All hands dealt at the blackjack table can be classified as either a hard or soft hand. Understanding what the differences are between hand and soft blackjack hands, as well as how to play them correctly, is very important for anyone who is serious about becoming a skilled blackjack player.
Hard and soft hands each have their own place in basic blackjack strategy. It is also important to be able to identify these hands and speak of them correctly because all books on card counting and blackjack strategy refer to them as such.
Hard Blackjack Hands
In the simplest of terms, a hard blackjack hand is any two-card total which does not include an ace. Here are some examples:
A hard hand is one that can usually risk being busted with just one hit. Of course a 2 and a 3, for a total of 5, is technically a hard hand but it is not considered as such because the hand can be improved without risk. So, when thinking about hard hands the first thing you need to understand about them is that whenever you hit these hands there is a chance you can exceed 21 and bust.
Soft Blackjack Hands
A soft blackjack hand is any hand of two cards which contains an ace. The following would be examples of soft hands:
A soft hand is one that cannot be busted by taking one hit. In other words, if you are dealt a soft hand you cannot bust the hand with the first hit. You can only improve the hand. This is because in blackjack an ace can be counted as one or eleven.
When you are dealt a soft hand at the blackjack table, the dealer will speak of your hands as “3 or 13, 4 or 14, 5 or 15,” etc. when telling you your total before you act. The dealer is reminding you that determining the value of the ace is your decision.
As far as basic strategy is concerned, the five hands we listed above are the only ones you should identify as soft hands. A-A is a soft 12 and can be doubled in very rare circumstances. It is most often split, however. A-8 and A-9 are technically soft hands but they are never considered as such in basic blackjack strategy. This is because the totals of these hands are 19 and 20, respectively, and you should always stand on them.
Playing Hard Blackjack Hands
The basic strategies for playing hard hands do not deviate much from basic blackjack strategy. You should thoroughly familiarize yourself with a blackjack strategy chart in order to know the proper play and make it instinctively. That being said, there are a few general rules about hard hands that will help those with little knowledge of the basics.
First, you should always assume that a dealer has a ten in the hole. In other words, add a total of ten to the card the dealer shows to estimate his total. If the dealer’s up card is a 10, assume he has a total of 20. If it is a 9, assume 19. This estimated total is the total you are going to need to beat to win the hand most of the time.
Therefore, you need to hit your hard blackjack hands until you either beat that total or reach 17. You cannot reasonably hit a hard 17 at the blackjack table. Nor can you hit a hard 18 or 19 or 20. These hard totals give you the best chance of winning the hand and you must stand on them in all circumstances.
Of course, if the dealer shows a 6 or any lower card then you have a different decision to make based on your own hard total. In many of these situations you will be standing and hoping the dealer busts.
One final word needs to be said about playing hard blackjack hands. Do not hesitate to hit hard totals of 14, 15, or 16 against the dealer’s 10. If you cannot surrender the hand, hitting is your only option. You may be tempted to play a hunch and stand on these hard totals, hoping the dealer has a 6 under that ten and will bust. Forget about it! If the dealer shows a 10 you are dead in the water. You MUST hit the hand until you either reach 17 or bust.
Playing Soft Blackjack Hands
The manner in which you play a soft blackjack hand at the blackjack table is very dependent on your understanding of basic strategy. When played correctly, soft blackjack hands offer you one of the best opportunities for blackjack profit.
If the dealer is in trouble—meaning that his up card is a 4, 5, or 6—and you hold a soft hand, you can often double down the hand and maximize your profit. There is no chance of busting, and there is a chance that you might even improve the hand. Doubling down soft blackjack hands is a solid play that separates beginners and experienced blackjack players.
When you combine knowledge of card counting with soft blackjack hands you will really improve your chances and cut the house edge. Many players are programmed to believe that the only time they should double down their hand is when they hold a hard 11. Learning how to successfully double down soft blackjack hands opens up a new level of possibility at the blackjack table.
Doubling Down A Hard 12
There is one hard hand that casinos pay particular attention to, and that hand is a hard 12. A hard 12 is considered a trouble hand because defining whether to hit or stand is difficult. Expert card counters know that doubling down a hard 12 can often be profitable when the deck is in your favor.
The problem is that the casino recognizes doubling down a hard 12 as an expert play which is usually only executed by top-notch card counters. If you decide to double down a hard 12, you should at least know what to expect. Several things will happen in most casinos. First, the dealer will note your play and alert the pit bosses at some point. In some casinos the dealer is required to loudly announce “DOUBLING DOWN ON HARD 12!” when you make this play. This actually happened to a Counting Edge player in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Secondly, the pit bosses will mark you as an expert player and that information will be relayed to the “eye in the sky” where you will be watched for the remainder of the blackjack session.
If you decide to double down a hard 12 when the count is in your favor, just be advised that it is a risky play. You might get away with it several times, but eventually you will attract attention and risk being banned for card counting.
The Dealer And Soft 17
Many casinos amend the rules of blackjack to force the dealer to hit a soft 17. This was popularized in the casinos of Atlantic City when they first opened, and it is still a rule in many casinos.
The reason this rule was implemented by the casinos is because it increases the house edge against the player. Whenever a dealer is allowed to hit a soft 17, the house essentially gets a free opportunity to improve their hand against you. Remember, soft hands cannot be busted. They can only be improved.
If you have a choice in the matter, always select a casino where the dealer stands on ALL 17’s. This is a much better scenario for you. There is no reason you should concede a few points of percentage in edge to the casino when you do not need to. Of course, many people are bound by the rules of the nearest casino. If your local casino allows the dealer to hit soft 17 then you will need to offset that casino house advantage in other ways.
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