One of the most confusing aspects blackjack novices tend to struggle with is the quirky lingo at the tables. Inexperienced players often get perplexed when they hear others talking about “breaking hands”, “bust cards”, “five-card Charlies”, “soft hands”, “stiffies”, and such. And indeed, many players who are just wading into the vast universe of 21 struggle to understand the difference between soft hands and hard hands (i.e. the above-mentioned “stiffies”).
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You will encounter these two terms across a vast range of books and strategy articles but reading all the blackjack literature in the world amounts to nothing if you fail to make a proper distinction between the two main types of hands in this beautiful game of probabilities.
The thing is optimal playing decisions vary vastly for soft and hard hands even if their total is identical. In the following article, we shall be looking at the key differences between soft and hard hands in blackjack, explain which of the two are more valuable to players, and expound the logic behind several important playing decisions.
Soft Hands vs. Hard Hands – What’s the Difference?
So what is the distinction between soft and hard hands? Hard hands in blackjack either do not contain an Ace or when they do, the Ace is assigned a value of 1 and cannot be counted as 11. An example of an Aceless hard hand is K-6 which makes for a hard total of 16. A hand like A-4-10-3 with a total of 18 is also hard despite the presence of the Ace because here, it counts as 1. Otherwise, the player would exceed 21 and lose the round.
In contrast, soft hands are those that contain an Ace that counts as 1 or 11 depending on the player’s preferences. While at the blackjack table, you will face multiple situations where you start with a soft hand which transforms into a hard one after you take one or more hits. Suppose, for instance, you start with a two-card hand consisting of A-2 whose total is either 3 or 13, it is up to you to decide.
You follow basic strategy and hit your soft 13 but draw a Jack. Your hand is now hard 13 and the Ace is counted as 1 because otherwise, you will bust. Basic strategy tells you to take another hit and you end up drawing a second Ace which also counts as 1 for a total of hard 14. You hit again, draw a 3, and what started as a soft 13 is now A-2-J-A-3 for a hard total of 17. Here are a few more examples of soft hands turning into stiffs after one or more hits:
- A-3-8 equals hard 12
- A-5-6 is again hard 12
- A-4-K-A-3 is a hard 19
Soft Hands vs. Hard Hands Additional TipsIt is worth noting that A-A also counts as a soft hand whose value can be either 2 or 12. However, soft 12 is a special case and as such, is not treated like the other soft totals. The only right decision you can make in this scenario is to split the pair of Aces, in which case you normally get only one extra card per Ace.
It is of utmost importance for a blackjack player to be able to make a distinction between soft and hard totals because the optimal playing decisions for the two types of hands are often different, regardless of the fact the two hands may have the same sum total. For instance, you will approach A-6 differently than 8-9 or Q-7, right? Indeed you will, provided that you stick to basic strategy, which is something all blackjack players, professional or not, should do.
Which Hand Type is Better?
It makes sense that soft hands are good for the players because they give them more flexibility, enabling them to change the total of their cards back and forth until they obtain a strong enough hand against the dealer’s upcard. These valuable hands give you a chance to improve your total without risking a bust on the very next hit.
In fact, it is impossible for a player to bust with a soft hand by drawing a third card from the shoe or deck as becomes obvious from the following example. You start the round with A-3 but count the Ace as 11 because a value of 1 will be no good in this case. No third card can bust you because you can easily revert the value of your Ace back to 1 if you catch anything higher than a 7, in which case, your soft hand will turn into a hard one and you continue playing in accordance with basic strategy.
Suppose you hit and pull a 7 indeed – this gives you the highest possible total of 21, which is unbeatable. Here you can only lose if the dealer has a blackjack. In the worst-case scenario, the two of you will push.
What if your third card is something else, though? If you catch a 5, for example, your A-4 becomes A-4-5 for a soft 20. This hand remains susceptible to hitting as the Ace can still be counted as 1 or 11 but you refrain from further hits. You are already in the safe zone with a total of 20 and there is no point in risking ruining your hand by drawing more cards. Do not forget the average winning total in the game of blackjack is 18.5!
Soft hands are better than hard ones for yet another reason. They give you the opportunity to execute some very useful doubling down decisions and increase your betting action during a round, particularly when your dealer is in a disadvantageous position with upcards 3 through 6. This enables you to increase your value by playing more aggressively when the dealer is weak.
The H17 Rule for Dealers
Let us not forget dealers can also end up with soft totals. Casinos have found a way to exploit these advantageous hands by tweaking the dealer’s drawing and standing rules for one specific soft total. Sooner or later, blackjack players are bound to come across tables where the H17 rule applies, which means the dealer is required to draw more cards with a holding of soft 17.
This is generally considered bad for the player because it gives the dealer a chance to improve their soft 17 to a higher total, which, in turn, increases the house edge by 0.22% even if all other rules remain unchanged.
Another key thing to consider before taking a seat at the H17 table are the differences in the correct plays for certain hands. In one such game, you should always double on hard totals of 11 against all possible dealer upcards, including the Ace, which is not the case when you play S17 blackjack where you hit your 11 against an Ace.
