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Where strategy becomes more complicated in application is when playing what’s known as a “hard” hand. A hard hand is any hand that doesn’t include an Ace, or where an Ace can’t be counted as 11. Hard hands differ from both “soft” hands that contain an Ace and “stiff” hands which are likely to bust on a hit.
The first key to a hard hand strategy is to always expect that the dealer’s down card is a 10. That’s because there are more cards that can count as 10s than any other amount in a 52-card deck. Multiply the 16 10-count cards in one deck by the number of decks in play, and you get a good idea of how many 10s can be in play. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to assume that any hit you take will give you a 10, and to plan out how that will affect your hand. Following both of those suggestions can help you discern the proper strategy for you, no matter what hand you’ve been dealt.
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Tens are also vital when hoping to be dealt a blackjack, since a 10 and an Ace will give you a winning total of 21, what’s known as natural blackjack. Natural blackjack even pays out better, at 3 to 2, than other hands. This makes quite a difference to the player edge.
Fives can be troublesome. They can create stiff hands in an instant, and it’s startlingly easy to go bust on a stiff hand. Consider this: If all the four 5 cards were removed from the deck, the advantage instantly shifts from the house to the player. Just four cards out of 52 can alter the entire probability of the game.
Finally, the blackjack strategy of card counting would be impossible without 5s or 10s in the deck. That’s how important those two cards are to the overall probability of winning in blackjack. Now that you know this, here are some general guidelines for playing other cards in a hard hand.
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Guidelines for Playing Hard Hands
Playing a Hard 8: You should always take a hit on a hard 8. Starting with a hard 8 might seem like a loss, but remember that there are 16 potential 10s hanging out in a deck of cards, meaning it’s likely that a hard 8 will grow up to be a respectable total of 18. Not only is the chance of a pretty strong hand relatively high here, but there’s no chance you’ll go bust in trying, either. You shouldn’t double down on a hard 8, though. The chances of an improved hand might be good, but it can only rise to 18, which isn’t really strong enough to warrant the extra money. There’s still a good chance the dealer can beat your 18.
Playing a Hard 9: If the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6 up card, you should double down. Otherwise, take a hit. A lot of basic strategy overlooks the hard 9, since 10s are so prevalent in blackjack. It’s nothing to sneeze at, though, since a hard 9 that takes a hit is likely to get 10, making a strong total of 19. Combine a solid 19 with a high dealer bust potential and doubling down can lead to a quite profitable outcome. Since basic strategy always assumes the dealer’s hold card is a 10, an up card like 3, 4, 5, or 6 will give the player a stiff hand and increase the chances of his or her busting.
Playing a Hard 10: Doubling down is the best bet when the dealer is showing a 2 through 9. If they have something outside that range for an up card, you should take a hit. You’ll notice that quite often you’ll get a 10 after taking a hit. This is because there are 16 cards with that value in the deck. If you started out with a hard 10, getting another 10 on a hit is a great windfall, as now you’ve got a total of 20, which the dealer can only beat with a 21. So take the hit! Doubling down here can make for a pretty big win, too. However, if the dealer is showing an Ace or 10, it’s much more likely the game will end in a push, or even with a dealer 21, so doubling down might end up costing you more. With an Ace or 10 dealer up card, you’ll just want to take a hit and see how your hand holds up against the dealer’s potential powerhouse.
Playing a Hard 11: You should double down if the dealer shows a 2 through 10, otherwise it’s best to take a hit. If you’re holding an 11, there are no less than 16 chances in a deck of cards to make a 21. There’s absolutely zero chance you’ll bust with a hand like this, too. Double down to take advantage of this great situation and get a little more money into the action. The only thing to keep in mind is when the dealer has an Ace showing. If that’s the case it’s very likely he or she has a 21, which means putting more money in action is a little pointless. At times like this, you should just take a hit to see how your hand improves.
Playing a Hard 12: Take a hit on a hard 12, unless the dealer’s up card is a 4, 5, or 6. If it is, then you should stand. There’s a greater probability the dealer has a stiff hand if they’re showing a 4, 5, or 6, which translates to a higher chance for a bust. You wouldn’t to run the risk of busting your hard 12 if the dealer might bust anyway, so standing is the best option here. However, any up card beyond those three gives the dealer a lower probability of busting, and if you only have a 12 to compete against the dealer you’ll have to take a hit to really stand a chance. But it’s worth taking the hit, as a 12 has a rather low chance of busting.
Playing a Hard 13-16: You should stand on a hard 13-16 if the dealer is showing a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. If the dealer is showing any other card, take a hit. A hard 13-16 can be a little difficult to wield, since the chance of going bust is so high. These totals are called “stiff hands” for that very reason. When you’ve got a stiff hand like this and the dealer is showing a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, the chance of a dealer bust is pretty high. The best bet in this kind of situation is just to stand on your stiff hand and hope for the bust. The dealer has an advantage, though, if his or her up card is a 7 or better, because it’s highly probable that the down card is a 10. If that’s true, the dealer will stand and the chance of them busting goes right out the window. Instead, you’ll have to take a hit in the hopes your hand will improve.
Playing a Hard 17-21: You should always stand on a hard 17 through 21. The reasoning behind the strategy on a hard 17-21 is pretty straightforward. Even with a hard 17, there are far too many cards that could make you bust. You can improve your hand with Aces, twos, threes or fours, but anything else is going to bust your hand. Those four only make up 16 cards of a single deck, meaning there are 36 other cards out there that can be detrimental to you. And that’s just for a hard 17. Things get much bleaker for a hard 18 or higher. Unless, of course, you’ve managed a total of 21, which means you’ve got a winner.
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How to play blackjack hard hands
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