Spanish 21 is a variation of blackjack, played with a “spanish” deck that contains no Tens, but offers many liberal rules and options that generally yields better odds than blackjack. Basic strategy is a little more complicated, but almost all casinos allow the use of strategy cards, so you’re a lot better off playing Spanish 21 if your house offers it. Some of the liberal rules of the game are:
- double on any number of cards
- re-doubling (sometimes up to 3 doubles)
- double after split
- surrender after double
- all player 21’s pay immediately, regardless of dealer hand
- bonus payouts for 6-7-8, 5 card 21’s, etc.
The basic strategy for a 6-deck shoe game, where the dealer hits on soft-17, and up to 3 doubles are allowed is presented in the strategy card below. The card is color-coded, where red stands for hits, white stands for surrender, yellow means stand, and blue means double. The exceptions to the color-coded rules are indicated by special notations in the box. There are no exceptions to hit or surrender, or any decisions after doubling. There are a few exceptions before doubling, where yellow stand boxes indicate when you should hit instead. Also, there are blue double boxes that indicate when you should just hit the hand.
The yellow boxes with a number or * ‘ ” symbol in them mean you should hit the hand when you’re drawing for a bonus payout. For example, say my hand is 7-8 offsuit, and the dealer is showing a 2. I have a hard total of 15. The strategy table shows a yellow box with a 4* in it. The * tells me I should take a hit, because I’m drawing to a 6-7-8 offsuit bonus hand (pays 3:2).
As another example, say I have 2 3 2 3 2 2, a six-card hard 14, and the dealer is showing a 6. I’m drawing to a 7-card 21, which pays a 3:1 bonus. The strategy table has a yellow box with a 6″ in it, meaning I should take a hit and draw to either the 7-card 21 bonus, or the 6-7-8 suited bonus. I have the former, so I take a hit.
Sometimes, it’s better to just hit a hand than double it, depending on how many cards you have. This is because you have a chance of drawing to a multicard 21 bonus (remember, there’s no bonus after double, and it gets very expensive to see another card after doubling). For example, if I have a 3-card 11 total (e.g., 4-5-2) and the dealer is showing a face card, the table shows a blue double box with a 3 in it, meaning I should just hit my hand, because I’m holding at least 3 cards. This makes sense, because if my first draw is a 3, then my total is 14, and I’d have to surrender if I doubled. But if I just hit to the 4-card 14, then I have an easy hit to the 5-card 21 bonus (I need a 7). Even if I don’t hit my bonus, I have a “free” draw to improve my hand, instead of surrendering the hand.
Double and Re-Doubling
All double-down opportunities are on-average winning hands (+EV). That is, a decision to double-down is never the “least of two evils” (i.e., lose less by doubling). You double because it’s the way to maximize the win from the hand. However, some re-doubles are losers, and you’re redoubling-down to lose less than surrendering the hand :(
For example, one of the weakest doubles are player hard-9 against a dealer 3. Doubling still yields a winning net of approx 7.8% of the initial bet, whereas the hitting yields only 5.5%. So, passing up on this opportunity to double will cost you about 2.1% of your initial bet. That’s a huge edge you can’t afford pass up. As another example, consider soft-18 vs. a dealer 4. Doubling in this case yields a 14.3% return on your initial bet, while hitting returns only 8.4%. That’s a whopping 5.9% advantage you cannot forfeit.
So while I often see people passing up on their double-down opportunities, I also see people doubling-down when they’re not supposed to. A lot of people want to double soft totals against a dealer 2 or 3. Of course, you only do so against a dealer 4/5/6, and doing otherwise will cost you money. For example, doubling down on an A-3 (soft-14) vs. a dealer 2 will turn a winning hand into a losing hand. Just hitting in this case returns an average 5.4% profit on the initial bet. Doubling down erroneously here will result in an average loss of -0.2% of the initial bet. Yet again, a doubling mistake costs 5.6% of your initial bet. This is throwing money away.
Some of the re-doubling opportunities are the “least of two evils”, where you’re just trying to lose less on average. For example, say you doubled-down on a 4-6 (10 total) against a dealer 8, and you drew a 2. Now, you have 12, and are faced with either surrendering (-100% of initial bet), redoubling (-98.5%), or standing (-101.5%). The basic strategy says to re-double, because you’ll get a little return on your redouble (1.5% of your initial bet). The worst case is to stand, where you’ll lose a little more than if you surrender. But practically speaking, since you’ve already doubled your bet, this +/- 1.5% initial bet difference between your options is reduced to a +/- 0.75% difference relative to your doubled bet. So it’s not a huge mistake to go any way you want to here.
Dealer 4/5/6 Upcard
I get happy when I see a dealer 4, 5, or 6 upcard. I really get happy when I have a low soft total, because this is a chance to double and redouble your bet a few times. In all cases, opportunities to double increase your average win from the hand. In general, with a dealer 4/5/6 upcard, take all the opportunities to double and split, as they all return more expected win (i.e., they’re not “least of two evils” moves).
For example, you split 3-3 against a dealer 3, because you lose less (-7.5% of the initial bet) than if you took a hit (-11.1%). But if you have 3-3 against a dealer 4, taking a hit is still a loser (-7.2%), while splitting becomes a +1.5% average winner. Of course, you have to bet more (and may have to double it), but you can’t afford in the long run to cost yourself this 8.7% mistake.
