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Soft vs Hard Blackjack: Why it Matters (May 2024)

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Blackjack is easily one of the most popular card games around the world. It is fairly simple to learn, it doesn’t require extreme concentration to play it, and it can help you win decent amounts of money, depending on the circumstances of the game. These days, you can play it at pretty much any online or land-based casino, so it is also very easy to access.

However, despite it not being as complex as poker, for example, it still requires you to strategize to an extent. This means being aware of the strategies themselves, but also of certain mechanics that the game features. These mechanics might be extremely useful in the right situation, and together with your strategy, they can be enough to help you lower the house edge and win the game.

Now, when it comes to strategies, most of them revolve around whether you have a soft hand or a hard hand. But, if you are brand new to the world of blackjack, you might not know what does that mean. This is why today, we decided to address this issue and hopefully make strategizing easier for all new gamblers who are in the process of educating themselves about this game.

Hard and soft hands in blackjack

The first thing to understand is that the concept of hard and soft hands, or hard and soft totals, as they are also known, is a crucial piece of information for developing strategies and making decisions during the game. The reason for that is that hard and soft cards offer different odds, and so your victory against the dealer, and therefore the house, depend on understanding what hand you have as a player.

The words hard and soft themselves are commonly used in blackjack, and they refer to two different kinds of hands that the player can be dealt. In other words, it all depends on what cards you received in the initial phases of the game. From that point, you devise a strategy, and the strategies are completely different, depending entirely on the hand you have been dealt.

There is one single card that makes the difference between the two hands, and that is the Ace. So, as you probably know, at the start of each blackjack game, you are dealt two cards. If one of these cards is an ace, then your hand is considered soft. The reason for it is the fact that the Ace can be treated as both 1 and 11, depending on the other cards that you are holding.

A soft hand is generally considered to be better, as it implies greater liquidity, and it offers a better choice for the player. To make this easier to understand, let’s use an example. Let’s say that you receive a soft hand, meaning that you got an Ace as your first card and 8 as your second card. With Ace in hand, your hand can be treated as either 9 or 19.

Alternatively, if you are dealt a hand where there is no Ace, then the hand is considered hard. That means that the hand is more rigid, and you do not have the choice of treating your total as two different totals. For example, if you have two 5 cards, the total can only be 10. Alternatively, if you hold a Queen and 10, the total can only be 20, and so on.

Strategies

As mentioned, soft and hard hands rely on completely different strategies, even if you were to have the same total in both cases. The fact that one of them is more flexible, thanks to the Ace, makes a huge difference in how you are going to proceed and what additional mechanics of the game you might use.

Let’s take a look at the strategies involving both hands in detail, which will make it easier to understand what exactly we are talking about.

1) Soft hand strategy

Let’s start with the soft hand strategy, as this is typically a type of hand that most players hope to get when they play blackjack. In order to be able to use the soft hand blackjack strategy, you first need to understand the basic strategy and then modify it to fit the soft hand.

Once you do, the soft hand can actually provide you with an opportunity to win a small fortune, provided that you are lucky and that you play your cards right. So, how would that work?

Let’s imagine a scenario in which the dealer has an up card that is 4, 5, or 6. If this is the case, if the player has a soft hand, they can double down in order to maximize their winnings. In this scenario, doubling down does not pose a threat of busting, and because of that, doubling down is a strategy that professional gamblers always tend to implement.

Blackjack’s house edge is already pretty low, and with the right strategy involving a soft hand, you can take it down even further. However, to balance things out, a rule was added to the game that allows dealers to hit a soft 17. When this happens, the house gets an opportunity to improve the hand against the soft hand of the player, which is less risky than a hard hand.

2) Hard hand strategy

Now, let’s take a look at what the situation is like when you get a hard hand. Essentially, a hard hand means that you need to think your strategy through even more and devise a rather solid approach. Once again, your success will depend on your knowledge of the basic strategy and, since this IS gambling, on luck as well.

So, what do you do when you get a hard hand? The best way to deal with the situation is to avoid stepping away from the basic strategy itself. In other words, the basic strategy pretty much is your hard-hand strategy. Start by assuming that the dealer has a ten in the hole, meaning that if the up card ends up being a 10, the safest approach is to assume that he has a total of 20.

This way of calculating the theoretical total is crucial for winning a game of blackjack when you have a hard hand.

But, what if the dealer is holding a lower card, such as 6, or 5, or even lower than that? Well, in that case, your safest course of action is to stand and hope for the best. There is one thing to remember here, however, and that is the fact that you should not hesitate to hit a total of 14 or 15. Given that this is a hard 14/15, or even 16, is beneficial, especially if the dealer revealed their up card to be a 10. Basically, your only options are to hit 14, 15, or 16 or to surrender. However, there might be situations where surrendering is not an option. As a result, you are better off hitting 14 and alike.

When should you double down?

Earlier, we mentioned the option to double down in order to increase your winnings in blackjack, and this possibility is still there in pretty much all blackjack games. Essentially, it allows you to double your entire bet after being handed your first two cards, but it also means that you will receive a third card, and its value will be added to the total of the original 2 cards that you are holding.

Obviously, that makes it a fairly risky move, as you never know which card you might get or how it can impact your total score. This is why it should only be used when you hold a hard 9 or 10 while the dealer has a low-up card. If you happen to get a reasonably high card as your 3rd card, you will be in a better position against the dealer.

