Blackjack Soft Hands

As one of the most popular casino games, blackjack can be found in most land-based and online casinos. Due to its relative simplicity and extremely low house edge, it is preferred by both skilled and average players but in order to maximize their winnings, they must learn how to play the game correctly. It seems that one of the most confusing ideas in blackjack theory is that of the “soft and hard hands”.

It is soft hands, in particular, that often cause uncertainty even in those who consider themselves experienced blackjack players. Furthermore, casiual players tend to make more mistakes when playing with a soft hand than with any other hand. In fact, every single hand in blackjack can be classified as either a hard or a soft hand – any two-card hand that does not include an Ace is referred to as a hard hand, while hands with Aces in them fall under the category of soft hands.

This is, at least, the simplest explanation but real-life blackjack is a little more complicated than that. While the definitions of hardness and softness are quite simple and straightforward, the correct strategy of playing out these two types of hands is often elusive.

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Soft and Hard Hands in Blackjack

In the simplest of terms, soft hands consist of two cards, one of which is an Ace, while hard hands do not include an Ace. But why is necessary to make this distinction? The key is the nature of the Ace in blackjack – this is the only card in the game that does not have a fixed value. It counts as either 1 or 11 so it cannot be busted by Hitting once. To describe this in a simpler manner, let us see some examples of hard and soft hands:

  • Hard Hands – 3-5 (hard 8), 9-4 (hard 13), 7-10 (hard 17)
  • Soft Hands – Ace-3 (soft 14), Ace-5 (hard 16), Ace-6 (soft 17)

Players who are dealt a hard hand at the beginning of a round – 7-10 for example, are presented with little freedom as to how to play out their hand. If they Hit, i.e. decide to draw another card, they have a big chance of exceeding 21 and busting. If it is a soft 17, however, Ace-6, the hand can be counted as either 17 or 7 and if players Hit, the risk of busting is considerably smaller. Imagine you receive 17 and you decide to Hit – you are dealt 7. The hard hand will reach 24 and therefore bust, while the soft hand will become 16, only here, the Ace will count as 1 and not 11.

And this is where the theory becomes more interesting. While many players and even blackjack guides consider only two-card hands as being hard or soft, real-life play requires you to look at a hand of 3 or even more cards. Not all hands with an Ace in them are soft – in fact, all hands with an Ace that counts as 1 are hard hands. Let us take the 17 hand example, once again.

A soft 17 would be Ace-6, as well as various other combinations such as Ace-4-2, Ace-2-2-2, and even Ace-Ace-3-2. In that last example, the hand should still be considered soft because one of the Aces may count as 11 or 1 without resulting in a bust. The hand still has a lot of liquidity as it can be counted as 17 or as 7.

There are, however, hands where the Ace must be counted as 1 otherwise the hand will bust. In these instances, this will be a hard hand even though it contains an Ace. A good example of this is a hand of 8-9 (hard 17) – an inexperienced player, who does not know the basic blackjack strategy, may decide to Hit. This would not be the optimal decision and, in fact, 17 is not a very good hand in blackjack but let us get back to the imaginary scenario.

The player Hits and an Ace is dealt – the hand will be 8-9-Ace and the Ace cannot count as 11 because the player will bust. In this case, the Ace always counts as 1 – once again, a rigid hand with a fixed value that cannot be adjusted, hence, this will be a hard 18.

Playing Out Soft Hands

As you can see, the Ace plays an important and a really unique role in blackjack. Players should know one basic rule when they are dealt a hand with an Ace – always count the Ace as 11 as long as your hand does not bust. There are many more fundamental things players need to understand when playing out a soft hand and if they do that correctly, their chances of making some decent profits from blackjack will increase – even without counting the cards.

As we always count the Ace as 11 in soft hands, there will be only several soft hands that can be dealt initially – from soft 12 (Ace-Ace) to soft 20 (Ace-9). A soft 21 (Ace-10/Ace-Jack, etc.), as we all know, is blackjack and it always wins in the standard game. A soft 12 is also a special case as it can count as 2 or 12 but it is also a pair that brings great opportunities when it is split. And here comes the second universal rule that applies to all variations of blackjack – you should always Split a pair of Aces.

However, a few other things should be considered. First and foremost, most versions of blackjack would allow only one card to be dealt to each of the split hands. After that, the two hands automatically Stand and are compared to the dealer’s hand. The best scenario, in this case, is receiving 10-value cards (10, J, Q, or K) to your split Aces for a total of 21. Other beneficial outcomes would be getting 8 or 9, which would result in hands of 19 or 20, respectively. If they are dealt 7, the total of 18 would still be relatively good. If the cards are below 7, however, the outcome will not be favorable to players at all.