All the doubles and redoubles with soft totals, even against a dealer 4 are winners. For example, if you have an A-3 (soft 14) against a dealer 4, doubling will return a 15.2% profit on your initial bet, while hitting will yield just 9.1%. This 6.1% difference includes the possibility of redoubles down the line. Even A-7 (soft 18) against a dealer 4 yields more for doubling (14.3%) vs. just hitting (8.4%). As I said before, all redoubles against a dealer 4/5/6 increase your winnings vs standing. For example, if you (re)double to a soft 18 against a dealer 4, you’ll eek out a little more profit (28.7% of initial bet) by redoubling than by standing (23.7%). Of course you’re putting a lot more at risk by doing this, especially if this is your third double. I tend to start with a small initial bet, so I don’t care if I have to 8x it. But, risking an additional 4 initial bets to extract out a gain of 5% of the initial bet may not be worth it to you. You’re really only getting 5%/4 = 1.25% return on your 4x redouble bet.
The examples given against a dealer 4 upcard are even more pronounced against a 5 or 6 upcard. The bottom line is: a dealer 4/5/6 upcard is good stuff. I especially like the 6 upcard, and doubling down with low soft totals.
Breaking The Rules
Almost all of the people I play with don’t believe in math, and they display nothing but contempt for it. I really learned to keep my mouth shut on the matter. You can get into a fight over this, believe me. At best, I’ll say indifferently, “well, the book says …”. They don’t believe in math, but they believe in the existence of the book. The only math the players practice at the table is “would-of” calculations to see who to blame for taking/not-taking a dealer bust card, or low card that gave the dealer a good total. It’s really complicated stuff. They see a lot of patterns in the cards, and hold a lot of superstitions. Like if the dealer has a weak upcard, they still believe someone at the table has to hit (I guess take a low card), otherwise the dealer won’t bust. People go ballistic over this stuff, especially at Spanish 21, where you’re supposed to hit hands like 14 against a dealer 3, and 12 against a dealer 6. All of this just results in more blame opportunities than regular blackjack.
Some of the plays in the basic strategy table are overlooked by a lot of players, and these mistakes are significant, however infrequent.
|Hand||Correct||Mistake||Cost (of initial bet)|
|9 vs. dealer 2||hit||double||1.8%|
|17 vs. dealer A||hit||stand||1.8%|
|8-8 vs. dealer face card||hit||split||4.1%|
Sometimes, you just want to gamble more, despite the odds. The best thing to do in this case is to choose the better gambling opportunities. Of course these are often double-down or split opportunities, where you can get more money into play. Some of these optional plays are listed in the table below, along with their cost, in terms of the initial bet. The higher the cost, the worse the mistake is. Note that there’s a wide range in the cost of mistakes that you’ll see at a table.
|Hand||Correct||Mistake||Cost (of initial bet)|
|A-3 vs. dealer 3||hit||double||0.04%|
|3-3 vs. dealer 6||hit||split||1.1%|
|3-card 11 vs. dealer face card||hit||double||2.3%|
|A-8 vs. dealer 6||stand||double||7.8%|
|doubled 12 vs. dealer face card||surrender||stand||7.9%|
|12 vs. dealer 6||hit||double||13.2%|
|doubled 12 vs. dealer 6||stand||re-double||13.8%|
|doubled 17 vs. dealer A||surrender||stand||13.9%|
|doubled 12 vs. dealer 9||surrender||re-double||18.3%|
|A-9 vs. dealer 6||stand||double||24.4%|
|doubled 12 vs. dealer face card||surrender||re-double||25.2%|
|doubled 13 vs. dealer face card||surrender||re-double||42.7%|
For example, you can decide to gamble and double an A-3 vs. a dealer 3. The end result of the hand, assuming you finish the hand correctly, is only worst by 0.04% of the initial bet, had you just hit, then finished out the hand correctly. That’s a very small cost for gambling it up, and getting some more money out there. It hurts a little in the long run (which is too long for any of us to actually see), but in the short run, it’s just increasing your bet.
Often I see people re-double 12 against a dealer 6. I guess they figure if you’re supposed to hit all 12’s, might as well double on them too. In reality, the hand is a loser, and you’ll only get 62.6% of your amount bet back by standing. Re-doubling will lower the return to 48.4% (of the amount bet before the last redouble). It’s a bad bet, but some people like to gamble. They can get lucky, by not busting. At that point, they’ve doubled their expected return on the hand.
Sometimes, you don’t care what the odds say, you just don’t have the appetite to re-double or split a hand that you don’t really like. Your fears are generally well-founded. In these cases, you have to put more money down, sometimes just as the “least of two evils”, to improve the return of a losing hand. Below are some of the plays that fall into this category, along with the cost of the mistake, in terms of the initial bet. The realistic cost of the mistake probably needs to be divided by 2 in the case of a split, and by the amount of the (re)double bet in case of a double.
|Hand||Correct||Mistake||Cost (of initial bet)|
|doubled 12 vs. dealer 8||re-double||rescue||1.7%|
|doubled soft 18 vs. dealer 4||re-double||stand||5.0%|
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