In blackjack hands, 9-7 and Ace-5 can both be read as totals of 16, but they’re very different hands that require different approaches to strategy.

That’s because Aces can be read as either 1 or 11. Hands in which Aces are counted as 11 are called “soft”  blackjack hands. They can’t be busted with a one-card hit. The Ace can just be counted as a 1 instead.

Soft hands have their own section on basic strategy tables. Let’s take a look at strategies for soft hands in a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17. We’ll also assume the rare “surrender” option is not available – surrender is a topic for another time.

The hands listed are two-card soft hands – Ace-4, Ace-5, and so on. If a soft total consists of three or more cards, then hit if you’d hit a two-card hand, stand if you’d stand on a two-card hand, but hit if you’d double down. You can’t double on hands of three or more cards.

Let’s look at soft-hand basic blackjack strategy in a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17. Not included is Ace-Ace, which falls under pair splitting strategy instead.

Ace-2 or Ace-3: Double down if the dealer’s up card is 5 or 6. Hit against any other dealer up card. 

There’s never a reason to stand on a soft total that can’t beat a dealer’s standing hand of 17 or better. If you stand on Ace-2 or Ace-3, you’re sticking yourself with a hand that can’t win unless the dealer busts.

If the dealer has 8 or less, you have profit on your mind when you hit or double. With Ace-2 vs. 2, for example, standing brings an average loss of 2.9 cents per dollar wagered, while hitting turns that to an average profit of 4.6 cents per dollar.

Against a dealer’s 9 or higher, you hit to reduce losses. If you have Ace-2 and the dealer shows a 9, standing brings an average loss of 53.9 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and that’s reduced all the way to 3.4 cent. 

The hardest decision is whether to double down – double your bet in exchange for being limited to a one-card draw. When basic strategy calls for you to double, it means you’re in a profitable situation where increasing bets will maximize your profit potential. You won’t win every hand, but you’ll win more than you lose.

Example: With Ace-2 vs. 5, your average profit of 13.8 cents per dollar wagered if you hit climbs to 14.1 cents per dollar of your original wager if you double. Whether to risk the extra bet for such as small gain is up to you, but basic strategy goes where the math is.

Ace-4 and Ace-5: Double against a dealer’s 4, 5 or 6, and hit against any other card.

The situation is similar to the Ace-2 and Ace-3 hands, except that it’s best to double down against 4 as well as 5 and 6.

Let’s use Ace-5 vs. 6 as the example here. Stand, and the average result is a loss of 11.5 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and there’s an average profit of 11.1 cents per dollar. Double, and that profit grows to 20.2 cents per dollar of your original wager.

What if you have a three-card soft 16 such as Ace-2-3? You can’t double, so you hit. Average results per dollar wagered are an 11.2-cent loss if you stand and an 11.2 cent profit if you hit.

Ace-6: Double down against 3, 4, 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit.

This hand is a frequent stumbling block for players learning basic strategy. It’s a major shift in mind set to hit or double on soft 17 instead of always standing, as you would with hard 17.

But 17 is not a winning hand unless the dealer busts. The best it can do is push a dealer’s 17. And since you can’t bust soft 17 with a one-card hit, the odds shift in favor of trying to improve the hand.

Imagine you have Ace-6 and the dealer shows a 7. If you stand, your average result is a loss of 10.4 cents per dollar wagered. Hit, and that turns to a profit of 5.5 cents

Contrast that to 10-7 vs. 7, a hard 17 that can be busted with a one-card hit. There, the average loss of 10.1 cents per dollar when standing zooms to 47.8 cents when hitting.

The risk of busting is too great to hit with hard 17. There is no risk of busting soft 17, so the best plays become doubling against 3, 4, 5 or 6 and hitting against everything else.

Ace-7: Double down if the dealer shows 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Stand if the dealer shows 7 or 8. Hit against a dealer’s 9. 10 or Ace.

Soft 18 is better than soft 17 in that it can win against a dealer 17, but it’s not so strong against a 9 or higher. It can be a mental hurdle for a player to hit an 18, even if it is soft. But against the best dealer up cards, hitting is the best play.

With Ace-7 against a dealer’s 10 value, the house has an edge no matter what you do. You hit to reduce losses. If you stand, your average loss is 18.0 cents per dollar. Hit, and that drops to 14.3 cents. You hit in self-defense.

So it goes with soft 18 vs. 9 or Ace, too. You hit to reduce losses. You have profitable double-down opportunities against 2 through 6, and your most profitable plays vs. 7 or 8 are to stand.

Ace-8: Double if the dealer shows a 6. Hit against everything else.

Even when soft, 19 is a standing hand almost all the time. The exception is when the dealer’s up card is a 6. Then standing brings an average profit of 45.2 cents and hitting drops that to 23.1 cents, but doubling down brings it up to 46.2 cents per dollar of your original wager.

Ace-9, Ace-10: Always stand. Ace-9 is a 20, and that’s a standing hand whether hard or soft. As for Ace-10, that’s blackjack, and that’s the name of the game.