What Is A Soft 17 In Blackjack & How Should You Play It?

A Soft 17 is a hand that totals 17 and contains an ace that can be counted as a 1 or 11. Crucially, you cannot bust if you take one more card. Ace-6 is a common example of a Soft 17. Learn more about this below, including how you should play it and what the dealer rules are.

What Is A Soft Hand In Blackjack?

Aces have a special role in blackjack because they can be valued at 1 or 11. A hand with an ace is known as a soft hand because of the flexible nature of aces. Let’s look at an example.

Soft hand with an Ace and an Eight

With Ace-8, this hand is a 19 (11 for the Ace + 8 for the Eight). While it’s a strong hand, the Ace gives you flexibility; you could take a hit with absolutely no risk of busting. (Why add a card to a 19? If the dealer showed a 5, a good aggressive option is to double down.)

TIP:  When your hand is compared to the dealer’s hand at the end of the game (the showdown) – all that matters is the numerical value of the two hands. Whether it’s a soft 19 or hard 19 has no bearing on determining whether you won or lost.

Let’s look at another example. In this case, the hand is Ace-2, making a Soft 13 (11 + 2). Some dealers might declare that this hand is “either 3 or 13”.

Soft 13 blackjack hand with an Ace and a Two

There are no circumstances where you’d want to stand on a Soft 13. That’s true even if the dealer is showing a bust card (2 through 6). You’d always want to take a risk-free hit to try and improve your 13.

But if this hand was a Hard 13 instead of a Soft 13, the strategy changes. If you were to take a hit on a Hard 13, you’re quite likely to draw a big card and bust. Against a dealer’s 5, for example, the best play on Hard 13 would be to stand on your (very weak) 13 and hope the dealer busts. 

What Is A Soft 17 In Blackjack?

Now we get to the hand in question: Soft 17. As mentioned, a Soft 17 is a soft hand that totals 17 and contains an ace that can be counted as a 1 or an 11. You cannot bust if you take one more card. Ace-6 is a common example of a Soft 17.

A soft 17 in blackjack

Soft 17 vs Hard 17 In Blackjack

While a Soft 17 hand contains an ace that can be counted as either 1 or 11 to prevent you from busting, a Hard 17 has a fixed value of 17, and drawing another card comes with a high risk of exceeding 21.

A Hard 17 may still contain an ace, but it would only be counted as 1. Other examples of a Hard 17 are a 10 and 7, or a 9 and 8.

TIP:  Most of the advice below is based on being dealt an Ace-6, but your hand can start as something else entirely and become a Soft 17. For example, you could be dealt 3-3 initially, then draw an Ace on your first hit. Regardless of how many cards are in your hand, if it’s a Soft 17, the playing approach explained below applies.

Blackjack Dealer Rules For Soft 17

The dealer’s hand always plays out according to a simple algorithm.

  • If the hand is 16 or less, the dealer must hit until the hand reaches 17 or more, or busts.
  • If the dealer has an Ace, they’ll stand on a Soft 18 or more.
  • Rules on a dealer Soft 17 will vary from casino to casino (and sometimes between tables). The most common rule is for the dealer to stand on Soft 17, but in some games the dealer must hit on Soft 17 (which is slightly advantageous for the players).

Is Soft 17 A Good Hand?

Players typically stand when their hand reaches 17 or higher. But just because you’re taught to stand on 17, doesn’t mean it’s a good hand. In fact, it’s the opposite.

A hand valued at 17 gives players a false sense of safety. A 17 only wins if the dealer busts. And statistics show that 17 is a losing hand in the long run. That is to say, if you were to play a blackjack game where you were automatically dealt a 17 every single hand, you would slowly but surely lose money over the long run. In technical terms, we’d say that a hand of 17 has a negative win expectation.

…with one caveat (of course). While 17 isn’t a strong hand, if you happen to have a Soft 17, you have an opportunity to improve that hand. Where a Hard 17 leaves you with no good options, a Soft 17 gives you the chance to take a sad song and make it better. Just follow these three simple rules.

