Blackjack, that perennial favorite of casino goers everywhere, is a card game that barely even needs an introduction. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know that it’s a card game that pits dealer against player as the player tries to get closer to having their cards total 21 than the dealer, without ever going over it.
The key to success in any game of blackjack is getting the right opening hand – and, by the inverse, the dealer getting the wrong opening hand. Obviously, most hands can come up tops with the right kind of luck, but there are definitely some starting hands that are easier to play than others.
The Best Starting Hands
To start things off, here are the blackjack hands that are the most likely to result in win, often just by drawing one more card or staying.:
- A blackjack aka a natural. An ace and a ten-valued card (so a 10 and all the picture cards). This is an automatic win in all cases except where the dealer also has a blackjack, in which case it’s a “push” and you take your bet back.
- Two 10s. This hand wins the overwhelming majority of the time. It might result in a push if the dealer also has two 10s, otherwise the only way to beat it is with a blackjack or by reaching 21 (say, by the dealer drawing a 5, 6, and a 10 for themselves).
- Two aces. Always split on this because you have a higher chance of picking up a 10 next than any other card. This is because between the 10s and the picture cards, a full 16/ 52 cards in a deck are tens. And even if you don’t get a 10, the ace is the most versatile card in the game as it can equal a 1 or an 11.
- Two cards totalling 11. By the same token, because you’re most likely to draw a 10 next, an opening hand of, say, a 5 and 6 or a 7 and 4, is one of the best you could possibly have in blackjack. It’s more volatile than the above hands, but is still super strong.
The Worst Starting Hands
Now onto the hands that may not be a guaranteed loss (there’s no such thing), but are hands that will put you at a distinct disadvantage and require both plenty of luck and some smart followup gameplay to win with.
Needless to say, these hands are even worse when the dealer starts with an ace or a 10 and in those cases you might as well just keep playing until you go bust or hit 21. If the dealer doesn’t have an ideal opening hand, though, then more cautious play is generally advised and in some cases might even be worth staying on a relatively low hand.
The hands that you definitely don’t want to be dealt are:
- A 16. The absolute worst hand in blackjack. If you hit you will have a high chance of going bust, but if you don’t hit, the fact that the dealer has to deal themselves cards until reaching 17 puts you at a distinct disadvantage.
- A 13, 14, or 15. The same as above but with a slightly lower chance of going bust by drawing another card – obviously decreasing as we go lower. A 12 also isn’t great because of the proliferation of 10s in the game, but you’re safe with every non-10 valued card in the deck.
Soft Hands vs Hard Hands
As you no doubt noticed, the bad hands are all equal to 12 or more because of the high chance of drawing a 10 and going bust immediately. Between 13 and 16, especially when the dealer starts with an ace or a 10 is pretty much catastrophic and you may as well assume a loss.
The starting hands that fall between these two stools, then, are obviously all of those that are equal to less than 10 and those that are between 17 and 19. These hands can go either way and are determined very much by what you draw next – or in the case of opening hands between 17 and 19 ,by what the dealer’s up-turned card is. Usually, you would stick on anything above and including a 17, but if the dealer is showing a 10 or an ace, it might be worth trying your luck and hoping your draw a card less than 4 or, for more cautious players, to stay and hope that the dealer’s 10 or ace aren’t matched with a second high card.
Of these remaining opening hands, there are two kinds of hands you might draw: a soft opening hand and a hard opening hand. The difference between these two hands is very simple: if one of the cards in an opening hand is an ace then the hand is considered “soft”; in all other cases, hands are considered “hard”.
Hard hands are “hard” because their value is set straight away and you are entirely reliant on whatever card is drawn next. Soft hands are “soft”, however, because of the malleability of the ace: the ace is basically always equal to what’s advantageous to the player.
So, if for example, your opening hand is an ace and a 4, then the hand can be either worth 5 or 15, depending on what the player is dealt next. So, if the player is dealt a ten next, they don’t go bust (though 15 is an extremely tricky hand to play) and if they’re dealt a 6 next, the hand will already be considered 21 without the need for any more cards.
And that, very simply, is how the opening hands of a round of blackjack break down. The good hands are overwhelmingly easy to win with, the bad hands are overwhelmingly difficult to win with, and the rest are pretty much entirely circumstantial. Blackjack is a game of pure chance, remember, and no matter how smartly you play, you’re never guaranteed a win, no matter how good your cards are, or a loss no matter how bad your cards are.
Play smart, though, and responsible gambling and you can significantly increase your chances of coming up tops by the end of the night.