HOW TO PLAY SOFT HANDS IN BLACKJACK
By Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin is the author of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide (www.888casino.com/blog), and editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newletter .
No matter where I play blackjack, I see average players make more mistakes with soft hands than any other blackjack hand. In fact, I can always tell the skill level of players by watching how they play these hands.
There are three different things you can do with a soft hand - stand, hit, and believe it or not, double down. This is what confuses most players because sometimes the right play is to hit, other times it's best to double down, rarely should you stand, and the strategy can change if your soft hand contains three or more cards or if the casino rules prohibit soft doubling. But, not to worry. Even if you don't have a clue what a soft hand is, by the time you finishing reading this I'll have you playing these hands perfectly every time.
So let's begin with a definition of a soft hand, which is any hand in blackjack that contains an ace counted as 11. Here are examples of soft hands.
Ace-6 = soft 17
Ace-3-4 = soft 18
2-3-Ace = soft 16
Ace-7-Ace = soft 19
The Ace in blackjack is unique because it counts as either 11 or 1. Here's how this works. Always count the Ace as 11 as long as your hand totals 21 or less. If you draw a card to your hand, and the total of the cards is over 21, then you would count the Ace as 1. For example, Ace-4 is soft 15. If you draw a 9 you can count the Ace as 1 and you would have a 14 (but the hand is no longer soft). In the rare case that you wind up with two Aces in your hand, you can count one ace as 11 as long as your hand totals 21 or less. For example, if you were dealt an Ace-6 (soft 17) and you hit and draw another Ace, your hand now totals soft 18. The key point is that you can never bust a soft hand with a one card hit. This is why the playing strategy for soft hands is different compared to hands that don't contain an Ace counted as 11.
Here's an example of two hands that total 17.
10-7 and Ace-6
Believe it or not, 17 is not a very good hand in blackjack. We'd like to improve our total but with 10-7, hitting is too risky because we have a high probability of busting. But with Ace-6 (soft 17) it would be a critical mistake to stand because we can draw at least one card to try to improve our situation without any risk of busting.
Try a few hands so you get the hang of dealing with soft hands.
4-2-Ace. This player was dealt a two-card 6, and then drew an ace for a soft 17.
7-5-Ace. This player had a 12 then drew an ace. If you count the ace as 11, the hand totals 23, therefore you count the ace as a 1. Note that the 13 is not a soft hand.
Ace-5-Ace-Ace-Ace. Don't think this hand is not possible because I got it playing in a blackjack tournament in Vegas. My initial hand of Ace-5 was a soft 16 and the dealer had a 10 showing. I drew another card, which was a second ace, and now I had soft 17. I drew another ace, which made my hand a soft 18. I needed to draw again, which I did, and got another ace. My final hand - containing four aces - was a soft 19.
Ace-5-10. This is an example of a soft hand (Soft 16) converting into a hard hand (hard 16).
Six Playing Strategy Rules for Soft Hands with S17
Rule #1. Never stand on soft 17 or less.
Regardless of what the dealer's upcard is, you should never stand on soft 13 through soft 17. Even though most players would be happy to have a 17 and stand, the reality is that in most situations 17 isn't good enough to beat the dealer.
Rule #2. If the dealer shows a 5 or 6 face card, always double down on Ace-2 (soft 13) through Ace-7 (soft 18).
The reason you double down on these hands is that you can get more money on the layout when the dealer's chance of busting is high (dealer's bust about 42% of the time when their upcard is a 5 or 6). So if you see the dealer with a 5 or 6 "bust" card and you have a soft 13 through 18, always double down. Once you master this rule for soft doubling, you can add a few more soft double down plays to your arsenal by learning rule #3.
Rule #3. If the dealer shows a 3 or 4 face card, use the "Rule of 9"
Fred Renzey, author of Blackjack Bluebook II and contributor to my Blackjack Insider Newsletter, developed the Rule of 9 as a way to remember how to play soft hands when the dealer shows a 3 or 4 upcard. Here's how the Rule of 9 works. Simply add together the dealer's upcard and the card that accompanies your Ace. If they total 9 or more, you should double down. If it's less, just hit. Here are some examples. Suppose you have Ace-6 and dealer shows a 4. If you add 6 plus 4 you get 10 and therefore you should double down. Suppose you are dealt an Ace-3 and dealer shows a 3. Would you double down or hit? The answer is to hit (3+3=6, which is less than 9, so hit). The rule of 9 works for every situation with one exception-you should double Ace-4 against a dealer's 4 upcard.
Rule #4. If the dealer shows a deuce, never soft double.
The dealer's chance of busting when the dealer shows a deuce is not very high so you should never soft double.
Rule #5. Always hit soft 18 when the dealer shows a 9, 10, or Ace and stand if the dealer shows a 2, 7 or 8.
Most average players always stand on soft 18 and this is a mistake if the dealer shows a 9, 10 or Ace. Unfortunately, you are in a losing situation when the dealer shows a strong 9, 10 or Ace face card regardless of how you play your hand. However, you will lose less money in the long run by always hitting, making it the better play.
Rule #6. When the rules prohibit soft doubling, hit soft 17 or less and stand on soft 18 and more, except always hit soft 18 against 9, 10 or ace.
Some casinos prohibit players from doubling on soft hands. And even when the rules allow you to soft double, you can't once you draw a third card to a hand (doubling is restricted to your initial two card hand). For example, if you were dealt a 4-3 against a dealer's 5 and drew an Ace you wouldn't be able to double your soft 18. So when you can't soft double, the rule for soft hands is pretty straightforward - always hit soft 17 or less and always stand on soft 18 or more with that one exception, always hit soft 18 against the dealer's 9, 10 and Ace.
I've summarized the soft double rules in the table below for easy reference. The D/H or D/S designation in each block means double down but if you can't, follow the strategy that follows the slash mark:
D means double
S means stand and
H stands for hit.
Playing an H17 Game
If you are playing in a casino where the dealer hits soft 17 (h17), then you should be a little bit more aggressive and double the following additional soft hands:
The next time you play blackjack, and your hand contains an ace, don't sweat it because now you know how to play it correctly.
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