How To Play Soft 17 In Blackjack

Rule #1: Don’t Just Stand There

If you have a Hard 17, you’ve hit a dead-end. You have a weak hand, and what’s worse, you can’t safely take a hit to try and improve it. That’s why Soft 17 strategy demands at least taking a risk-free hit.

And returning to the statistics: hitting on Soft 17 turns your slightly negative expectation to a slightly positive one. So always remember the first rule of Soft 17 strategy: Never ever (ever) stand.  

TIP:  Never means never. Dealer shows a Seven? Hit. The player in front of me just drew a bunch of small cards? Hit. Playing in first position at the table? Hit. Playing with a certain rule variation? Hit. Repeat after me: never stand with a Soft 17.

Rule #2: Take A Hit

Hitting on Soft 17 improves your chances of winning, even though some players are hesitant to break up a hand valued at 17. Just remember the math: you’re better off trying to improve your hand.

Here’s the good news: Only 5 of the 13 card ranks in the deck will actually make your Soft 17 into a worse hand. The other 8 possibilities will either improve it or leave it unchanged. So, Rule #2 of Soft 17 strategy is: If in doubt, take a hit.

Rule #3  Double Down If Possible

In some cases, you’ll be in such a strong position that you’ll want to do more than just hit your Soft 17. There are scenarios where you should double down. (If you need a refresher, check out this post on when to double down).

If the dealer is showing a bust card (2 through 6), their chance of busting obviously goes way up. So if rules permit, you want to double down to increase your bet size in this situation.  Rule #3 of Soft 17 strategy is: Double down (if it’s allowed) when the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5, or 6.

TIP:  In the majority of blackjack games, the player is limited to doubling down on a hand of 9, 10, or 11. If that’s the case, you’ll have to settle for merely hitting your Soft 17.  

Advanced Rule Variations

Here are a few nuances to the three rules of Soft 17 strategy for more advanced players.

  • Single-deck blackjack games are rare, but if you find yourself in one that allows doubling on any two cards, the mathematics dictates you should double down on your Soft 17 versus a dealer 2 (as well as 3 through 6).
  • For card counters, there is a widely known list of basic strategy deviations that show 18 situations where a player should alter their play depending on the composition of the remaining deck. Soft 17 does not appear in that list, so counters should follow these rules along with everyone else.

What To Do After Hitting On Your Soft 17

If you’ve followed the above rules, you will have added at least one card to your Soft 17. Let’s discuss the scenarios that can arise after hitting on your Soft 17.

  • The most frequent outcome of hitting or doubling on Soft 17 is that you add a 10, Jack, Queen, or King, turning your hand into a Hard 17. Your only play is to stand and hope the dealer busts.
  • If you draw an Ace, 2, 3, or 4, congratulations, you’ve improved your Soft 17 to an 18 or better. Once your hand reaches 18, you have a positive win expectation, so in most circumstances, you’ll stand.
  • Drawing a 5 through 9 on your Soft 17 means your hand is worse, but play continues. You now have a hand valued at anywhere from 12 to 16. Yuck! At this point just revert to basic blackjack strategy (you can use these blackjack strategy charts to help). Against a dealer bust card, stand. Otherwise you’ll want to take the risk to hit and improve your lousy hand.

Learn The Rules. Never Waver.

That last scenario haunts blackjack players.  Taking a seemingly respectable 17 and busting, only to watch a dealer with a strong up card bust is sickening feeling. Next time a Soft 17 appears that player will be tempted to stand pat.

Don’t fall into that trap! You will have inevitably have bad beats when playing out Soft 17 hands. But just remember the statistics. And remember that while 17 is a dead-end hand, Soft 17 gives you an escape route. Use it! And if you play by the three Soft 17 strategy rules above, you’ll be a better blackjack player.

For more advanced strategy discussions on blackjack and other casino games, check out my book, Casino Gambling for Dummies.