One of the first things casino patrons need to learn in blackjack is how to value the cards and how hands are ranked. This is one of the simplest and most fundamental steps when one begins to play this casino classic – what is complicated, however, is to decide how to act based on the cards you have received and the cards held by the dealer.
Card Values and Hand Ranking
The objective of the game is rather simple – to receive a hand that is higher than the dealer’s cards without exceeding 21. The suits of the cards are completely irrelevant so the only thing that matters is their numerical value. All cards from 2 through 10 are counted at their face value and Jacks, Queens, and Kings are counted as 10. Aces are a bit more interesting as they may be either 1 or 11, depending on what is best for the particular hand.
The Strongest Hands
The strongest hand in this game is the hand of blackjack – an Ace and a 10-value card and it pays 3 to 2, or 1.5 times the bet size. With a total value of 21, this is the best possible hand and it beats all other totals of 21. It is also referred to as having a “natural” and clearly, this hand is only possible at the beginning of the round if the first two cards are an Ace and a 10-value card. The second-best hand is any total of 21 and it can consist of more than two cards. The next best hand players can have is any hand that is higher than the dealer’s cards without going over 21 (busting).
While blackjack returns 3:2, having a total that is higher than the dealer’s brings players even money. If the dealer busts, the payout is also even. If the player and the dealer receive the same hand totals, this is considered a “push”, which means that neither of them wins and the bet is returned to the player.
Soft and Hard Hands
There are two main types of hands in blackjack – soft and hard hands. The presence and value of the Ace in a hand determines whether it would fall into the first or second category. If the Ace can be counted as 1 or 11 with no risk that the hand would bust, then this is a soft hand. All other hands can be described as hard totals.
Let us take an Ace and a 7 as an example. The total of this hand can be either 8 or 18, so we can say that this is a soft 18. Another soft total can be formed by an Ace, a 2, and a 3 – we can count this hand as either 6 or 16. If the player decides to Hit on an Ace-5 hand (soft 16) and receives a 6, his hand would become a hard 12 where the Ace has a value of 1. If we count it as 11, the hand will be 22 and, thus, it will immediately bust. Another hard 12 is, for instance, formed by 7-5.
Clearly, while hard hands are concrete, soft totals are much more adaptable and give players more options when deciding how to play out a certain hand. Assuming the player’s two first cards are 7-9, a hard 16, his best course of action is to Stand and not risk exceeding 21 (any card with a value of 6 or more would result in busting). Still, the dealer would easily beat this hard total of 16.
If the player’s initial hand is Ace-5, which is a soft 16, then he can decide whether he wants additional cards or prefers to Stand. Hitting is, of course, the best decision in this scenario but that is irrelevant. What matters is the obvious advantage soft hands give to both the player and the dealer.
1The Importance of Pairs in Blackjack
Another interesting type of hands in blackjack is the pair, i.e. two cards of the same numerical value. The important aspect of the pairs in this game is that they can be “split”. If players get 9-9 at the beginning, for example, this would be considered a hard 18 and they can choose to either Stand, Hit, or divide the total into two separate hands of one card each. After the pair is split, the dealer deals another card to each of the new hands, which are then played independently. Of course, the second bet equal to the original stake must be made, too.
The rules about splitting pairs may differ, depending on the specific variation of blackjack we choose to play. Some games allow pairs to be split only once even if the player gets a second pair of cards. In other variations, players can Split up to three times per round. A rare variation of the rule permits an unlimited number of splits per round. Splitting unlike 10-value cards is not allowed in some games – you cannot Split a Jack and Queen, for instance.
It is important to remember that typically, Aces can be split just once and that in most variations, players are not allowed to Hit on split Aces. Instead, they are required to Stand on whatever totals they get. Moreover, when players get an Ace and a 10-value card, this would be considered a regular total of 21 rather than blackjack.
The Best and The Worst Hands in Blackjack
It was previously mentioned that the strongest starting hand in this game is blackjack – when players receive an Ace and a 10-value card, they automatically win and the round ends. However, a natural blackjack is estimated to occur only 4.80% of the time. The next best outcome of the initial deal is when the player gets a hard 17-20, a soft 20 (Ace-9), or a pair of 10s. Such hands are quite hard to beat, which is why players are advised to always Stand on such totals. Receiving a hard 11 (9-2, 8-3, 7-4, or 6-5) at the beginning of the round also favors the player and the recommended action here is to either Double the bet or Hit.
The single worst starting hand in blackjack is 16, followed by a total of 15. The reason for this is very simple – in standard blackjack, the number of 10-value cards is greater than any other type. There are 16 cards with the value of 10 in each deck, which means that players with totals of 15 or 16 can easily bust if decide to Hit and draw a 10-value card. At the same time, totals of 15 or 16 are simply not strong enough and the dealer is likely to beat them.
Generally, soft hands are always preferred than hard totals as they allow players to draw more cards without the risk of busting. Soft totals of 13 through 17 are easier to play – depending on the dealer’s face-up card, players should always either Hit or Double. Overall, the best hands you can get in blackjack are those that are the closest to 21, followed by any soft totals, which bring more freedom.
In fact, hard totals of 12 through 17 are quite hard to play and most casino patrons would find it difficult to decide how to proceed. Whether they should Hit or Stand would depend on their specific hand, as well as on the dealer’s upcard. However, such totals are statistically unlikely to win against the dealer. There is one exception, of course, and this is when players receive pairs of 6s, 7s, and 8s.
As we have mentioned above, pairs can be split and to avoid the bad hands, players are advised to almost always split these hands. Two 8s should always be split, while pairs of 7s are split on dealer 2-7. If the dealer’s face-up card is 2-6 and the player holds a two 6s, he should Split them. In all other cases, players should Hit on pairs of 6s and 7s.