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PAUL'S POINTERS: PLAYING SOME MISLEADING SOFT HANDS

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.

This month I'm going to discuss playing some soft blackjack hands that can be misleading. Remember soft hands are those that contain an Ace that counts as an eleven. Some examples include Ace-4 (15); Ace-6-Ace (18); and Ace-2-4 (17). Because Aces can count as one or eleven, they often cause confusion for beginning and even intermediate players; especially for those that don't have the opportunity to play blackjack on a regular basis. Perhaps you visit a regional gambling destination like the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Tunica, or Atlantic City once every few months; or maybe you only play on your annual golf trip or a trade show visit to Las Vegas. If that's the case, then this version of Paul's Pointers is for you.

(Note: Since playable single-deck games have gone the way of the horse and buggy and strippers without tattoos, I'm only going to focus on double- and multi-deck games.)

KEEP IT SIMPLE, SIR OR KISS

Soft hands don't need to be confusing. So with a little help from the rock band KISS, our plan for this discussion is to keep it simple, stupid, err, sir. As a general rule, you should never stand on any soft hand that totals 17 or less. This is one of the simplest things to remember in blackjack basic strategy because the dealer's up-card doesn't matter. Never stand on soft hands totaling 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17. Why? These hands can't bust by drawing an additional card. Remember the Ace has a dual role and can also be counted as one.

To illustrate the above discussion, let me provide an example. Suppose you have A-5 and draw a Queen. Your now have a hard 16, not 26 (and a bust). You are still in the game and can hit again or stay, depending on the dealer's up-card. I like to think of soft hands as a free hit. So fire the "Love Gun" and take a shot at improving your hand without the risk of busting. You might love what you got!

ACE-6 OR CALLING DR. LOVE

This hand is one I see misplayed frequently and it literally makes me ill. Many players realize that you should stand on 17, but often fail to correlate that Ace-6 is not really 17. Think about that 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 bet. 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 ten, Jack, Queen, and King 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.

Now that you know not to stand on Ace-6, let's take that hand a step further and factor the dealer's up-card into the equation. If the dealer shows a 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, or Ace simply hit. If the dealer's up-card is a 3 through 6, in most cases we want to double down. Let's assume the dealer hits soft 17 (s17) and doubling after any first two cards is allowed (DOA). These are common playing rules in most current blackjack venues. The dealer will have to hit their two-card total and has an increased chance of busting and we still get a shot at improving our hand. Therefore, in double- and multi-deck games double down against the dealer's 3 through 6.

Whatever you do, don't tuck your Ace-6. Hit or double; failure to do so on a regular basis and your bankroll will be calling the doctor!

ACE-7 VERSUS DEALER 10/9 OR STRUTTER

Chances are you know a thing or two about this hand. However, like the subject in the above KISS tune, more times than not, she'll make you cry if you simply tuck it. How's that you say? Well, 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 or 9. 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 casino a few years back that offered a side bet that guaranteed 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 18s aren't good enough over the long-term.

I'll admit, hitting soft 18 against a 9 is one of my least favorite plays, but I do it. I'm more comfortable hitting soft 18 against the dealer's ten-value up-card even though the thinking is generally the same. Basically the thought process is that over time, standing on Ace-7 for a total of 18 is going to get you beat more often than not by dealer 20s and 19s. It's important to realize that by hitting this hand, you aren't going to improve it very often with the third card. Only 3, 2, or another Ace (3 of 13 or about 23% of the cards in a deck) will improve your hand immediately. Be prepared to draw that fourth card and realize it's not the end of the world when you have less than 18 after your third card. This is an example of an Ace giving the player options. Use them and hit that soft 18 against the dealers faces, tens, and nines. For the record, I rarely see anyone hit this hand against ten-count up-cards. Besides myself, I can probably count the number of times I've seen it hit against a dealer nine on one hand. It's not easy, but it's the correct play over the long-term when playing basic strategy.

