by Henry Tamburin
One of the more frustrating hands in blackjack is being dealt a 12 when the dealer shows a 2 upcard. You hate to hit your 12 because you are afraid the dealer is going to give you a picture card and you’ll bust. There’s a lot of misconception on what’s the correct way to play this hand and I aim to sort it all out so it will no longer be a “dilemma” for you.
First off, let’s look at some facts about this hand.
- Many players don’t hit 12 because they believe the dealer has a ten in the hole and, therefore, they won’t risk busting when the dealer has a weak upcard. However, when you hold a 12, only four cards will bust you … any 10, Jack, Queen, and King, meaning you have a 65% chance of surviving a hit. Five cards … any 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 … will give you a 17 through 21 hand.
- With a 2 upcard, the dealer has a 35% chance of busting and 65% chance of making a 17 though 21.
- If you stand, you’ll win 35% of the time and lose 65% of the time.
- If you hit, you’ll win 37% of the time and lose 63% of the time.
So what does all of the above mean? First, when the dealer has a 2 upcard, she’s not as venerable to busting as she would with, say, a 4, 5, or 6 upcard. Secondly, your chance of busting isn’t as great as you think. Therefore, it appears that hitting the 12 would be the better play than standing and this is corroborated by facts # 3 and #4. Let’s look at this in a little more detail.
Fact # 3 says you will win 35% of the time standing on 12 against a dealer 2 and lose 65% of the time. This means if you bet a dollar a hand, you would be down $30 after 100 hands on average. That certainly isn’t a good outcome but that’s a fact: standing on 12 when the dealer shows a 2 is not a profitable play and you will lose more money than you win in the long run. However, let’s look at the second option, namely hitting 12. Fact #4 says you will win 2% more times compared to standing. In dollars and cents, this means you will lose $26 after 100 hands on average. That’s also a loser but here’s the question you must ask yourself: is it better to lose $26 or $30? I hope that I’ve convinced you that even though hitting 12 against a 2 is a loser, you will lose less money in the long run compared to standing. In other word, this is classic hand where the best playing option allows you to minimize your losses.
What if your 12 consists of a pair of 6s? Now you’ve got another option and that’s to split the 6s and play two hands against the dealer’s 2 upcard. It turns out that when you split and play a 6 against a dealer 2, you will win roughly 43% of the time. In other words, you’ve increased your chances of winning when you split the 6’s against a dealer 2 compared to hitting. To say it differently, starting with a 6 is a whole lot better than starting with a 12 when you are facing a dealer’s 2 upcard. Therefore, the correct strategy is to always split a pair of 6s against a dealer 2 upcard (with one exception: if you’re playing a four-, six-, or eight-deck game where you can’t double down after pair splitting, you should hit 6’s against a 2).
You could also be dealt a soft 12, which happens to be Ace-Ace. This hand should be a no brainer. You should always split a pair of aces regardless of what the dealer’s upcard is.
Is there ever a situation when you wouldn’t hit a non-pair 12 hand against a dealer’s 2? Actually two cases come to mind. The first is when the remaining cards contain an abundance of high-value vs. small-value cards (thus increasing your chance of busting if you hit 12). In fact, card counters will sometimes stand on 12 whenever their count gets moderately positive (indicating more high cards than small cards remain in the unplayed deck of cards). So, the next time you see a fellow player standing on 12 against a dealer 2, think twice about calling him a nerd because he might just be a skilled card counter making the correct play.
The second situation which justifies deviating from hitting 12 against a dealer 2 comes about in tournament play. If the tournament rules specify that the double-down card is dealt face down, instead of hitting your 12 you could double down for just one chip (i.e., doubling for less). This move, although it involves some risk of busting, allows you to disguise the outcome of your hand from your opponents who must play their hands after you. This is a powerful strategy especially when it’s used on the last few hands of a closely contested tournament.
So now you know how to play a 12 against a dealer’s 2 under all types of situations; therefore, this hand should no longer be a dilemma for you, right?