Casino blackjack offers an exciting and highly social environment and a long tradition of being a cool game. It’s also a game that’s been solved, at least as much as any casino game can be, by mathematicians, statistics junkies, and professional gamblers.
Over the years, basic strategies to overcome as much of the house edge as possible have been developed for the various variants of blackjack on offer in American casinos.
This post looks at seven blackjack hands, among the best and the worst in the whole game, and analyzes them with basic math and game strategy, offering tips on how to play them to get the most out of your blackjack bankroll.
How to Play the Four Best Blackjack Hands
Drawing a great hand isn’t usually enough to win live dealer blackjack in the casino. You also have to play that awesome hand correctly.
I don’t need to spend much time talking about how to play this hand – you don’t need to play it at all. When you’re dealt a ten and an ace, you’ve just won an instant payout based on the game’s rules. These days, in most American casinos, that means a 6:5 payout on your wager.
The mathematics behind the game says you should expect to draw a natural about once in every twenty hands.
Starting with Twenty
Here again, you probably don’t need much coaching or cajoling to know how to play a hand worth twenty points.
I’ve seen some blackjack players splitting a pair of tens, I suppose in an attempt to double up on winnings, though you’re giving up one very-nearly-guaranteed win for two nowhere-near-as-guaranteed hands. Plus, basic blackjack strategy says to stand.
You’ve drawn a winning hand, there are very few hands that can beat you, and should just stand and take your money.
Starting with Eleven
This one’s confusing, especially for new players or those unfamiliar with basic blackjack strategy.
The truth is, starting with a point total of eleven puts you in a great position, depending on the game’s rules and the dealer’s upcard.
If the dealer stands on a soft 17, you should double down on a total of 11 against anything but an ace. If the dealer is showing an ace, you should take a hit. If the dealer hits on a soft 17, you should double down against all dealer upcards.
This is a slight variation in strategy that makes a big difference in your potential outcome.
I found a few blackjack guys who seem to know a lot more than me specify that you should only hit an 11 against a dealer Ace if your 11 is either (9+2) or (8+3). Basically, this has to do with the fact that both of these hands contain one of the cards you’d like to get for your double down, reducing your winning chances when doubling. Taking a hit makes more statistical sense in that context.
If that’s too complicated for you, just stick with the easier-to-remember bit above it.
Soft Totals of 13 through 17
Soft hands are always easier to play than hard totals, just because you can draw more without fear of busting.
The ideal strategy for these situations is easy to memorize and put into practice – basic strategy says you should always either hit or double soft totals of 13 through 17, and your decision on which to choose is only based on the dealer’s upcard.
A blackjack strategy chart would be helpful at first until you memorize it.
Here’s how to play each soft total of 13 through 17:
- A+2 or A + 3 – double down against a dealer 5 or 6, hit everything else
- A+4 or A + 5 – double down against a dealer 4 through 6, hit everything else
- A+6 – double down against a dealer 3 through 6, hit everything else
Side note – if you’re playing a single-deck game, you may not have the option to double soft hands. In that case, the best move statistically is to take a hit.
How to Play the Three Worst Blackjack Hands
The three hands below are considered among the worst, if not the worst, hands in the game of blackjack.
Using the basic strategy of the game and a tiny bit of statistics, I’ve collected and analyzed the best thinking on how to play these difficult blackjack hands.
Pair of 8s
Splitting a pair of 8s is the only meaningful strategy. That’s because sixteen of the fifty other cards in the deck have a value of 10, and four have a value of 11, so you’re likely to land with at least an 18 on either or both of your split 8s. A hand of 18 or 19 points puts you in a stronger position than a total of 16, which some consider the worst point total in the game.
Since a point total of 16 is a penciled-in losing hand, converting it to two hands that are more likely to win is a good strategic move.
What do the numbers say? When the dealer is showing 2 through 7, a split pair of 8s is most likely to win. Hitting a pair of 8s loses 52% of the time – split 8s lose only 43% of the time, not considering the dealer’s upcard value.
16 vs. 10
Judging by game statistics alone, the worst blackjack hand is a total of 16 against a dealer 10.
This is a bad situation because the dealer cannot bust with a single card, regardless of what he draws, and is very likely statistically speaking to finish with a total of 18-20.
Among blackjack nerds, arguing over 16 against 10 is a little cliché – nobody really agrees on what you should do, and there are strong feelings all around. I fall into the “always hit 16 against 10 and hope I get lucky” camp. Other bettors feel strongly that you should always stand.
If surrender rules are in place, most blackjack pros and gambling writers say you should surrender. In fact, a good blackjack strategy calls for surrender with a hard total of 14, 15, or 16 against a dealer 9 through Ace. By those rules, if you can surrender 16 against 10, you should.
So, which move makes more sense? Do you hit or stand with a 16 vs. 10? The numbers look like this – against a typical Vegas shoe, standing on a hard 16 against 9 through Ace loses 77% of the time. Hitting under the same conditions loses a little over 74% of the time. The mathematics seems to side with those who hit 16 against 10, but just barely.
I reached out to Norman Wattenberger of QFIT for his take on 16 vs. 10, and I think what he had to say sums up this tough hand perfectly:
“16vT is a tossup. It depends on the counting strategy if you are counting. If not, the general rule is to surrender if you can. If not, hit with two cards, stand with three or more cards or if after a split. But, the fact is the difference in that last bit of advice will make affect your results a very tiny amount (about 0.002%) and may not be worth the aggravation of being yelled at by other players if you care about that. So, it’s simpler just to hit. Fact is, you are probably going to lose the hand no matter what.”
Starting with Hard 14
This is a terrible starting hand since you’re right in the middle between an obvious hit and an obvious stand, though the difficulty in playing this hand varies depending on the dealer’s upcard.
Generally speaking, low dealer upcards mean you should stand. The dealer’s next card is likely to be high, forcing a potential dealer bust on a third drawn card. If the dealer’s showing a 7 through Ace, the proper move is to take a hit.
If possible, a hard total of 14 made of a pair of 7s should be split against a dealer upcard lower than 7 and hit against a dealer upcard of 7 through Ace.
Take note that a soft hand of 14 (made up of A-3) is a great starting position, especially against a low dealer upcard.
Our Thoughts on These Tips
Blackjack played according to basic strategy is one of the best-odds games in the casino.
Following the rules of the game as worked out by smarter and more experienced players than you or me can result in a game that’s a lot of fun played with little expectation of loss.
Learning how to play blackjack’s best and worst hands could mean the difference between a frustrating gambling session and one that’s well worth your gambling budget.