I was playing blackjack, whiling away the time before lunch at a $10 table while my wife played penny slots. It was a pretty non-descript six-deck game, with the dealer hitting soft 17 but double downs allowed on any first two cards. Players could split pairs up to three times for a total of four hands.
The most unusual thing about the game came after I’d been playing for about 10 minutes. The deck turned into a soft 17 mine. Four hands in a row, I had 17 in hands that counted the ace as 11. The first two times, my hand was ace-6. The third was ace-4-2 and the fourth was ace-3-3.
On my first ace-6, the dealer had a 6 face up. For basic strategy players, that’s a double down situation, so I pushed out two more $5 chips. The player at third base looked directly at me, and shook his head.
That’s unusual, I thought. When I first started playing back in the 1980s, soft 17 was one of the most misplayed hands in blackjack. Nowadays, the large majority of players have caught on that ace-6 is a double-down opportunity whenever the dealer’s face up card is 3, 4, 5 or 6. Players win more of those hands than we lose, so we want more money on the table.
I didn’t win this one. My double down card was an 8, giving me a 15 with the ace counted as one. The dealer turned a 7 up, then drew a 4 for 17.
When the second ace-6 came up, the dealer’s up card was a queen. This time I signaled to hit.
The third baseman asked, “What, no double down this time?”
I said, “Not against a 10,” and he replied, “But you’re STILL HITTING 17!” I nodded, looked back at my hand, and saw a 3 come up. I had a 20, and when the dealer turned up a jack, I had a push.
Next hand: ace-4, against a 9. I hit, and got a 2 for the third soft 17. I signaled to hit again, and my nemesis went into fill indignation role.
“Will you knock it off, hitting those 17s?”
Other players jumped into the fray. “He’s doing it right,” said the gentleman at first base, and the woman immediately to my left said, “That’s what I was taught to do.”
This one turned out badly. I drew a 6 for 13, then a 4 for a hard 17, and stood. (“About freakin’ time,” the third baseman snarled.) No one else took a card. The dealer’s down card was a 7 for 16, then he drew 5 for a 21 that beat the table.
“If you hadn’t taken that 6, he’d have busted!” yelled Mr. Stand on 17. “You cost us all money.”
Again, others came to my defense, with the first baseman snapping back, “It was the right play! He doesn’t know what card is coming next.”
Hand No. 4 was dealt. Ace-3 for me, an 8 for the dealer. I drew a 3, and the third baseman shouted, “He stands!” The woman next to me looked his way and said, “Will you knock it off?” I just signaled for another hit. This time I drew a 4, and I had my 21. The dealer turned up another 8, then a 10 and busted.
“See, that didn’t hurt,” said the fellow at first. The guy on third snorted, “Lucky,” scooped up his chips and left. Our first-base friend said quietly, “Thank goodness,” and there were chuckles all around. The woman on my left patted my arm and said, “You kept cool for all that. Good for you.”
For the record, the best percentage plays on soft 17 are is to double down after two cards if the dealer shows 3 through 6, to hit against all other dealer up cards, and to hit if your soft 17 is three or more cards.
It’s not going to work every time. In this four-hand stretch, I won once, pushed once, and lost twice, including a double down. I had a net loss of $20. But I’d play all four hands the same way, because it’s the best percentage play. In the long run, I’ll win more of the double downs than I lose. On hands where I’m at a disadvantage, I’ll reduce losses on the by hitting soft 17.
Seventeen can push, but it’s never a winning hand unless the dealer busts. And with soft 17, you can’t bust with a one-card hit. For a basic strategy player, the time to stand on soft 17 is never. Six players at a seven-player table got it. And then there was one.
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