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Blackjack Hands: The Hard, the Soft, and the Stiff

Blackjack Strategy: Understanding Blackjack Hands

When you sit down at the blackjack table — whether it is a real table or a virtual blackjack table on your computer — you will often see rules printed right on the felt of the table that say something like "Dealer Must Hit Soft 17." To fully understand the blackjack rules and to play blackjack properly, therefore, it is important to understand the concept of hard and soft blackjack hands.

The Importance of Soft and Hard Blackjack Hands

The concept of soft and hard hands is particularly important to grasp because it does not only, or even primarily, affect the rules of when the dealer must hit or stand. More importantly, it should also affect the player's blackjack strategy as he plays his own black jack hand.

The Ace is a Key Card in the Blackjack Game

In the game of blackjack, an ace is a most amazing card. It can count as either a 1 or an 11, whichever will be more beneficial. It is this magical power of the ace that underlies the concept of hard and soft blackjack hands.

A "hard hand" is a blackjack hand with no ace, or with an ace that must count as 1. A blackjack hand comprising an ace, a 7, and a 9 is a "hard 17." Notice that the ace must count as 1 in this hand; if it counted as 11, the hand would "bust" (i.e., go over 21).

A "soft hand" is a hand with an ace that counts as 11. A hand comprising an ace and a 6 is a "soft 17."

The beautiful thing about a soft hand is that you can always add another card to a soft hand without fear of busting. Suppose you have a soft 17, and you draw a 5. Immediately you think: "Uh-oh! 17 plus 5 makes 22! I'm busted!" But actually, you have nothing to worry about. In that situation, the ace magically transforms itself from an 11 to a 1 and you hand is saved. That is why it is so cool to have a soft hand when playing blackjack.

A Stiff Hand is the Blackjack Player's Nemesis

In the blackjack lexicon, there is also something known as a "stiff hand." A stiff hand is a hard hand with a value of 12 through 16. A stiff hand is not a good thing in a game of blackjack. It is usually too low to beat the dealer, but too high to take another card without serious risk of busting. So playing a stiff hand is a tough call in blackjack strategy.

Hard and Soft Hands and the Blackjack Basic Strategy Chart

The blackjack basic strategy chart is the blackjack player's best friend. It was devised by the most brilliant blackjack theoreticians — many of whom are now enshrined in the Blackjack Hall of Fame — using the most high-powered computers available. The basic blackjack strategy chart tells you the optimum way to play your blackjack hand in any conceivable situation.

Because a soft hand is so special, the soft hands have their own special section on the blackjack basic strategy chart. And because a soft hand cannot bust, the basic blackjack strategy chart allows you to make plays with a soft hand that would be too risky with a hard hand.

Take, for example, a hand of 17. If you have a hard 17, the black jack basic strategy chart advises you to stand in all situations, regardless of what the dealer is showing. The risk of busting would simply be too great if you were to take another card. But with a soft 17, you are advised to hit. And not only that, you are advised to double down on a soft 17 if the dealer is showing a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Such is the power of a soft hand. In fact, even with a soft 18, the blackjack basic strategy table advises hitting or doubling down in certain situations. Only a blackjack lunatic would hit on a hard 18.

The Best Blackjack Strategy Is to Split your Aces

Now that you understand the important role of the ace in the blackjack game, you will understand what to do when you have two of them. The best blackjack strategy is always to split your aces.

If you had a pair of aces and you didn't split them, what would you have? You would have a hard 12. As we discussed above, a hard 12 is a stiff hand, and a stiff hand is a bad hand.

But if you do split your aces, you now have two blackjack hands, each with one ace, and each awaiting the arrival of a second card. If that second card is a 10 or a face card, you have 21, which is a wonderful thing. If the second card is a 2 through 9 card, you have a soft hand, which is also a wonderful thing. So you can't go wrong if you follow the best blackjack strategy and split your pair of aces, giving you, in effect, two potentially winning blackjack hands instead of one stiff hand.

Hard and Soft Hands in the Online Casino

The blackjack basic strategy chart is a glorious thing, but it can be a little complicated. The strategy chart tells you that with a soft 18, you should stand if the dealer is showing a 2, 7, 8, or ace; hit if the dealer is showing a 9 or 10; and double down if the dealer is showing a 3, 4, 5, or 6. That's great advice, but who can remember it all?

Well, if you are playing in an online blackjack casino, you don't have to remember it. You can simply print out a basic blackjack strategy table and keep it next to your computer. Take your time, and refer to the chart whenever you want to. This is one of the many advantages of playing blackjack online.

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