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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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How to Play Soft 17 when You Can't Double Down

1 June 1998

Basic strategy for blackjack is clear about the optimum way to handle the ace-six - soft 17 - combination. Double against a dealer's three, four, five, or six; hit in all other cases.

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.


There should be no question as to proper action when the dealer shows a two or anything from seven through ace. In these cases, you'd have hit the ace-six even when doubling is an option, and should do the same when it is not.

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.

dealer
stand
hit
double
2
-150
1
-4
3
-113
30
58
4
-74
62
124
5
-37
99
198
6
12
129
258
7
-104
55
-9
8
-383
-72
-251
9
-421
-147
-392
10
-420
-196
-455
A
-479
-183
-536

 

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:


Some odds, while not quite insurmountable,
Are fought for reasons unaccountable.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.