by John Grochowski
Not all blackjack 17s are created equal, nor are all 18s or 19s.
There’s a lesson blackjack newcomers and more experienced players just becoming serious about blackjack have to learn: Soft hands and hard hands are different, and when the hand is soft, 17, 18 and even 19 are not automatic standing hands.
Sometimes there’s an opportunity to improve a so-so hand without fear of busting. Sometimes we have an edge and a chance to double down.
Those aren’t options with hard 17s or higher. The chance of busting is too great.
Let’s break down the differences by the numbers. Assume a six-deck game in which dealers hit soft 17 — the most common set of rules in today’s casinos. When basic blackjack strategy calls for a double down, understand that if you can’t double, you should hit instead with soft 17 and stand on soft 18 or 19. That applies to hands of three cards or more as well as two-card hands where casinos restrict when you can double.
HARD 17 vs. SOFT 17
Imagine you have a hard 17 such as 10-7, 9-8, 4-3-5-5 or some other combination.
When is the right time to hit? Never.
Now imagine you have a soft 17 such as Ace-6, Ace-2-4, Ace-5-Ace or others.
When is the right time to stand? Never.
A basic strategy player will always stand on hard 17, but never stand on soft 17. Sometimes it’s best to hit, and sometimes it’s better to double down.
The key is that 17 is never a winning hand unless the dealer busts. It can push a dealer 17, but loses to all other dealer hands. The worst that can happen if you hit soft 17 is that you get another total that can only win if the dealer busts. You could lose the chance to push a dealer 17, but the chance of improving to a hand that could win without a dealer bust outweighs that risk.
Not so with hard 17, where the chance of busting is too high to take the chance.
Numbers vary slightly depending on the composition of our 17, but to illustrate, let’s assume Ace-6 for soft 17 and 10-7 for hard 17.
**Dealer card is 2. Basic strategy: Hit soft 17, stand on hard 17.
For the reasons mentioned above, 17 is not a winning hand. Stand on hard 17 against a 2, and you’ll average 15.7 cents in losses per dollar wagered. But if you hit, the losses soar to 53.8 cents. The chance of busting is a killer.
But with soft 17, you can’t bust with a one-card hit. Stand on Ace-6 and the average loss is 15.3 cents, but if you hit, those losses drop to 0.03 cents. You don’t gain an advantage so this is not a double down hand, but you drastically reduce losses if you hit.
**Dealer card is 3, 4, 5 or 6. Basic strategy: Double down on a two-card soft 17, hit a soft 17 of three or more cards, stand on hard 17.
On these soft hands, taking an extra card turns a house edge into a player edge. When we have the edge, we want to maximize profits, so we press home that edge and double down.
With hard 17, of course, we stand.
Ace-6 vs. 6: Stand, lose 0.5 cents per dollar. Hit, win 12.6. Double, win 25.2.
Ace-6 vs. 5: Stand, lose 3.8 cents. Hit, win 9.9. Double, win 19.7.
Ace-6 vs. 4: Stand, lose 7.6 cents. Hit, win 6.2. Double, win 12.4.
Ace-6 vs. 3: Stand, lose 11.6 cents. Hit, win 2.9. Double, win 5.7.
On hard 17, hitting increases losses no matter what the up card, from 0.9 to 51.5 cents vs. 6; 4.6 to 51.9 vs. 5; 8.1 to 53.0 vs. 4; and 12.0 to 53.4 vs. 3.
**Dealer card is 7 or higher. Basic strategy: Hit on soft 17, stand on hard 17.
With hard 17, you’re stuck. Losses when standing are 10.9 cents vs. 7; 38.4 vs. 8; 42.2 cents vs. 9; 41.8 cents vs. 10; and 51.4 cents vs. Ace. If you hit, you increase losses to 47.8 vs. 7; 50.1 vs. 8; 54.9 vs. 9; 58.0 vs. 10 and 57.9 vs. Ace.
Obviously, you stand.
But with Ace-6. you decrease losses by hitting. Stand, and the average losses are 10.4 cents vs. 7, 38.3 vs. 8, 42.1 vs. 9; 42-0 vs. 10 and 51.4 vs. Ace. Hit, and you actually turn an average profit of 5.5 cents vs. 7, and reduce losses to 7.2 cents vs. 8, 14.2 vs. 9, 19.6 vs. 10 and 22.1 vs. Ace.
Note that even though Ace-6 vs. 7 is profitable, it’s not worth doubling down and giving up multi-card hits. When doubling down, there’s an average loss of 0.9 cents per $1 of your original bet.
HARD 18 vs. SOFT 18
At hard 18, hitting brings even more frequent busts than with hard 17. Don’t even think about hits with 10-8, 9-6-3, 6-7-2-3 or any other hard 18.
With soft 17, it’s best to stand against a dealer’s 7 or 8.If the dealer has 6 or less, we double down. If the dealer has 9 or higher, we hit.
Some numbers, with wins and losses per $1 of your original bet: A “+” before the number indicates and average profit and a “-” an average loss.
Ace-7 vs. 2: Stand, +11.3; hit +6.0; double, +11.6.
Ace-7 vs. 3: Stand, +14.1; hit, +8.8; double, +17.5.
Ace-7 vs. 4: Stand, +17.1; hit, +12.2; double, +24.5
Ace-7 vs. 5: Stand, +19.8, hit, +15.1, double, +30.2
Ace-7 vs. 6: Stand, +22.3, hit, +17.8, double, +35.7
Ace-7 vs. 7: Stand, +40.1, hit, + 17.8, double, +22.4
Ace-7 vs. 8: Stand, +10.8, hit, +4.1, double, -2.8
Ace-7 vs. 9: Stand, -18.3, hit, -9.8, double, -24.5
Ace-7 vs. 10: Stand, -17.9, hit, -14.3, double, -34.3
Ace-7 vs. Ace: Stand, -22.5, hit, -16.0, double, -41.8.
When the dealer has an 2 through 6 up, we maximize profits by doubling. Against a 7 or 8, our most profitable play is to stand — we hurt ourselves by hitting or double. And against a 9 or higher, the house has an edge no matter what we do, but we trim losses by hitting.
HARD 19 VS. SOFT 19
This comes down to one hand. What’s the best play when the dealer has a 6 up?
Against all other cards, your best play is to stand regardless of whether your 19 is soft or hard.
You’ll stand on hard 19, of course. With 10-9 vs. 6, an average profit of 45.1 cents per dollar wagered when you stand crashes to a 72.3 cent loss should you be reckless enough to hit.
But with Ace-8 vs. 6, the average profit of 45.2 cents when you stand becomes an even bigger profit of 46.2 cents per dollar of your original wager when you double.
As always with blackjack strategies, these won’t work every time. The numbers given are average results. The important thing is to remember that 17, 18 and even 19 aren’t automatic standing hands in all situations. Don’t take a hard approach to soft hands.
John Grochowski has been covering casinos and casino games for nearly 40 years. He is the author of six books
and his work appears in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world.
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