Ace in the hand

So you think you play a pretty solid game of blackjack, eh? Well, if you're like 98 percent of the players I see in the casinos, you bungle your "soft" hands something awful.

Soft hands are those containing an Ace. When you've got Ace/4, that's a "soft" 15 because you can't bust it with your next hit. If you catch a 10 to make A/4/10, it becomes a "hard" 15 by changing the value of the Ace from 11 to 1. Yet if you caught a 6 to make A/4/6, you'd have 21 since you could still count the Ace as 11.

Most players mishandle the extra flexibility of the Ace in their hands. As an example, look at the 10 soft hands below. You tell me -- what are the proper ways to play them.

A/7 against a 9

A/6 against a 2

A/3 against a 3

A/7 against a 10

A/4 against a 3

A/2 against a 2

A/5 against a 3

A/3 against a 5

A/7 against a 3

A/6 against a 4

The correct plays are to hit the first seven, and double down with the last three. So how did you do? An experienced veteran of the game will usually get maybe 40 percent of these right, and it's such a needless waste of money!

Now, I know that a color-coded basic strategy chart spells out every correct play for you, but all those colors can run together in your mind when it's crunch time. So here are some easy rules of thumb to help simplify those ever-tricky soft hands.

Hit Ace/7 against a 9 or higher. When the dealer shows a 9, 10 or Ace, your 18 is a distinct underdog. But the extra flexibility in your Ace will increase your win percentage on the hand if you take one or more hits -- even though you'll sometimes end up busting.

Ace/tiny vs. tiny is a bad double. A "tiny" is a very small card such as a 2 or 3 -- and sometimes even a 4. The problem with a real small soft hand like say, Ace/3 against a 3 is there are too many times when you're going to need more than just one hit. If you catch any Ace, 2, 3 or 8, you'd take another hit if you could -- but if you doubled down, you can't! That hurts your win percentage on the hand too much, since the dealer isn't all that weak when she has a 3 up. The only times it's correct to double down with an Ace/tiny are when the dealer has a 5 or 6 up -- her weakest up-cards. That'll give you a bigger back door to sneak through all those times that you make a bad hand.

Ace/6 and Ace/7 make the best soft doubles. That's because if you catch a 10, you'll still have a made hand (17 or 18). Catch a 10 on any smaller soft hand and you've got yourself a stiff (12 through 16). That's why you should double down with Ace/6 and Ace/7 against any 3, 4, 5 or 6.

The "Rule of 9." To sum up all of your soft doubles, first of all remember to never double against a deuce and always double against a 5 or 6. That takes care of most situations and leaves only the dealer's 3 and 4 to worry about. Against those two up-cards only, you should use the Rule of 9. Just add your side-card (your 3 if you have A/3) to the dealer's up-card. If the total is 9 or higher, double down. If it's less, just hit. That means to just hit with A/5 vs. 3, but double A/5 vs. 4, etc.

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