By John Grochowski
Blackjack players who learn basic strategy find that once they’re used to it, once they’ve really internalized whether to hit, stand, double down or split, it all feels natural.
There are exceptions. Some hands just don’t feel right. Players have let it be known that it just feels wrong to hit hard 16 vs. a dealer’s 7 or split 8s against a 10 even though they know it’s the correct basic strategy play.
Questions from readers have also made it clear they have qualms about hitting soft 18 against a 9, 10 or Ace or doubling down on soft 17 against a dealer’s 3 through 6.
Let’s take a look at each of those hands and the statistics behind what you see on the basic strategy chart. All figures assume a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17 – the most common game in modern casinos.
Hard 16 Vs. 7
Some players who will hit 16 against higher cards have trouble with making the call against a 7, preferring the dealer take the chance to go bust.
Dealers do bust more often with 7 as an upcard than with higher cards, but it’s actually more important to hit your 16 against 7. That’s because when dealers start with 7, their average total on standing hands will be lower that with higher cards – a 10 down with a 7 leaves the dealer with 17, while a 10 down with a 10 brings 20. Because of that, when you do make a standing hand by hitting 16, you have a better chance of winning against a 7 than against a higher card.
If your 16 consists of 8-8. it’s best to split the pair. But if you have 10-6 or 9-7, the play is to hit, with these average results in a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17:
- 10-6 vs. 7 If you stand, your average loss is 47.6 cents per dollar wagered. If you hit, your average loss decreases to 40.9 cents.
- 9-7 vs. 7: Stand, and you lose an average of 48.1 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and that decreases to 40.8 cents.
Note that no matter what you do with hard 16 vs. 7, it is a net loser. However, you lose less when you hit. That concept, playing to lose less, is important throughout basic strategy on weak hands.
Just to reinforce the initial point that potential gains are higher when the dealer has a 7, average losses for 9-7 vs. 10 are 53.7 cents if you stand and 53.5 if you hit. That’s the close-call hand, not 16 vs. 7.
8-8 VS. 10
If you’ve played much basic strategy blackjack, you’ve had this happen more times than you care to count. You make your second bet and get a 10 on top of each 8 for two 18s. Then the dealer flips up another 10 to make 20 and take your money.
It gives players the shudders, but making the extra bet is still a stronger play than leaving 8-8 as a hard 16.
Here are the numbers: If you stand, you lose an average of 53.7 cents per dollar wagered, and you reduce that slightly to 53.5 cents if you hit.
But if you split the pair, those losses decrease to 47.6 cents per dollar of your original wager. That’s not 47.6 cents of each wager, just the original bet.
So if you’re betting $10 and you stand, your average loss is $5.37. Hit, and the loss is $5.35. Split, and you have $20 at risk and will lose it all sometimes, but the average loss declines to $4.76.
Occasionally, you might find a table where late surrender is offered. Any time you surrender, you give up half your wager. So the average loss when surrendering is 50 cents per dollar wagered. That’s better than hitting or standing, but not as good as the best play. Split the pair.
ACE-6 vs. a 3, 4, 5 or 6
We’ve all had soft hands ruined by hitting. Sometimes you’ll draw a 6 to your Ace-7 to turn it into hard 13, and you’re at the dealer’s mercy with a hand that wins only with a dealer bust.
That’s not really much worse than leaving the hand as 17. A 17 also is a winner only of the dealer busts. If the dealer does not bust, the best a 17 can do is push.
And when the dealer has a 3, 4, 5 or 6, there is a chance to turn your Ace-7 into a profitable hand.
- Ace-6 vs. 3: Stand, and you lose an average of 11.6 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and that reverses to a win of 2.9 cents, and doubling down increases that average win to 5.7 cents per dollar of your original wager
- Ace-6 vs. 4: Stand, and you lose an average of 7.6 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and that reverses to a win of 6.2 cents, and doubling down increases that average win to 12.3 cents.
- Ace-6 vs. 5: Stand, and you lose an average of 3.8 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and that reverses to a win of 9.9 cents, and doubling down increases that average win to 19.7 cents.
- Ace-6 vs. 6: Stand, and you lose an average of half a cent per dollar wagered. Hit, and that reverses to a win of 12.6 cents, and doubling down increases that average win to 25.2 cents.
Because you can’t hit a second time when you double down, there will be times when you lose a hand you might have won by hitting. But overall, your average profit is nearly double when you double down instead of hitting, and either option is far better than standing.
ACE-7 vs. 9, 10 or ACE
When the dealer starts with 9 or higher, his average finishing hand will be higher than the 18 you have with Ace-7.
There’s enough of a dealer edge at the start that on average, you will lose money on this hand. However, you can mitigate losses as follows:
- Ace-7 vs. 9: Stand, and your average loss is 18.3 cents. Hit, and it drops to 9.8.
- Ace-7 vs. 10: Stand, and your average loss is 18.0 cents. Hit, and it drops to 14.3.
- Ace-7 vs. Ace: Stand, and your average loss is 22.5 cents. Hit, and it drops to 16.0.
This isn’t turning a loser into a winner, as in doubling on soft 17 vs. 3 through 6. Instead, it’s a matter of cutting your losses and conserving your bankroll to fight another hand.