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# Playing a soft 16

30 March 2010

Sitting at a blackjack table, I found myself with one of those hands.

You know the kind. With the dealer showing a 10, I started with a 5 and a 4. Then I drew another 5. Then a 2.

That's one ugly 16.

It's also a hand almost nothing will help. Hit, and you're more likely than not to bust. Stand, and the dealer will make 17 or better and beat you about 80% of the time.

Players who know their basic strategy will bite the bullet and hit, figuring they have to take a risk and try to improve the hand to have a chance. Average players will hem and haw, moan and groan, then probably stand, not wanting to risk busting.

This was one time I stood with the hem-and-haw brigade. I stood on my ugly 16, and got a lecture in return.

"Don't you hit 16 against a 10?" challenged the crewcut sitting at first base.

Most of the time, I told him.

"Most of the time? Tell me when it's not right to hit that hand. The book says you always hit 16 when the dealer shows a 10."

He was seriously disturbed, but this was one time I wasn't going to explain my play. Not with a dealer, a floor supervisor and who knows who else listening in.

As it happens, hard 16 against a dealer's 10 is a close call. If we're playing basic strategy and we have no other information than that we have hard 16 and the dealer has 10, we hit. We're going to lose more than we win no matter what we do, but most of the time we'll lose less if we hit than if we just stand and pray the dealer goes bust.

But no blackjack hand exists in a vacuum. There is always more information. If we're counting cards, we know the proportion of high cards to low cards already played. Even if we're not counting, we know what cards other players have on the table. At the very least, we know what cards make up our total. Is our 16 made up of 5-4-5-2, or is it a 7 and a 9?

That information is valuable.

Let's say we're counting cards using the Hi-Lo system. Every time a 10, jack, queen, king or ace is dealt, we count minus 1. Every time a 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 is dealt, we count plus 1. We ignore 7s, 8s and 9s.

We don't keep track of every card that's been played, we just track the balance of high cards and low cards that have been dealt. If six more 2s through 6s have been played than 10s through aces, our running count is plus 6. We divide that by the number of decks remaining in the shoe to get the true count. If there are three decks still to be played, our running count of plus 6 is converted to a true count of plus 2.

At a true count of plus 2, we stand on hard 16s vs. a dealer's 10 whenever our 16 consists of three or more cards.

Why? Partly because whenever the count is in the plus-range, it means there's a larger than normal share of 10-value cards remaining to be played, making it more likely that we'll bust. In addition, that plus-count means a smaller than normal share of low cards — the kind we need to improve our 16 — have already been played.

I had a four-card 16, but I didn't need to count cards to know I should stand. The composition of my hand was enough. It contained two 5s and a 4, diminishing my chance of drawing another 4 or 5 to finish with 20 or 21.

As Fred Renzey has pointed out in his Blackjack Bluebook II, the bottom line is that the player can make a small gain, even in a six-deck game, by standing on hard 16 against a 10 whenever the player's hand includes a 4 or a 5.

That does not apply when the dealer shows a 7. We hit hard 16s against 7s regardless of the composition of our hand. That's because when we do manage to draw a small card and make a hand of 17 or better, we're less likely to get beat when the dealer starts with 7 than with 10. We have more to gain by hitting 16 against a 7 than 16 against a 10.

What happened when I stood on my 16? The dealer turned up another 10 for a total of 20, and he took my money. Making the right play doesn't mean we always win, just that we win more often.

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John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.