It had been about eight months since Blackjack Bob and I last spoke in person, rather than on the phone or via Zoom. On an unseasonably warm early November day, we masked up, kept our distance and had lunch at a nearly empty outdoor venue.
“I just had to tell you, I saw one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in a casino,” he started. “I saw a player who was hitting hard 17 against 10s and Aces.”
I had to be sure I was hearing right, so I asked if the player was doing this consistently, or if he’d just misread his cards and made a strategy mistake.
“That’s what I thought the first time,” Bob said. “The guy couldn’t have been reading his cards right and he goofed.
“But the dealer called him on it. She flinched a little, then said, ‘Sir, you have 17.’ He said, ‘I know,’ so the dealer called out, ‘Hitting hard 17.’
“The pit supervisor came over to look, nodded, and the dealer gave the guy his 8 for a bust.”
I asked if the play was repeated after the dealer and supervisor got involved.
“Yeah, at least twice more while I was there,” Bob said. “I only stayed about an hour. The second time was 9-8 against a Queen, then the third time was 6-6-4-Ace against an Ace.
“He busted every time, and the third time I had to ask, ‘Why do you hit those?’ He said he didn’t think 17 would win against 10s or Aces.”
I wondered if that was something the player came up with on his own or if he was confusing basic strategy for hard 17 and soft 17. With soft 17, hitting is the proper play, in part because 17 can’t win unless the dealer busts. It can push a dealer 17, but it can’t beat any dealer standing hands.
“True enough,” Bob said. “But with soft 17, you can’t bust with a one-card draw.”
Then I could just about make out a glint in Bob’s eye as he said, “Let’s look up the numbers.”
Easily done. Wizardofodds.com has a blackjack hand calculator that’s among my frequently used tools.
I set options to six decks, dealer hits soft 17 — common in today’s casinos. Then I plugged in Queen for the dealer up card and 9-8 for the player’s first two cards.
The results were as expected. Stand, and you lose an average of 41.5 cents per $1 wagered. Hit, and that loss soars to 58 cents.
With 6-6-4-Ace vs. Ace, another of the hands the player hit, the average loss is 51.3 cents if you stand, but higher at 58.4 cents if you hit.
Hard 17 is not a great hand. You can win only on dealer busts, and you can push a 17. But the risk of busting makes standing against a 7 or higher the better play by far.
“Now do a couple of soft 17s,” Bob said.
Sure. With Ace-6 against Queen, the average loss is 42 cents per dollar if you stand, but improves to a 19.6-cent loss if you hit. And with Ace-2-4 against Ace, average losses are 51.4 cents when standing and 22.7 cents when hitting.
With no risk of busting, we take the chance to improve the hand.
Bob nodded. Maybe he was smiling behind the mask.
“I couldn’t have rattled off the numbers without looking, but any basic strategy player knows the bottom line,” he said. “It was just a shock to see someone hitting hard 17. Repeatedly, not just a goof.”