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Decisions, Decisions: How to Play Your 18

The best strategy depends on what type of 18 you were dealt

By Henry Tamburin


AceSevenThere are several ways to get an 18 when you play blackjack. The 18 could be “hard,” meaning the hand either doesn’t contain an ace, or if it does, the ace is counted as one. (Examples are 10-8, 8-5-5, and ace-4-10-3.) Or you can get a “soft 18,” meaning a hand containing an ace that is counted as 11. (Examples are ace-7, and 5-2-ace.) Moreover, you could be dealt a pair of 9s for 18. What follows are the playing strategies for all of these “different” 18s. Some might surprise you.





Hard 18

The strategy for a hard 18 is simple: Always stand.

Most players are very happy to be dealt a hard 18. They are ready to break out the bubbly and take their winnings to the bank because they believe they have a big edge regardless of what the dealer’s upcard happens to be. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a hard 18 (e.g., 10-8) isn’t such a great hand. Don’t believe me? Look at the following table that shows the player’s expectation when holding a 10-8 against all dealer upcards for a six-deck game where the rules specify the dealer must stand on soft 17 (S17) . (Note: A positive expectation means the player has the edge over the dealer; a negative expectation means the dealer has the advantage.)




Dealer’s Upcard Stand
2 0.1212
3 0.1479
4 0.1741
5 0.2000
6 0.2810
7 0.3977
8 0.1041
9 –0.1852
10 (playable) –0.1745* -0.2387**
Ace (playable) –0.0973* -0.3748**








*Expectations from Appendix A (6D S17), Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros’ Way by Donald Schlesinger.

**Expectations, derived from the above, are before the dealer checks for a natural.


You always stand with hard 18 no matter what the dealer shows, because, in all cases, your expectation is much better (i.e., more positive or less negative) when standing compared to hitting. However, when a player stands on 10-8, winning the hand is not always a sure thing. You’ll have the edge when the dealer shows a 2 through 8 (all positive expectations) but against the dealer’s 9, 10, and ace, you’re at a disadvantage—the expectations are all negative. The bottom line is this: Even though you should always stand with a hard 18, you are only a slight favorite to win that hand, after the dealer ascertains that he doesn’t have a natural, and, were you to be offered a starting 10-8 all the time, you would actually be a net loser of about 0.64%, allowing for the dealer to have a natural. So, don’t get all excited when you’re dealt 10-8; you aren’t going to get rich with that holding!


Soft 18

When you are dealt a soft 18, you could stand, hit, or double down. Most players routinely stand when their initial hand is a soft 18 but you should only do this when the dealer’s upcard is a 2, 7, or 8 (S17 game) because the player’s expectation is more favorable compared to hitting or doubling down. Against a dealer’s 9, 10, or ace, you should always hit. The reason for the latter may not be so obvious, so let me explain.

If you hit an ace-7 against a dealer’s 9, 10, or ace, there are only three cards that you will be happy to get on the draw—an ace, 2, or 3; there are six cards that will make you unhappy (the 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9); and drawing a ten or picture card is a wash, since you still have 18. Even though only three denominations will help you and six hurt you, your gain when you draw any of the three “good” cards far outweighs the “loss” when you draw a bad card. (In addition, when you catch a bad card, you can hit again, except if you draw a 9 for a hard 17.) This doesn’t mean that always hitting soft 18 against the dealer’s 9, 10, or ace will make you rich. Quite the contrary. Hitting is still overall a losing play, but you will lose less in the long run compared to standing. (See table of expectations below for a six-deck game with S17. The expectations when you hit are less negative compared to when you stand, meaning you’ll lose less in the long run.)





9 –0.1826 –0.0985
10 –0.1796 –0.1429
Ace –0.1003 –0.0953

*Expectations from Appendix A (6D S17), Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros’ Way by Donald Schlesinger.



When you are dealt a soft 18 and the dealer shows a small card, you are in the driver’s seat if you stand—you’ve got about a 60% chance of winning the hand. If you double down instead, your chances of outright winning drop slightly (2–4%) because if you draw a 4 through 8, you are stuck with a stiff hand, and if you draw a 9, you’ve decreased your total. Nevertheless, basic strategy for a six-deck game with S17 says to double down ace-7 against a 3 through 6. The reason that doubling is a more profitable play even though you win fewer hands is because when you do win,  you win double your initial bet, making it a more profitable play overall, compared to always standing.


Multi-Card Soft 18

Suppose you were dealt an ace-2 against a dealer’s 4 upcard.  You follow the basic strategy and hit, and draw a 5 for a three-card soft 18 (ace-2-5). Since the playing rules don’t allow doubling on a three-card hand, what should you do? The correct playing strategy for a multi-card soft 18 is to always stand when the dealer shows a 2 though 8 upcard, and hit when he shows a 9, 10, or ace.


Pair of Nines

The correct basic strategy for a pair of 9s is to split when the dealer shows a 2 though 6, 8, and 9, and stand when he shows a 7, 10, or ace. You split 9s against a dealer’s small card because you’ll earn more money playing two hands, starting with a 9 on each, than you would by playing one hand, starting with 18. When you stand on a pair of 9s against a dealer’s 9, you are in trouble because he often will have a 10 in the hole and his 19 will beat your 18. Here again, you are slightly better off playing two hands starting each with 9, even though sometimes you will lose two bets. Against a dealer’s 7, splitting 9s will get you the money but you’ll win more in the long run by standing, since your 18 will beat the dealer’s 17 if he has a 10 in the hole.


Bottom Line

You will always play your 18 perfectly if you follow this strategy:

  • With hard 18, always stand.
  • With a two-card soft 18, hit against a dealer’s 9, 10, and ace; stand against a 2, 7 and 8, and double down against a 3 though 6. (Note: In a game with H17, double against a dealer’s 2.)
  • With a multi-card soft 18, stand against a dealer’s 2 though 8, and hit against a 9, 10, and ace.
  • With 9s, split against a dealer’s 2 though 6 and 8, 9, and stand against a 7, 10, and ace.


Tamburin’s Tip of the Month

You can generate and print an accurate basic strategy table (color or black and white) for any set of rules and number of decks by using the Blackjack Basic Strategy Engine at



————————————————————————————————————-Henry Tamburin is the editor of Blackjack Insider Newsletter (, the lead instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack Course (, and host of For a free three-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter, go to To receive his free Casino Gambling Catalog, call 1-888-353-3234 or visit


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