Alternatively, you can also opt to double down when you have a soft hand, provided that the hand has a total of 16, 17, or 18. If this is the case, and the dealer also has a low card, then you are in a good position to risk doubling down, as an additional card can significantly improve your odds of winning.

Conclusion

At this point, you should know what soft and hard hands are, how you can identify which one you have, and how they can impact your game of blackjack. Regardless of which one you have, you will be required to understand basic strategy in order to truly use the cards that you got to your advantage and win, but generally speaking, a soft hand is pretty much always a better option, as it is more flexible and it gives you more room to work.

Hit - After the player is dealt the two initial cards, the player has the option to hit (request an additional card). The player should keep asking to hit until they feel that they have a sufficiently strong hand to win (as close to 21 as possible, without going over 21).

Stand - When the player has cards that they feel are sufficiently strong to beat the dealer then they should  “stand.” For example, a player may wish to stand on a hard 20 (two 10 cards such as a 10, jack, queen, or king). The dealer must keep playing until they either beat the player or go bust (going over 21).

Split - After the player is dealt the first two cards, and if those cards are of equal face value (for example, two queens), then the player has the option to split their hand into two separate hands with equal bets on each hand. The player must then continue to play both hands with regular blackjack rules.

Double - After the initial two cards are dealt, if a player feels that they have a strong hand (such as a king and an ace), then the player may choose to double their initial bet. To learn when to double read our guide on When to Double Down in Blackjack.

Blackjack - This is an ace and any 10 value card (10, jack, queen, or king). This is an automatic win for the player.

Hard 20 - This is any two 10 value cards (10, jack, queen, or king). It is unlikely that the player will receive an ace next, and the player should always stand. Splitting is also not recommended.

Soft 18 - This is a combination of an ace and a 7 card. This combination of cards offers the player different strategy options depending on what cards the dealer is dealt.

As the name implies this is blackjack that is played with only one deck of 52 cards.  Many blackjack aficionados refuse to play any other type of blackjack as this blackjack variant offers slightly better odds, and it enables savvy players the option to count cards.

House edge:

0.15% compared to multi-deck blackjack games that have a house edge between 0.46% to 0.65%.

This offers more excitement as players can play up to 5 simultaneous hands of blackjack, the number of hands offered varies based on the casino.

The key difference between American and European blackjack is the hole card.

In American blackjack the dealer receives one card face up and one card face down (the hole card). If the dealer happens to have an Ace as his or her visible card, they then immediately peek at their face down card (the hole card). If the dealer has blackjack with a hole card that is a 10 card (10, jack, queen, or king), then the dealer automatically wins.

In European blackjack the dealer receives only one card, the second card is dealt after all of the players have had the chance to play. In other words, European blackjack has no hole card.

The game is always played with 8 regular decks, this means anticipating the next card is more difficult. The other major difference is players have the option to play a "late surrender".

A late surrender enables a player to toss their hand after the dealer checks his hand for blackjack. This could be wanted if the player has a really bad hand. With a surrender the player loses half their bet. 

In Atlantic City blackjack players can split twice, up to three hands. Aces however, can only be split once.

The dealer must stand on all 17 hands, including soft 17.

Blackjack pays 3 to 2, and and insurance pays 2 to 1.

House edge:

0.36%.

As the name implies this is the most popular version of blackjack in Las Vegas.

4 to 8 standard decks of cards are used, and the dealer must stand on soft 17.

Similar to other types of American blackjack, the dealer receives two cards, one face-up. If the face-up card is an ace, then the dealer peaks at his down card (the hole card).

Players have the option to play a "late surrender".

A late surrender enables a player to toss their hand after the dealer checks his hand for blackjack. This could be wanted if the player has a really bad hand. With a surrender the player loses half their bet. 

House edge:

0.35%.

This is a rare variation of blackjack that increases the odds in the players favor by enabling the player to see both of the dealers cards face up, versus just one card. In other words there is no hole card.

Another key difference is that the dealer has the option to hit or stand on soft 17.

House Edge:

0.67%

This is a version of blackjack that is played with 6 to 8 Spanish decks.

The Spanish deck of cards has four suits and contains 40 or 48 cards, depending on the game.

The cards are numbered from 1 to 9. The four suits are copas (Cups), oros (Coins), bastos (Clubs), and espadas (Swords).

Due to the lack of 10 card it is more difficult for a player to hit blackjack.

House Edge:

0.4%

This is an optional side bet that is offered to a player if the dealer’s up-card is an ace. If the player fears that there is a 10 card (10, jack, queen, or king) that would give the dealer a blackjack, than the player may opt for the insurance bet.

The insurance bet is half of the regular bet (meaning if the player bet $10, then the insurance bet would be $5).

If the dealer has a blackjack then the player is paid 2 to 1 on the insurance bet.

If both the player and the dealer hit blackjack, then the payout is 3 to 2.

An insurance bet is often called a "suckers bet" as the odds are in the houses favor.

House edge:

5.8% to 7.5% - The house edge varies based on the previous card history.

In American blackjack players are given the option to surrender at any time. This should only be done if the player believes they have an extremely bad hand. If the player chooses this than the bank return half of the initial bet. (For example, a $10 bet has $5 returned).

In some version of blackjack such as Atlantic City blackjack only a late surrender is enabled. In this case, a player can only surrender after the dealer has checked his hand for blackjack.

To learn more visit our in-depth guide on When to Surrender in Blackjack.

Lloyd is passionate about online gambling, he lives and breathes blackjack and other table games, and he enjoys sports betting.