Stay informed with the
NEW Casino City Times newsletter!
Best of Alan Krigman
How to Play Soft 17 when You Can't Double Down1 June 1998
But, what's best if you have soft 17 and are restricted to either hitting or standing? Say, because you already hit an ace-deuce and drew a four so you have a three-card soft total. Or maybe you're in a casino where soft doubles aren't allowed. Do you stand on your point total of 17, or do you hit?
The answer is simple. Hit, regardless of dealer upcard.
You'd always stand on nine-eight or other hard 17. But this position is weak. You push if the dealer ends with 17 and only win if the dealer breaks. The normal rule for standing is based more on the adverse effects of busting if you hit, than on the likelihood you'll push or win with what you've got. Hitting soft 17 gives you more chance to improve than worsen or bust the hand.
Some solid citizens, though, stand when they can't double on soft 17 against three, four, five, or six. These folks figure the dealer is vulnerable with these upcards and has a good chance of breaking. So they won't risk hitting and pulling something from five through nine that drops their point totals below 17.
But good blackjack isn't about subjective, qualitative reasoning. It's about objective, quantitative comparison of alternatives. Cold, hard numbers rather than warm, fuzzy feelings.
Qualitative and quantitative logic often coincide. However, long-term performance in the game depends on knowing when they diverge, and having enough confidence in the laws of probability to act accordingly.
The usual criterion governing "correct" blackjack is maximum expectation. There are other ways to play, but this is the de facto standard and the foundation of basic strategy. The following list shows the expectation - expected gain or loss - in dollars per $1,000 bet, at once or over a period of time, by standing or hitting with soft 17 against each dealer upcard. For reference, expectation for doubling on soft 17 is also given. Values assume the dealer does not have a natural blackjack.
Here are examples of how to interpret the data.
You have soft 17, the dealer has eight-up. The house has an edge no matter what you do. Standing is worst, expecting to lose $383 per $1,000 bet. Hitting is a lesser evil, slashing expected loss to $72 per $1,000 bet. If you could double and were imprudent enough to do so, expected loss would be $251 per $1,000 bet.
You have soft 17 against a four. This is strong. Hitting, you're favored and expect to win $62 per $1,000 bet. Standing, you're the underdog, expecting to lose $74 per $1,000 bet. If you could double, you'd expect to win an average of $124 per $1,000 bet.
The list indicates that hitting soft 17 always beats standing. The advantage ranges from $136 per $1,000 bet against four or five, to $311 per $1,000 bet against eight. Big enough so even bettors who trust luck over knowledge might reconsider breaking the rules. As Sumner A Ingmark, the gambler's Goethe, said:
Best of Alan Krigman