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Best of John Grochowski

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Dealing with soft 17 and soft 18

18 August 2009

There are times I'm tempted to break blackjack players into two groups.

Of course, there are way more than two groups — card counters vs. non-counters, pleasure players vs. money players, basic strategy players vs. hunch players and novices.

But given a familiarity with basic strategy, I can pick out those who have really studied the charts from those who have just glanced them over on the basis of two hands: What does the player do with soft 17, and what does the player do with soft 18?

Soft hands are those in which an ace is counted as an 11. They can't be busted with a one-card draw, because if we draw a bad card we can always just count the ace as a 1. Ace-6 is a soft 17; so is ace-2-4. If we draw a 7, we don't bust with 24; we just call it 14 instead.

Soft 17 and soft 18 are two hands that separate blackjack players in the know from the pretenders. I'm going to assume a multiple-deck game — there are so few single-deck games with rules worth playing.

Let's start with soft 17. When I first started writing about gaming and really watching what other players were doing, this seemed to be the most misplayed hand in blackjack. The message that soft 17 is NOT a standing hand seems to have made it to average players, and I don't see the hand misplayed as often as I used to.

Still, there are players who understand that it's too risky to hit hard 17, and that 17 is a standing total for the dealer, but have a hard time grasping that with soft 17, the best plays are to either hit or double down.

Seventeen is just not a very good hand. It can only win when the dealer busts. Otherwise, the best it can do is tie another 17. With hard 17, the risk of busting is too great, so we stand. But what's the risk of hitting soft 17? At best, you're breaking up a hand that potentially could push if the dealer also winds up with 17. Seventeen can't win unless the dealer busts.

ANY hand can win if the dealer busts.

The main question is whether to double down. With a two-card soft 17, double when the dealer shows 3, 4, 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit. Also hit soft 17s consisting of three or more cards.

Soft 18 is trickier — in fact, it's the trickiest play among soft hands. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we stand, sometimes we double down. It's the only soft total on which all three plays are viable options.

Most players stand on soft 18 regardless of the dealer's up card. The hand is misplayed far more often than soft 17 — and soft 17 itself is misplayed too often.

We hit soft 18 whenever the dealer shows a 9, 10 or ace. With any of those up cards, the dealer will make 19 or better often enough that our soft 18 is a big loser. Hitting instead won't turn the hand into an overall winner, but we'll win more often and cut our losses in those situations.

Even most dealers don't understand this play. Years ago, when the Stardust was still standing at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, I was playing a double-deck game, with the cards dealt face down. I had ace-7. The dealer's up card was a 10, so I scratched my cards on the table for a hit. The dealer flipped me a 3 face up.

I needed that 21. The dealer had a king face down for a 20. But when the dealer turned up my cards, I got a lecture along with my payoff.

"That's really a tough play, honey," she said. "It worked this time, but you're going lose a lot of money hitting 18."

Other dealers have been less direct. They shake their heads or roll their eyeballs. But it's the right play. Hit soft 18 whenever the dealer has a 9, 10 or ace.

We stand on soft 18 when the dealer show a 7, where we don't want to break up our chance to win if the dealer has a 10 face down for a 17, or against an 8, where we don't want to botch up a possible push if the dealer has a 10 face down for 18. We also stand against 2 if the dealer stands on all 17s because the dealer doesn't bust often enough to make it profitable for us to double down.

That turns around when the dealer shows 3, 4, 5 or 6. Then we double down. And we double down on soft 18 against a 2 if the dealer hits soft 17.

Got all that? Double down on either soft 17 or soft 18 when the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6. Stand on soft 18 against a 2, 7 or 8 — with the caution do double on 2 if the dealer hits soft 17. Otherwise hit either hand, and you'll raise your level of play above most players in the casino.

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:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski