down if you pull good second cards. With a dealer 10-up, the only candidates are threes. Even then, 11 isn't that strong against 10."

Splitting is the most statistically auspicious action. A pair of eights is a decided underdog against a 10 and presents an expected loss no matter how it's handled. However, the projected penalty is least ponderous for splitting and gets progressively heavier by surrendering, hitting, and standing.

Why do many folks, otherwise faithful followers of blackjack basic strategy, falter on this hand? Here are four reasons.

First, one way or another, the hand goes down more often than it prevails. Standing, the least favorable option, loses almost 79 times for every 21 wins. Splitting, the most advantageous choice, loses 57 times for every 30 wins. Players therefore tend to remember defeat, regardless of the tactics, and doubt the wisdom of wagering - and losing - more.

Second, differences in expected cost from worst to best choice are relatively small. For every dollar bet, the theoretical loss per hand by standing is about $0.58. By splitting, the loss only shrinks to about $0.54. As bets get big and sessions stretch, the predicted $0.04 per dollar saved by proper play can add up. But, it's only a small fraction of the bet on each hand.

Third, the additional money wagered when pairs are split raises volatility. Bankroll fluctuation on a hand increases from $0.97 per dollar bet for hits to $1.52 per dollar bet for splits - more if doubling is considered. The volatility works both ways. Still, losing reinforces the negative perception of splits as poor choices and winning emphasizes the value of "getting lucky."

Finally, players are typically more sensitive to losing than winning any given amount, mainly because their bankrolls are more limited than their aspirations. The penalty of dropping two units is perceived as having greater impact than the reward of gaining the same amount. Further, losing two units is subjectively over twice as bad as losing one unit.

What's best? No one ready reply pleases all punters.

Your expectation is greatest when you split then, if you can, resplit and/or double down. But, maybe your bankroll is vulnerable to a multi-unit loss. Or you prefer a more certain half- or one-unit drop to risking a loss of two bets for a better chance at a push or a gain. Or you doubt the laws of probability that govern the entire known universe. Accordingly, consider:
o Splitting if you want the best edge.
o Surrendering if you'd rather not split; this sacrifices the least and subjects your bankroll to the lowest fluctuations.
o Hitting if you can't surrender, or won't use this alternative because you don't understand its strategic value.
o Standing, if you want to get a high rating because you play poorly and give the house exceptional profit potential.

Whatever you conclude, when confronting stiffs, recall the cogent couplet composed by Sumner A Ingmark for just such quandaries:

No gambling session's so deplorable,
You've ne'er encountered one more horrible.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.