My old blackjack-playing friend Bob has a son named Mike who is more or less a chip off the old block — so much so that he’s working on basic strategy for when to double down on soft hands.

“The big things, like when to hit, stand, split and double on hard hands, I have down pat,” Mike told me when the three of us met for lunch. “Now I’m practicing on the computer, making sure I have all those soft doubles right.”

It’s a methodical way of learning that you’d expect from both father and son. Bob is a retired high school math teacher who not only learned basic strategy but has incorporated some advanced play into his game. Mike is a middle school science teacher who wants to teach physics at the high-school level.

Mike also wants to give himself the best chance to win when he has time to play.

“I’m almost there,” he said. “I’ve only been at it for a couple of months. I’m taking a class this summer, but even so have had a little time to practice. I want to be prepared.”

Right now his preparation has turned to soft doubles.

For blackjack novices, “soft” hands are those that include an Ace being counted as 11. They’re called “soft” because they can’t be busted with a one-card hit. If you draw a 6 or higher to your Ace-5, it’s not 22. The Ace can be counted as 1 instead, leaving you with 12.

“Doubling down” is making a second bet equal to your first. When you double down, you draw just one more card — you can’t take another even if the draw leaves you with a low total.

An important part of maximizing returns at blackjack is to double down when your cards plus a one-card hit will win more often than they lose. For that to happen, you need a combination of a strong enough chance to finish a winning and with a good hit and a strong enough chance of the busting if you get a no-help card on your draw.

Let’s use today’s most common conditions as an example — a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17 and you may double down on any first two cards.

Under those conditions, doubling can be the correct play for any soft hand from 13 through 19.

Ace-2 or Ace-3: Double if the dealer’s up card is 5 or 6.

Ace-4 or Ace-5: Double if the dealer’s up card is 4, 5 or 6.

Ace-6: Double if the dealer’s up card is 3, 4, 5 or 6.

Ace-7: Double if the dealer’s up card is 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.

Ace-8: Double if the dealer’s up card is 6.

At casinos where soft doubling is not allowed, then hit any of these hands from Ace-2 through Ace-6. However, if you can’t double, then stand on Ace-7 or Ace-8.

There are a couple of differences if the dealer stands on all 17s. In that case, double on Ace-7 if the dealer shows 3, 4, 5 or 6, but not against 2, and don’t double at all with Ace-8.

The reason for fewer soft doubles is that the dealer busts less often when he stands on all 17s. Ace-6 is a standing hand under those conditions, but in games where the dealer hits soft 17 there’s a chance he’ll bust.

Mike, Bob and I talked about all that over lunch, but Mike was going to make sure he did some drills on the computer.

“That way I know it will stick,” he said. “Repitition, repetition, repetition.”

Look for John Grochowski on Facebook (http://tinyurl.com/7lzdt44) and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).

John Grochowski

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