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What to do with those ambiguous soft hands in blackjack

Dear Mark,
Which is better, playing on a blackjack game where the dealer hits a soft 17, or on one in which he stands? Also, should the player mimic the dealer and hit or stand based on the dealer's rules? Finally, I would like to know the correct basic strategy play for a soft 18. I learned that when one has an ace/seven, the smart play is to stand on a dealer's 2, 7, 8, and hit all others. Bud W.

It is slightly better to play on a game where the dealer stands on a soft 17. When you play a game in which the dealer hits a soft 17, you give the house an additional two-tenths of one percent advantage. Why? When a soft 17 is showing, an Ace, 2, 3 or 4 improves the dealer's hand and a 10, Jack, Queen or King leaves it of equivalent value. Consequently, eight of every 13 cards either improves the dealer's hand or keeps it the same. If any of the other five cards are drawn, the dealer still has a chance to convalesce his hand with another draw.

As for the second part of your question, Bud, basic strategy dictates that you the player should always hit a soft 17, or double down against a dealer who's showing a 3, 4, 5, 6.

Unfortunately, Bud, a 17 in blackjack is a hell-bound hand over the long haul. But, the alternative strategy of hitting a hard 17 would only multiply your losses. However, with a soft 17 you at least have the possibility of taking another card, which could improve your hand. This is why basic strategy charts dictate either hitting or doubling down, but never standing on a soft 17.

As for the soft 18 question, your play is nearly correct. An ace-seven is one of those tricky hands about which numerous experts disagree. The consensus is to stand on 2, 7, 8; double down when playing rules allows it against a 3-6; and hit against a 9 or 10 count card. But against an ace, the pros are nearly divided between hitting and standing. I side with the half that recommends hitting versus standing when confronting an ace.

Dear Mark,
I would like to ask you why the casinos always recommend that players use their slot club cards. What advantage would it be to them for you to use the cards. I've heard all kinds of crazy sounding stories from people on why not to use them, but what do the casinos get out of me using them when I play? Phillip S.

The primary purpose of slot club cards from the casino's point of view is to develop customer loyalty. The card is intended to generate a sort of tribal attachment with concomitant incentives and retention initiatives. The casino figures that if they give away enough goodies, you will come back again, and again, spending your disposable income only or primarily in their casino.

Dear Mark,
How soon do players have to place their bets in roulette? Before the dealer spins the ball, or before the ball drops into the slot? I have seen different dealers call "no more bets" at different times and been wondering if there were any set standard. Beverly C.

Every casino has its own set of guidelines for its dealers to follow. Some want the call before the spin; others will allow an experienced roulette dealer, with a fine sense of timing, to halt wagering at his discretion. Although the house wants to get as many wagers per decision as possible on the layout, because they hold a hefty 5.26% advantage over the player, to avoid conflict, the casino requires a dealer to determine the "reasonable" moment for voicing "no more bets."

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