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Blackjack Basic Strategy - Part 2

8 June 2004

It's been decades since I learned the basic rules of blackjack. I was about 11 or 12 when I was taught that Aces count as 1 or 11, faces count as 10, numbered cards count as their face value, if your total is more than 21 you lose, otherwise the hand closest to 21 wins.

I can pinpoint the day and place, if not the year. It was New Year's Day, in the house on the Northwest Side where my great-grandfather lived. The extended family gathered there at the dawning of each new year to catch up with one another, have dinner and watch the Rose Bowl on a tiny black-and-white TV.

A second cousin gathered some of the kids together and started dealing hands of blackjack. So before I was in my teens, I knew the rudiments, although I wouldn't play for money until I was in my 20s.

And when I first played for money I shouldn't have, for knowing the basic rules is a far cry from knowing basic strategy. My money disappeared quickly, and I heard a woman standing behind me stage-whispering to her husband, "He should have hit that, shouldn't he?" She was right - I should have.

The biggest problem hands were those with soft totals - hands in which Aces are being counted as 11s. That's not unusual. Those are the hands that give everyone trouble, until they take the time to practice basic strategy.

Let's fast-forward a few decades, to a time in my 40s, playing blackjack at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The dealer was a rarity - he knew his basic strategy inside-out. When players asked for advice, he gave it, and his advice was always on the mark.

Nevertheless, when a player dealt an Ace and a 5 hemmed and hawed, he ignored the dealer's advice to hit. He ignored the rest of the table as they implored him to hit. He stood on a soft 16 that couldn't win unless the dealer busted. And the dealer didn't bust, instead completing a 21 with the 5 the player should have drawn for his own 21.

Yes, soft hands are the most misplayed hands in blackjack. 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 stand 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.

What about soft 12? Well, the only combination that gives the player a soft total of 12 is a pair Aces, with one read as an 11 and the other as a 1.

Instead of regarding that as a soft 12, we deal with that had as a pair of Aces, a subject for basic strategy in splitting pairs. That's our topic for next week.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski