Soft totals have cemented their solid position on the list of most frequently misplayed hands in blackjack. And indeed it is not a rarity to see both rookies and some supposedly experienced blackjack players make serious mistakes when they end up with a soft total.
These mistakes can be attributed mostly to the lack of basic-strategy knowledge. Part of the confusion results from the differences in the correct plays for hard and soft hands with the same total. Such is the case with soft 19 which is one of best hands players can receive at the blackjack table. Stick with us to learn the correct playing decisions for soft 19 and its cousin soft 20 – the ability to handle these soft totals with confidence makes a world of difference over the long run.
The Optimal Plays for Soft 19 under the H17 and the S17 Rules
Soft 19 is a hand that totals either 9 or 19 since the Ace it contains can be assigned a value of 1 or 11 depending on which of the two values the player chooses. Hands of A-8, A-2-6, and 3-5-A are all examples of soft 19.
The correct playing strategy for all these hands differs from that for hard totals of 19 which are either Aceless or contain an Ace with a value of 1 only. The main difference between the two types of hands is that you cannot bust after you draw a third card to your soft total.
Players who are dealt a soft total of 19 are faced with two playing decisions – they can either stand, i.e. decline drawing a third card, or double down by posting an additional wager and receive only one more card. Which of the two playing options they choose depends largely on the value of the dealer’s upcard, the number of decks the blackjack variation uses, and the fixed playing rules for the dealer.
When playing against a single deck, basic strategy players are supposed to double down on their soft 19 but only when the dealer’s upcard is a 6. Respectively, players should stand on their soft 19 when the dealer shows any other upcard. These two rules apply to all single-deck games regardless of whether the dealer is supposed to hit soft 17 (H17) or stand on soft 17 (S17).
The Optimal Plays for Soft 19 Additional TipsThe basic strategy plays for this soft hand differ in games where multiple decks of cards are in use. If you are playing S17 multiple-deck or double-deck blackjack, you are supposed to stand on your soft 19 no matter what upcard your dealer is exposing.
As you can see, the correct move in multiple-deck games is directly related to the dealer’s fixed drawing and standing rules. Some blackjack authors recommend players to always stand on their soft 19s even against the dealer’s weak 6, with the basic premise of their argument being something along those lines – “You are already dealt a good enough hand that gets you in the safe zone with a total that exceeds the average winning hand of 18.5. Why take your chances with a double down and risk ruining a great hand? You should be happy to have gotten a soft 19 in the first place!”
But look here – it is mathematically established that a dealer playing a multiple-deck game under the H17 rules is bound to bust more frequently than they will when being obliged to stand on all totals of 17. In fact, the bust rate of dealers increases roughly by 3.4% in an H17 game compared to the games where the dealer must stand on this soft total.
Similarly, the basic strategy for soft 19 in single-deck S17 blackjack recommends you to always double down on this hand when the dealer’s upcard is 6 because the dealer would bust with this hand 0.5% more frequently in comparison to standing. The margin may be quite small but the doubling down move still helps you maximize your value when facing a dealer with a weak upcard.
Approaching a Multiple-Card Soft 19 Hand
You may have noticed from some of the examples we provided earlier that a soft 19 does not necessarily consist of an Ace and an 8. Sometimes players might end up with this soft total after hitting their hand, which means their soft 19 consists of three, sometimes even more cards.
An example would be when you start the round with 5-3 against a dealer who shows a 6. Basic strategy tells you the correct move here is to hit, so you hit, pull an Ace, and end up with a three-card soft 19.
Doubling down would not be an option in this case because most casinos allow this move only on two-card totals. Some establishments would even restrict doubling only to hard hands but such terrible playing conditions are a rarity.
So what do you do with your soft 19 under these circumstances? When doubling is unavailable for whatever reason, you always stand on your soft 19 regardless of what upcard the dealer is showing. Here is a brief summary of the correct playing decisions for this hand so you can memorize them easily:
- Always double down against the dealer’s 6 when playing a single-deck game
- Always double down against the dealer’s 6 in double-deck and multiple-deck games with the H17 rule
- Stand when the dealer shows any upcard other than a 6 in double-deck and multiple-deck blackjack with the S17 rule
- Stand when doubling on your soft 19 is not an option (due to multiple cards or casino restrictions)
Misplaying Soft 19 – Some Common Mistakes to Avoid
It is obvious the dealer’s fixed rules in multiple-deck blackjack have a dramatic impact on one of the basic strategy plays for the soft 19 holding, which is why you should do your best to learn and make a distinction between the optimal plays for H17 and S17 games. This will prevent you from making mistakes when facing a decision that involves soft 19s.
The rule of thumb is to double on soft 19 against a dealer 6 in H17 games and stand on your soft 19 against a dealer 6 in S17 games. Both of these decisions give you a positive long-term expectation of nearly 50%, which means the player is expected to win almost $0.50 for every one-dollar unit they wager.
Misplaying this soft hand by standing instead of doubling in H17 blackjack, for example, reduces your expectation to around 44%. The percentage may still be positive but you end up making less money in the long run than you would when making the correct playing decision.
Misplaying Soft 19 Additional TipsYou should never deviate from the above-specified basic strategy playing decisions unless you are counting cards. While correct, the basic strategy plays are based on the assumption the player has no knowledge about the composition of the remaining deck.
Thus, the correct decisions with basic strategy are based on more limited information – the value of the dealer’s upcard and the sum total of their hand. In contrast, card counters have knowledge of the ratio of high cards to small cards and how this affects the odds and their expected value. The best a basic strategy player can do is memorize the strategy chart to a tee, stick to it, and acquaint themselves with the rules at the blackjack table they intend to join.
The Optimal Play for Soft 20
The optimal playing decision for soft 20 is the simplest to remember since it always remains the same regardless the number of decks you play against, the dealer’s drawing rules, and their upcard. A soft 20 contains an Ace that can be counted as 1 or 11 so that the total of the hand is either 10 or 20. Some examples of soft 20s include hands like A-9, A-4-5, A-7-2, and 3-6-A.
The correct way to play this hand is to stand no matter what upcard the dealer is exposing. This is all there is to it. Any other playing decision is nonsensical when you get dealt a pat hand like that. Hitting is not an option and neither is doubling since the only way for you to improve your soft 20 would be to draw an Ace for a total of 21.
Drawing a ten or a face card does nothing else but leaving you with a hard 20. The bottom line is any other card but 10, King, Jack, Queen, or Ace will reduce your total leaving you in a much worse situation than the one you originally were in.
Again, the only way for you to pull this stunt off is to count cards and deviate from basic strategy play when the composition of the remaining deck/shoe justifies one such ballsy move. Until you get there, stick to basic strategy and the soft 19/soft 20 plays recommended above.