The Ten-in-the-Hole Strategy

One acutely foolish strategy is to play your hand as if the dealer’s hole card is always a ten-value card. Proponents of this strategy claim it’s essentially the same as basic strategy, only there’s no need to memorize “all those confusing” diagrams. This is plainly untrue, and the price of laziness is high.

At first blush, these two approaches may seem similar. If you look at the leftmost columns of the basic strategy table, it’s fairly evident that you are advised to stand when the dealer is likely to have a bust hand—with a two through a six showing and, presumably, a ten in the hole. Likewise, when you look at the row for ten and eleven, it also seems to indicate that you’re being led to double based on the same assumption. If you overlook the few instances in which basic strategy advises you to hit against a low upcard (such as hitting twelve against a deuce), it would seem that the two strategies are virtually identical.

The difference is evident on the left side of the table: if you assume that the dealer has a ten in the hole, this would lead to the conclusion that you should hit a hard eighteen against a dealer’s nine becuase, assuming that the holecard is a ten, you need a twenty or twenty-one to win. Effectively, this advice leads you to face the slim chance that you will be able to draw a two or a three to beat the dealer’s hand. Even before you consider the probabilities, the foolishness of this advice should be self-evident.

Hitting hard eighteen is never a smart move: there are only three out of thirteen cards that won’t bust your hand. You immediately face a 76.92% chance of losing. If you follow the advice one step further and hit again should you draw an ace, your chances of busting increase to 84.61%—and since the dealer’s hole card may be an ace instead of a ten, your chances of winning are even slimmer.

Since there are only four ten-value cards in the deck, the “ten in the hole” gimmick is only about 30% accurate. The dealer’s hole card can be of any value—there’s an equal chance that it could be a three, four, five, six, or seven as any ten-value card, making the dealer more likely to hold a bust hand than a pat 19.

To be more precise, when the dealer’s upcard is a nine, there’s a 22.84% chance the dealer will bust, a 12% chance he will arrive at only 17, 12% at 18, 35.08% at nineteen, 12% at 20, and 6.08% at 21. This means that the ten-in-the-hole strategy compels a player to face a 92.3% chance of losing when, in reality, he would have only a 53.16% chance of losing by standing pat.

Those who stubbornly continue to propone ten-in-the-hole insist it remains as good as basic strategy if you stop hitting when you’ve achieved a total of 17-21 regardless of what you assume you’re facing. In effect, this means that you use the ten-in-the-hole assumption when the dealer’s upcard is a two through  six and play according to house rules (the shortcomings of which are discussed separately) when the dealer is showing a seven through an ace.

If you consider only hard hands, a player who assumes the dealer has a ten in the hole when he has a low upcard and plays by house rules when the dealer has a high upcard will make the same decision, hit or stand, as a strategy player. In fact, the only differences are the situations in which the strategic player will hit a twelve against a deuce or a three and the ten-in-the-hole player, having no specific advice, must rely on gut instinct when it comes to surrendering or doubling his wager. And so, there would seem to be only a few situations in which a modified ten-in-the-hole approach differs from basic strategy.

However, the gulf between the two approaches widens considerably when it comes to pair splitting and playing soft hands, for which the ten-in-the-hole player has absolutely no guidance. In these situations, a player without knowledge of the correct moves in specific circumstances will play pairs and soft hands as if they were hard totals (which will cause him to lose more), miss many opportunities to double (which will cause him to win less), or rely on “gut instinct” (the foolishness of which is self-evident).

In the end, the ten-in-the-hole approach will produce slightly better results than playing by gut instinct or following the house rules, but it simply doesn’t measure up to basic strategy. A player that takes this approach will lose more and win less, and these losses will mount over the long run. In order to live up to the claim as being “just as good,” as basic strategy an approach must be mathematically proven to produce the same results in all situations—and the ten-in-the-hole approach simply isn’t.