Splitting a Hand in Blackjack

Blackjack is a game that is all about action. The more action you get involved in the better your chances of taking down a big hand, and the more fun you will have at the table. Part of chasing that action is looking for opportunities where you can add to your original bet with some of the more tactical maneuvers available to you.

One of the most action-oriented plays you can make in blackjack is known as splitting. Splitting is only possible when you’ve been dealt two of the same card (e.g., a pair of threes or nines). When that happens, you are allowed to put down an extra bet, usually double your original wager, then have the cards are split off to form two separate hands.

Pair of Nines.

Pair of Nines.

Basic Splitting Rules

Depending on where you play, there will be some differences in the way certain rules are applied – some casinos, for example, won’t allow player to split tens or face cards – but there are some standard rules that generally apply across all venues.

The first is that, with only one exception, you are allowed to split continually as long as you keep getting the same card. So, if you were dealt two nines, split them, and then got another nine on top of one of them, you can split again, giving yourself three hands to play against the dealer. That can keep going until you run out of nines, although it rarely goes past three hands.

The one exception to that rule is if you are dealt a pair of aces. In that case, almost every venue you will ever play in requires that you can only take one card on top of each ace after you split, eliminating the hit or stay option entirely.

A pair of Aces.

In all other cases, once you split you then play each separate hand on its own. After you receive the first obligatory card on each of your original split cards, it is then up to you to decide whether to hit or stay versus the dealer’s hand based on strategic considerations.

Finally, in most venues, if you draw a potential double down hand – one where you have a total of nine, 10 or 11 or, if it’s allowed in the venue where you’re playing, when you have any hand that below 11 that you feel could beat the dealer’s with just one hit – after splitting you are allowed to pursue that double down. As you can see, the opportunity for action builds up very quickly with splitting.

Splitting Strategy – When to Split

Just because you can split doesn’t mean you should. There is only one instance where you will want to split every time you see it – when you are dealt two eights. Two eights give you 16, the worst starting hand in blackjack – and one to avoid at all costs, even if the dealer’s up card is worth ten.

A pair of Eights.

A pair of Eights.

In all other cases, you’re going to want to take into account what the dealer is showing, how aggressive you’re feeling at the time, how much money you want to risk on one hand and even how your luck is running at the moment. Let’s face it, luck plays an important role in blackjack, and your instincts can be important in any decision you make.

From a purely statistical standpoint, if you have the opportunity to split when the dealer is showing any of the three worst up cards they can have – a four, a five or a six – you should always take it, even if you’re splitting twos. In those instances, you are betting more on the belief that the dealer will bust than you are on making a good hand of your own. It’s a chance to press your bet and try to realize a large payoff on a single hand.

Occasionally people will decide to split tens or two of the same face card. Those people are usually either amateurs or self-styled professionals. Generally, splitting a 20 is not advisable. You already have the second best hand, and your odds of improving are mitigated by the chance it will lose value. It’s something you should only consider if the dealer has a very bad up card, you are feeling lucky and the venue in which you are playing allows it.

Splitting Strategy – When Not to Split

Again, your first consideration when contemplating splitting is to look at the dealer’s up card. If they are showing a card with a value of nine or 10, or an ace, you are probably going to want to avoid splitting, unless you have a pair of eights. Since basic blackjack strategy dictates that you assume every card you can’t see is worth 10, when the dealer’s up card is strong, you have to assume you will be drawing against a made hand.

A pair of Fives.

A pair of Fives.

As for numbered cards, the only situation you will want to rule out splitting in is if you’ve been dealt two fives. In that case you simply want to double down, since your 10 total is much more likely to turn into something strong than two separate hands that are building off of a five.

Splitting strategy – When to Carefully Consider Splitting

There are a few cases where the decision to split is a bit more up in the air. For instance, when a dealer is showing a two and you are sitting with something like a pair of fours. There is a temptation to want to press your luck, but you might be better off trying to turn those two fours into an 18.

Really, any situation where the dealer is showing a two or three can be a tricky one in which to make a splitting decision. The basic blackjack strategy of assuming unseen cards are worth 10 is still valid, but with such a low card, if the dealer’s down card isn’t a 10 their range of possible holdings is large and presents a strategic challenge.

Splitting small pairs is usually safer than splitting bigger pairs. Two twos afford you the opportunity to take multiple hits, opening up a wealth of possibilities.

On the other hand, two sixes or a pair of sevens versus a dealer’s up card of seven or eight can cause you to sit there chewing your fingernails trying to decide what to do.

When you come across those situations, it might be time to trust your intuition to a certain extent.

Are you running well? Is the dealer turning up a majority of good hands or bad hands? Do you feel comfortable laying out more money on that particular hand? Will your decision complicate things for someone else at the table who already has a lot of bets, splits or double downs out? Do you “feel” like the next card out is going to help your hand or bust you?

It may sound a bit mystical, but in gambling sometimes you have to rely on your gut instinct. Statistics, odds and “The Book” will only get you so far. You can rely on those things completely if you’d like, but if you’re going to beat the house you’ll probably have to use intuition at critical moments. It’s one of the reasons blackjack is so much fun.