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by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

There are no fanciful stories to share this month.  Instead it's back to strategy.  As I write this the holiday season is in full swing for many of you and blackjack is the last thing on your mind.  However, it's never a bad time to slow down and pause for some self-evaluation or self-scouting of one's blackjack skills.  What better time to do this then as the year draws to a close?  This month we'll examine some oft misplayed hands that I've seen repeatedly over the years during my adventures in the green felt jungle. Let's get started before Santa Claus finds the rest of my Egg Nog, not to mention those oatmeal raisin cookies from the local casino buffet. 


Have you ever heard the dealer say, "Seven or seventeen" as they wait for the player to make a decision with Ace-6 in front of them?  The dealer just told you there is an option.  I heard the following conversation recently on a table.  The dealer's up-card was a face-card and she repeated to the player on the other end of the table, "Sir, you have seven or seventeen."

The player responded with, "Seventeen."

Dealer: "Sir, I have a face card showing."

Player: "Seventeen," as he waved off a hit. 

The dealer had an eight in the hole and it was difficult not to snicker as my 19 was a winner and his 7, err 17 was not.  Stupid is and stupid does, right?

This hand is one I see misplayed frequently and the trend seems to be getting worse.  Many players realize that you should stand on 17, but often fail to correlate that Ace-6 is not really 17.  Think about when you have a hand totaling 17.  How many ways can you win that hand?  Only one; the dealer's total has to exceed 21.  They have to bust or break.  Other than a dealer bust, you might get a push and get to keep your chips.  Play this hand as seven and draw at least once to improve your hand.  Four, three, two, or another Ace improves you hand.  That's four of every 13 cards (almost 31%) in a deck that can improve your hand.  Also, drawing a King, Queen, Jack, or ten will give you what's known as a "hard 17" and now you should stand.  That's close to another 31% of the cards allowing you to make 17.  Failing to draw any of the eight cards mentioned above, you can now draw a fourth card to try to improve your hand.  Only on the fourth or subsequent card, do you even have a chance of busting your hand and going over 21.         

As a side note, at least one Las Vegas casino offers a side bet that pays 10:1 if the player and dealer push a particular hand.  I hate side bets and this one in particular as it effectively encourages "bad behavior."  I see players stand on Ace-6 against dealer 7 up-cards all the time on this game (though I have not played at this property for many months for multiple reasons).  I understand the logic and maybe this is an exception when 7's really do equal 17.  However, unless you are counting and know the remaining deck is rich with 10-count cards when the hand is dealt, it's still probably not your best play.  In this example you are betting the dealer has a ten in the hole, just like taking insurance when an Ace is showing. 

Remember, Ace-6 and most "soft" combinations (hands with an Ace in them where the Ace counts one) allow for a "free" hit.  What I mean by this and the numbers above is that you can't bust by hitting Ace-6.  In some situations the correct play is to double-down on your Ace-6.  No matter, you should always take a hit and play this hand as 7, not 17.  If my logic above doesn't convince you, think about this.  In most games in most venues, dealers are now required to hit their soft 17s.  It's an insidious rule adjustment that increases the house edge over a basic strategy player by 0.20%. By now it should be obvious (if it wasn't already), don't tuck your Ace-6 against a dealer face card!  Play your Ace-6 as a seven and give yourself a chance.


Do you know the total of the average winning hand in blackjack?  It's important to realize when confronted with the above situation.  Basic strategy tells us to hit our Ace-7 (8 or 18) versus a dealer up-card total of 10.  Why? You've already got 18.  If you're supposed to stand on hard 17, then isn't an 18 even better?  The answer is tied to the question above.  The average winning hand in blackjack is 18.3.  I played at a Las Vegas casino several few years back that offered a side bet guarantying the player an 18.  This was an independent bet, but if the dealer busted or made 17, it was a winner.  If the dealer made a 19, 20, or 21, it was a loser.  I've only seen this in that particular casino, but by offering it at all, it's pretty much telling the player that 18's aren't enough in the long-term.

I'll admit, hitting soft 18 against a 10 is one of my...

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