The same goes for some soft doubling decisions, particularly the soft 18 (A-7) and soft 19 (A-8). You should double on soft 18 when playing against an H17 dealer with small upcards 2 through 6. Soft 19 calls for doubling in H17 games only when the dealer is at their most vulnerable with a 6. Without these strategy adjustments, you will fail to reduce the house edge.
The Frequency of Occurrence of Hard and Soft Hands
Gambling expert Henry Tamburin tells us there are 34 hands you can receive at the start of a betting round. As many as 14 of those will be hard totals (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19). Respectively, 8 of those will be soft totals A-2, A-3, A-4, A-5, A-6, A-7, A-8, and A-9 and the remaining 10 hands will consist of paired cards (A-A, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, and 10-10). We treat blackjacks consisting of an Ace and ten-value cards as special cases since the Aces in them always count as 11.
But what is the frequency of occurrence of those hands after a reshuffle? Since ten-value cards outnumber all other card denominations, it is only natural for paired tens, Kings, Queens, and Jacks to occur the most frequently. These appear a little over 9% of the time and are followed by stiff hands 12 through 16. The reason why hard hands have such high occurrence frequency is similar – there are more card denominations that can combine to form these stiff totals.
Next in line are naturals. They also have a relatively high frequency of occurrence (4.7%) because of the large number of cards that give you this combination. Paired cards (with the exception of paired ten-value cards) and soft hands tend to occur the least frequently, under 1% and 1.1%, respectively.
The Frequency of Occurrence of Hard and Soft Hands Additional TipsWhat about the advantage each of these hands can give the players? Not surprisingly, the most advantageous hand is the blackjack itself, followed by paired ten-value cards and soft 20 (these yield around 60% advantage), with hard 19 and 11 in tow (with an advantage of around 23%). Hard hands 12 through 17 are last in line since they hold you at a massive disadvantage that ranges between 30% and 40%. These are considered breaking hands because the player can easily bust with them on the next hit.
The starting hands that hold you at the biggest disadvantage logically yield the biggest loss rates in the long run. So it turns out the biggest “losers” in blackjack are hard 12 through hard 16, small hard totals 5 through 7, pairs of 2s through 8s, and soft totals 13 through 17.
Despite the assumptions of some less experienced players, pat 17 and pat 18 are not very good hands in blackjack, the reason being the average winning total in the game is 18.5. It follows that blackjack’s biggest moneymakers are the starting hands with the highest occurrence frequency and the biggest win rates, namely the naturals, the pairs of ten-value cards, 11, hard 19, soft 19 and soft 20.
The Reasoning Behind Some Soft Doubling Decisions
You are probably wondering why soft hands are considered so important when they rank among the most frequently losing hands in the game. This is a very good question to ask, indeed. Moreover, why would you double on them when most soft totals have low win rates? Another good question. Let’s consider several soft doubling moves to try and provide an answer.
Suppose you are dealt a soft 13 against a dealer exposing a 4 and intend to double on it. There are 5 cards out of 13 denominations that can help you improve your total to at least 17 or higher. These are the 4, the 5, the 6, the 7, and the 8. The remaining 8 cards out of the 13 denominations will convert your soft 13 into bad hard totals.
Therefore, the odds of improving the hand are not in your favor since there are 8 cards that leave you with a hard total as opposed to 5 cards that help you. The same goes for soft 16 where you are again facing odds of 8 to 5 against you, with 5 helpful cards (2 through 5 plus the Ace) and 8 cards that transform your soft hand into a stiff.
Things are a bit different when your starting hand is soft 18 where there are 8 cards that can help you get into the safe zone against the dealer’s weak card, namely the Ace, the 2, the 3, the 9, the 10, and the three face cards). The odds of 5 to 8 are in your favor this time around.
With soft doubling decisions, there are several things you need to take into consideration. The 5 and the 6 are the worst for the dealer which is why you should always double against those with soft 13 through soft 18.
Soft Doubling Decisions Additional TipsCards with pip value 3 and 4 are also bad for the dealer but not as bad as the 5 and the 6. Finally, we have the dealer’s 2 which is not as weak and does not call for doubling on any totals but 10 and 11 in S17 games and soft 18 in H17 games.
You may have noticed basic strategy recommends you to double on soft 16 against a dealer 4 but tells you to hit a soft 13 instead of doubling despite the fact that in both cases, you are facing the same odds (8 to 5) against the same dealer upcard. Why is that?
It depends on the number of hit cards that would leave you wishing you can draw again. When you double on soft 16, the only card that would leave you wanting to take another hit is the Ace. In the case of soft 13, you are facing four hit cards that would cause you to want to hit again, the 2, the 3, the 4, and the Ace but you will not be allowed to draw because you receive only one additional card after you double down. In conclusion, the lower the value of the soft total, the bigger your disadvantage when you restrict yourself to a single hit.