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Player who refuses to split Aces fell into a trap

| Friday, April 5, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

The burly man who squeezed into the blackjack seat next to me made an announcement almost as soon as he traded a $100 bill for 20 red chips.

“Just so you know, I don't split Aces,” he declared to everyone at the table.

Anyone with even a smattering of blackjack knowledge understands that splitting Aces is one of nature's few absolutes. The sun always rises in the east, and you always split Aces. The anti-splitter explained that it just never works out for him, so he decided on a different approach, because he gets dealt Aces so often.

This could be interesting, I thought. It's not how most people would play an exciting hand, but it was his money at risk, not mine. Besides, how often could it happen? (I looked it up after I got home; in a six-deck shoe, a blackjack player gets Aces once in about every 188 hands, according to “Blackjack Attack” by revered gambling mathematician Don Schlesinger).

The anti-splitter was an Ace magnet. Within a few hands, he was dealt a pair, and, true to his word, he didn't split. Instead, he doubled down. That, he said, is how he plays Aces every time, regardless of the dealer's up-card.

He won that hand but lost the three or four other instances of that session. No doubt, he remembered the time he won his double-down, while the others got lumped in with his more-routine losses.

The anti-splitter erred on two levels. First, doubling on Aces is a horrible play that simply throws money away. Second, his dramatic deviation from basic strategy was based on nothing more than a selective memory of a few hands. It ignored the in-depth analyses of millions of hands that document the best play for any blackjack situation.

Let's examine the possibilities of how the hand can play out when you choose to double or split Aces.

When you double-down, you match your initial wager and receive one card. Your two Aces give you a starting hand of Soft 12, so only four cards — a Six, Seven, Eight or Nine — will result in a final total of Soft 18 or more. A 10-value card yields a total of 12; an Ace through Four will leave a total of Soft 13 through Soft 16. In other words, four of the 13 possible cards give you a decent hand of 18 or more; nine of the 13 possibilities leave you with a total that wins only if the dealer busts. Reminder: The dealer busts about 28 percent of the time.

When you split Aces, you match your initial wager and start with two hands, each worth 11. You receive only one card on each (although some casinos allow resplitting if the hit card is another Ace). When you split, a Seven through a face card — or seven of the 13 possibilities — will yield a total of 18 or better; with the other six possibilities, you win only if the dealer busts. Often, one of your split hands will win while the other loses, providing insurance against a double loss.

The bigger flaw in the anti-splitter's approach was basing his play on gut feelings, a trap that snares many players. More than likely, he decided “never again” after losing a couple of big bets when he split Aces. That's going to happen at times; knowing that doesn't lessen the sting, but it's something you have to accept.

Splitting Aces is one of the strongest plays in blackjack. It is among the few moves that have a positive expectation against any dealer up-card, according to The others include no-brainers such as standing on 19, 20 or 21 and properly doubling on 10 and 11.

Mathematicians have run computer simulations of millions of blackjack hands and studied the probability of every possible outcome to provide the basic strategy for playing the game. Memorizing basic strategy — and, more importantly, adhering to it through thick and thin — is the best way for most players to reduce the house advantage to the bare minimum and give themselves a chance to walk away with more money than they started with.

Following basic strategy, whether it's splitting Aces or hitting your 16 against a dealer's Eight, doesn't guarantee that you'll win any particular hand or that you'll show a profit every session. But when you stick to it, even when it didn't work out last time, you'll wind up better off than making up your own plays.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or

Bills aim to help W.Va. casinos

Two bills going through the West Virginia Legislature are designed to help the state's struggling casino industry.

The Associated Press reports that the Senate voted Thursday to lower the table-game fees paid by the four racetrack casinos, including Mountaineer and Wheeling Island. The one-year reduction would save the casinos $4 million, and the state would continue to subsidize slot-machine purchases. Wheeling Island officials said earlier that they might shut down table games if the $2.5 million annual fee were not lowered.

The Senate also authorized the state's sixth casino to be built in Franklin near the Virginia border.

Money trail

Slot players in Pennsylvania's 11 casinos posted their second highest monthly loss on record in March, the Gaming Control Board reports. The casino win last month was $229.3 million, down from the March 2012 record of $233.1 million.

Last year's total came when only 10 casinos were open the entire month; Valley Forge Casino Resort was open for one day and two test nights. For the casinos open throughout both months, the slot win was 3.9 percent lower this year. The state gets 55 percent of gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots are paid.

Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.93 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.93. Highest payout rate: 90.61 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest: 89.37 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia and Hollywood Penn National near Harrisburg.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:


Rivers; monthly slot revenue of $27.44 million, up from $26.7 million last year.


Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $21.58 million, down from $22.81 million last year.


Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $12.65 million, down from $15.04 million last year.

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