But the Ace-Ace hand is a special hand and players need to know how to play the other soft hands – whether they Stand, Hit or even Double Down.

Standing on Soft Hands

Most skilled blackjack players would never Stand on soft hands – with just a few exceptions. And there is a good reason for this – the flexibility of soft hands allows the player to make the most of the hand without having to fear busting. In fact, the decision whether to Stand, Hit, or Double would depend not only on the exact value of the player’s hand but also on the dealer’s card that is shown on the table and the number of decks used in the game.

You should never Stand on soft 17 or less. There are just a handful of scenarios when players are advised to Stand on a soft hand. They should always Stand when they have a soft 20 or more. If they have a soft 19, they should also Stand, except when the dealer has a 6 – here, they should Double if this option is permitted. They should also Stand when they have a soft 18 and the dealer holds 7 or 8. This applies to games where the dealer is required to hit on soft 17. If the dealer must stand on soft 17, the player should always stand on soft 19 or more, as well as on soft 18 and dealer 2, 7, or 8.

As for the number of decks in play, the above-mentioned rules should be considered mostly for games with 4, 6, or 8 decks. Most casinos – both online and land-based, tend to opt for blackjack versions with 4 to 8 decks.

Hitting on Soft Hands

Soft hands are much safer to play than hard hands, especially when it comes to drawing more hands to them. Often, players would avoid hitting on hard hands over 12 or 13 as the new card may easily lead to a bust. It is much more different when you have an Ace – if the hand goes over 21, the Ace will simply count as 1 and save the player from losing immediately.

The general rule is to Stand on all hands that are higher than 18 and to Hit on soft hands with a total of 17 or less. There are, of course, some exceptions. Typically, players are also advised to Hit on soft 18 if the dealer’s up card is 9, 10, or an Ace. In fact, soft 18 may be a little confusing for some players, as depending on the dealer’s card, they may be better off doubling down.

Doubling Down on Soft Hands

Many blackjack players, especially those with little knowledge of the basic strategy for this game, would avoid the Double option altogether. But if played correctly, it can bring them good winnings in the long term. In reality, professional players know exactly when to Double when having soft hands and this is why they tend to quickly catch the attention of casinos – remember that many casinos associate professional blackjack players with card counters.

But you do not need to count cards to know when doubling on soft hands is profitable. There are two cards that are not favorable to the dealer – these are 5 and 6, which is why players should always Double against these two numbers on their soft 13 through soft 18. It is also a good strategy to Double Down against dealer 4 if you hold soft 15 through soft 18.

Soft 17 Rule for the Dealer

This is one of the fundamental rules in blackjack and it is usually displayed on the table itself. Most casinos used to require the dealer to Stand on soft 17, which was and still is favorable to the player. After all, the average winning hand in blackjack has been calculated to be 18.5 (i.e. at least 18) and dealers who Stand on soft 17 are easier to beat.

However, many games in recent years have introduced another rule – dealers must draw to 16 but if they hold a soft 17, they must Hit. This allows them to improve their hand against the player and is, therefore, beneficial for the casino, not the player. After all, soft hands cannot bust – they can only be improved. So, blackjack tables where the dealer Hits on soft 17 increase the house edge. Players are advised to choose games where the dealer must Stand on all 17’s.

Basic Strategy for Soft Hands

As you can see, playing with soft hands is not too complex but to avoid mistakes, players should learn how to act in every situation. There may be dozens of tips and strategies developed over the years but both professional and occasional blackjack players show learn the basic strategy of the game. As there are many different versions of 21, there may be slight changes but overall, this basic strategy for soft hands will apply to most blackjack games.

Player’s Soft Hand/ Dealer’s Card 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Ace
13 H H H D/H D/H H H H H H
14 H H H D/H D/H H H H H H
15 H H D/H D/H D/H H H H H H
16 H H D/H D/H D/H H H H H H
17 H D/H D/H D/H D/H H H H H H
18 D/S D/S D/S D/S D/S S S H H H
19 S S S S D/S S S S S S
20 S S S S S S S S S S
  • H – Hit
  • S – Stand
  • D/H – Double, if it is not allowed, you should Hit
  • D/S – Double, if it is not allowed, you should Stand
  • SP – Split