Aces Guide to Gambling

Blackjack Strategy & Rules :

Basic soft-hand strategy does wonders for game

About The Author

John Grochowski is the author of four gaming books including The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Casino Answer Book.

Grochowski was recently named by Casino Player magazine as one of the 100 best gaming authors of the 20th century.

He also runs a gaming column in the Detroit News and the Chicago Sun-Times, which examines issues ranging from blackjack and video poker strategy to casino etiquette.

BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI

A few weeks ago, I was playing blackjack at a table with another player whose basic strategy seemed rock solid--as long as the totals were hard.

Given a 16, he'd stand whenever the dealer's face-up card was a 2 through 6, and hit when the dealer showed a 7 or higher. He split all the right pairs and doubled down in all the right situations. He even had the exceptions for 12s down pat, hitting 12 when the dealer showed a 2 or 3 as well as when the dealer had a 7 or above.

Put an ace in the hand, however, and he was lost.

He stood on ace-5 against a dealer's 6. He stood on ace-3 against a 2. He stood on ace-6 against anything.

I kept quiet as long as I could, but I finally had to ask why.

"You're supposed to stand on 17s," he said. "You're supposed to stand on 16 when the dealer has a 6 or lower."

Not when your hand is soft, I told him.

"That's not what I was told," he said, and I let him go his way.

The most misplayed hands in blackjack are soft hands--hands in which aces are being counted as 11s. They wouldn't be misplayed quite so often if players would keep in mind two basic facts:

1. You can't bust a soft hand with a one-card hit. If you have a soft 16, such as ace-2-3, and draw a 10, all you do is make it a hard 16, with the ace used as a 1.

2. Hands of 17 and lower do not win unless the dealer busts.

If you have a hand that can't win unless the dealer busts, and you can't bust your own hand with a one-card hit, is there any reason to stand?

No, there's not.

That's not to say we never stand on soft hands. We stand on soft 19, 20 or 21, and we sometimes stand on soft 18.

But on soft 17 or lower, the decision is whether to hit or double down our first two cards, not whether to hit or stand. (We are permitted to double down only on the first two cards; with hands of three or more cards, we always hit soft 13 through 17.)

When the dealer's up card is a 7 or higher, that's all pretty easy. We hit soft 13, 14, 15, 16 or 17.

It's also easy when the dealer shows a 5 or 6. Then we always double down on our two-card soft 13s through 17.

It gets a little trickier when the dealer's up card is a 3 or 4. If it's a 4, we also double our soft 15s, 16s and 17s. If the dealer shows a 3, we double on soft 17.

The trickiest situation of all is soft 18. Most players will stand, figuring 18 is a good hand. Unfortunately, it's not a winner in the long run if the dealer's up card is a 9 or higher. We hit soft 18 if the dealer's up card is a 9, 10-value or ace.

We stand on soft 18 if the dealer's face-up card is a 2, 7 or 8. But if the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6, we have an edge and we double down.

Uninformed players who ignore the dealer's up card are up against it with soft 18. The most advantageous play can be any of three options, depending on what the dealer shows us.

Let's summarize basic strategy for soft hands in a multiple-deck game:

* Always stand on soft 19, 20 or 21.

* With soft 18, hit if the dealer's face up card is a 9, 10-value card or ace. Stand if the dealer shows a 2, 7 or 8. If your soft 18 consists of two cards, double down if the dealer shows a 4, 5 or 6. If your soft 18 is three or more cards, just hit against 4, 5 or 6.

* If a soft 13 through 17 consists of three or more cards, always hit, regardless of the dealer's up card.

* With a soft 17 consisting of two cards, hit if the dealer shows a 2, or a 7 or higher. Double down if the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6.

* With a soft 15 or 16 consisting of two cards, hit if the dealer shows a 2, 3 or a 7 or higher. Double down if the dealer shows a 4, 5 or 6.

* With a soft 13 or 14 consisting of two cards, hit if the dealer shows a 2, 3, 4 or a 7 or higher. Double down if the dealer shows a 5 or 6.

When I give seminars, at this point there is almost always one question:

"You haven't mentioned soft 12. What do you do with that?"

There's only one combination that gives the player a soft total of 12, and that's two aces, with one read as an 11 and the other as a 1.

A pair of aces falls outside the scope of our basic strategy for soft hands. Instead, we turn to basic strategy for splitting pairs.

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