Soft Hands in Blackjack and How to Play Them

In blackjack, basic strategy is what should determine all your decisions. You should ignore your hunches and the advice of the other players at the table. This is more important with soft blackjack hands than any other kind of hand, but those are also some of the harder hands to make decisions about.

The purpose of this post is to look at how to play your soft hands correctly in blackjack.

And when someone says “correctly” when talking about gambling, they really mean “optimally.”

Blackjack is all about probabilities and expected value.

Every decision you make related to soft blackjack hands has an “expected value.”

Your goal is to make sure that this expected value is as high as possible.

With the strategy notes below, you can make sure you’re getting the best possible expected value with your soft hands – especially the trouble hands of soft 13 or 14 and soft 15 or 16.

What Is a Soft Hand in Blackjack?

A soft hand in blackjack is any hand where you can choose to use the ace as 1 or as 11.

Any 2-card hand with an ace in it is a soft hand.

When you get 3 or more cards in a hand, it’s possible to have a hand where you MUST count the ace as 1 point to avoid busting.

When that becomes the case, you have a hard hand.

Hands are only soft when you can count the ace as one or the other.

What’s the Lowest Possible Soft Total?

If you have a pair of aces, you have a soft 12, which is the lowest possible soft hand you could have.

But it’s also a pair, and if you know anything about basic strategy, it’s this:

ALWAYS split aces and 8s.

So, if you have a soft 12, you should split.

There’s no such hand as a soft 11 or lower.

How Should You Play Soft 13 or Soft 14?

A soft 13 and a soft 14 are played in exactly the same way:

You will NEVER stand on either of these hands.

You’ll always take another card.

The only thing you need to remember with these totals is whether you should hit or double down.

If the dealer has a 5 or 6 showing, you should double down (if you’re allowed to).

If the dealer has any other card showing, you should just hit.

A dealer with a 5 or 6 showing is going to have a 15 or 16 about 1/3 of the time, which means 2 things:

  1. They’ll probably have to hit.
  2. They’ll probably bust when they take their next card.

Since it’s impossible for you to bust, and you win regardless of your total when the dealer busts, you would be wise to take one additional card and put more money into action.

Keep in mind that you won’t win 100% of the time with this strategy. You’re just maximizing your expected value, which means that you’ll lose less and win more in the long run following this strategy.

And, with a soft 13 or 14, if the dealer has any other card showing, you should just hit.

How Should You Play a Soft 15 or 16

A soft 15 or 16 plays almost the same way. After all, it’s another hand that’s impossible to bust.

But with this hand, you’re going to wind up with a slightly higher total after taking another card, which means you can be ever-so-slightly more aggressive with this hand.

You’ll always take another card.

But with a soft 15 or 16, you’ll double down against a dealer’s face-up card of 4, 5, or 6.

The dealer still probably has a “stiff hand” here, so it’s a good idea to get more money into action.

If the dealer has any other card showing, you should just hit.

How Should You Play a Soft 17

You’ll also always take another card with a soft 17, but you’re again in a situation where you can get more aggressive.

With a soft 17, you should double down against a dealer 3, 4, 5, or 6.

If she has any other card showing, just hit.

How to Play a Soft 18

A soft 18 is the only soft hand that you might consider tricky. It’s one of the only hands where you must decide whether to take a card or not.

If the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace, you should hit this hand.

If you’re allowed to double down, you’ll double on the same cards you’d double against with a soft 17:

3, 4, 5, or 6

Against a dealer 2, 7, or 8, you’ll stand.

How to Play a Soft 19 or Higher

You’ll always stand with a soft 19, 20, or 21.

If you have a 2-card total of 21, you have a soft total, sure – but it’s also a blackjack, which pays off at 3 to 2.

Most people don’t count them in blackjack soft hands, even though it obviously is.

How Do You Play Soft Hands if You’re Not Allowed to Double Down

All the above examples assume that you’re allowed to double down.

But in many blackjack games, you’re not allowed to double down on soft hands.

If that’s the case in the game where you’re playing, basic strategy for these soft totals gets even easier.

With a soft 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17, you’ll always hit if doubling isn’t allowed.

Basic strategy can’t get much simpler than that.

With a soft 18, though, things get a little more complicated.

Don’t worry, though, you can handle the correct strategy here, too:

  • Stand if the dealer has an 8 or less
  • Hit if the dealer has a 9 or higher

Basic strategy for soft hands where you can’t double down is just that easy.

But Why Are These the Correct Strategies?

Let’s look at some examples of why these examples are the optimal way to play the hand.

Let’s start with a soft total of 20.

If you have a soft 20, how many cards will improve your hand?

And what will the other cards in the deck do to your total?

The ONLY card that will improve a soft 20 is an ace – and how likely are you to get an ace?

After all, you already have one of them, or you wouldn’t have a soft hand to begin with. The dealer can only beat you in this situation if she gets a 21.

That’s as close to a sure thing as you’ll see. It wouldn’t make sense to try to improve a hand with such good odds of winning.

What about a soft 19?

Now you only have 2 possible cards that will improve your hand – an ace or a 2.

Hitting here would be a better play than with a soft 20, but it’s a far cry from a good play.

You have 2 possible cards in the deck which will improve your hand. Every other possible card will make your hand worse, and there’s no strategic reason for doing that.

With a soft 17, you have a strong hand, but it’s not strong enough to beat a dealer face-up card of 8, 9, 10, or ace.

That’s because the dealer has a strong hand most of the time here.

1/3 of the time, the dealer has a 10 in the hole, which means she has a total of 18, 19, 20, or 21 a lot of the time.

Then if he has a 7, 8, or 9, she has a solid total that you’ll want to try to beat, too.

But if the dealer has a 6 or lower, she probably has a “stiff hand,” which is another way of saying she has a hand that’s likely to bust.

That’s why you’ll double down or hit in this situation.

Luckily, you don’t have to figure out exactly why every decision with a soft hand needs to be the way it is.

The computer simulations already did the math.

All you must do is memorize how to play each of these hands.