DOUBLING DOWN WITH ACE-7 OR THE PSYCHO CIRCUS

As if hitting soft 18 wasn't crazy enough in the previous section, would you believe there are instances when you should double down on Ace-7? By now you probably think I'm ready for the Psycho Circus, but stay with me. In double- and multi-deck games with s17, we want to double-down on our soft 18 versus dealer up-cards of 3, 4, 5, and 6, and stand versus 2, 7, and 8.

(Note: If the table rules require the dealer to stand on soft 17 (h17), double down against the dealer's up-card of 2 instead of hitting.)

In introducing these strategy decisions, realize we're building on a couple of topics already presented above. First, the dealer will have to hit their two-card total and thus has an increased chance of busting. Don't forget there's also a greater than 50% chance that our hand will remain the same or even improved with the additional card we draw. We want to attack the dealer weakness represented by the "bust" card by getting more chips in the circle in these instances. Second, remember that in the long-run, 18 is not a winning hand. I'll be honest; these are not my favorite double-down plays. They require a leap of faith and a realization that basic strategy is based on long-term results. You're probably going to lose a lot of these double downs and look pretty bad doing it. However, you'll win your share too and look like a genius in the process. Feel free to smack the table like the God of Thunder to celebrate when you win a soft 18 double-down!

I CAN'T DOUBLE DOWN OR TEARS ARE FALLING

What if you can't double down? Unfortunately, not all casinos allow DOA. Your local casino may be one of them. There's no need to cry, but you should seek out better games if possible. If the rules don't allow you to double down on soft hands, or your soft hand consists of three or more cards, here's how you should play it. If you have soft 13 through 17, always hit if you can't double down; if you have soft 18, always stand if you can't double down. It's that simple.

ACE-9, ACE-10 OR ROCK N ROLL ALL NITE

Don't get cute or overthink Ace-9. You have 20. Tuck it!

Recognize Ace-10? It's the same as an Ace and a face card, picture card, monarch, or monkey; namely, blackjack! It pays 3:2. If it doesn't you are on the wrong table. Don't mistake your blackjack for an 11 and try to double-down. (That's a slick tournament move only.) I have seen that one. The player was in the second position and didn't realize they had a blackjack until the players on either side of him and the dealer pointed out the situation. He quickly changed his mind and accepted the blackjack payout. I sat at third base, took a sip of my beverage, shook my head, and waited for the "excitement" to calm down; probably hoping a cocktail waitress named Beth would come calling soon.

Appreciate your blackjacks and Ace-9 hands. They are a thing of beauty. Get enough of them and you can cash out your winnings, go home to Beth, and then take her to Vegas where you can rock n roll all night and party every day!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

This month I discussed playing some common, but misleading, soft hands. I covered much of the "soft section" of the blackjack basic strategy chart, but left a little bit for another day. For whatever reason, hands with Aces tend to confuse players, especially if they don't play regularly. I understand. That's why I chose some hands to examine that are perceived as strong player hands, but really are not.

We began with Ace-6. Remember it is not a hard 17 and should not be treated as a "pat" hand. Hit it against dealer up-cards of 2 and 7 or greater. Double down when the dealer shows 3 through 6.

Next we examined the difficult A-7 versus a nine- or ten- count dealer up-card. Over time, 18 isn't a winner and it never beats 19 or 20. Hit it and be prepared to take a fourth card to make a winning hand. In double- and multi-deck games with s17, we want to double-down on our soft 18 versus dealer up-cards of 3 through 6 (if h17, also double against a dealer's 2 up-card.)

If DOA isn't allowed or your soft hand already consists of three or more cards then always hit a soft 13 through 17. If you have a soft 18, always stand if you can't double down.

We concluded with a reminder that Ace-9 and Ace-10 (blackjack) are no-brainers. Tuck them and enjoy the results.

Remember an Ace counts as eleven or one; whatever is to your advantage. Don't be like one player I saw that flipped their cards over (more than once) thinking they had busted when they hit a soft hand and only had 14 and again when they had 16! Follow the guidelines presented above and soon you'll be singing "I was made for loving you, baby" and "you were made for loving me" when dealt the soft hands described in this month's Paul's Pointers. After all, that's the KISS way!

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