Pontoon is a popular casino card game that bears a close semblance to blackjack. Many casino fans would, in fact, prefer pontoon over blackjack. They consider it more fun to play because of the interesting twists in the rules which add to the excitement. What further contributes to this casino game’s appeal is the low house edge which is similar to that in blackjack. The only downside of pontoon is that it has a bit higher variance than blackjack, meaning that players would experience more swings at the pontoon tables.
In present days, this fascinating game is no longer available only in brick-and-mortar gambling venues. You can win yourself a handsome amount of money online as pontoon is available at your fingertips across a large number of web-based casinos. All big casino software developers have designed authentic variations of pontoon, with some of the most commonly played options being courtesy of Playtech, Betsoft, Microgaming, and NetEnt.
Before we proceed any further, we must clarify that there are two distinct versions of pontoon which should not be mixed up. British pontoon is more similar to blackjack. The pontoon variations offered across casinos in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia are played with short decks and hold closer to Spanish 21 – these will not be the subject of this article.
The Origins of Pontoon
Tracking where Pontoon originated from is no easy task since the exact origins of this exciting game remain veiled in mystery to this day. Some casino experts share a common belief that the name “pontoon” is merely the corrupted, mispronounced version of vingt-et-un, which translates as twenty-one from French.
The consensus is blackjack first emerged on French soil sometime in the 18th century and then traveled to Great Britain. Brits struggled with the French name vingt-et-un and often pronounced it in a way that sounded more like Van John, which supposedly was also twisted into “vontoon”. The name pontoon was officially assimilated by Brits and remained in use until a distinction was officially made between blackjack and pontoon due to variations of the rules.
Others believe a game similar to pontoon was first mentioned in a short story by the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. In Rinconete y Cortadillo, Cervantes relates the story of two boys who earn their living by playing and sometimes even cheating at a card game, called veintiuna, which also means twenty-one but in Spanish. Ironically, veintiuna had quite similar rules to those of blackjack, and respectively, of pontoon. Mind you Cervantes originally published his story in 1613 which only goes to show how ancient the game of 21 and its variations like pontoon are.
Objective, Moves and Card Values in Pontoon
The objective of a pontoon player is pretty much the same as that of a blackjack player since the goal is to beat the dealer with a better hand total but without surpassing 21. Since there are no official set rules for pontoon, it can be played with two to eight full decks of cards. The online variations would typically play with eight decks.
The coup starts with the dealer dealing one card to all participants in the game, starting with the person sitting immediately to their left and ending with themselves. This procedure is then repeated again so that everyone at the table including the dealer has a hand consisting of two cards. Players cards are normally dealt face up.
One of the biggest differences between pontoon and blackjack lies in the fact dealers in the former do not expose any of their cards until everyone else at the table has acted on their hands. Both cards of the dealer are dealt facing down which significantly impedes decision making.
The Moves in Pontoon
Once everyone has been dealt their starting two cards, the players are prompted to act on their hands having a choice between several moves. The person occupying the seat that is immediately to the dealer’s left is the first one to play out their hand. The moves largely coincide with those in classic blackjack but are referred to with different terms. Hence, in pontoon we have:
Stick – this coincides with standing on your hand in blackjack when you are satisfied with your current total and decline drawing more cards from the pack. One major deviation from blackjack results from the fact pontoon players are not allowed to stick unless their original total equals or exceeds 15.
Twist – this move is the same as hitting in classic blackjack, which in turn means the player is requesting more cards to improve their starting hand’s value.
Buying a card – when pontoon players are “buying” cards, they are practically doubling down. They increase their initial stakes by making additional bets, equal to the original ones. Pontoon players are allowed to double on two to four cards on condition they do it only once per hand. Buying cards is also allowed after you have split a pair. Another major discrepancy between pontoon and blackjack rules is the player being permitted to twist after they have bought a card. In comparison, blackjack players are dealt only one card after they have doubled down.
Splitting – this move is possible only when your starting hand comprises two cards of equal rank, e.g. two 8s or two aces. This also requires you to place an extra bet of the same size as your original wager. Resplitting to four separate hands may be allowed, depending on the pontoon variation. In Playtech’s take on pontoon, players are allowed to resplit, in Betsoft’s – they are not.
Dealer Rules and Card Values
Much like their colleagues manning the blackjack tables, pontoon dealers make no decisions on how to play out their hands. Instead, fixed rules are in place for the dealers requiring them to twist on soft totals of 17 and stick on hard 17s. Additionally, the rules stipulate pontoon dealers should stop twisting on all five-card hands.
The ranking of the cards coincides with the one used in blackjack, which is to say suits are not taken into consideration at all. The tens and the court cards all have a value of 10. The cards 2 through 9 are assigned the same value as the number of their pips. Aces are assigned a value of either 1 or 11, which allows for a distinction between soft and hard hands, like in blackjack.
Hand Values and Payouts
The increased payouts are one of the aspects of pontoon that make it worth playing. The hand values, however, are quite similar to those in the standard game of 21. Thus, naturals hold the biggest weight here but instead of being called “blackjacks”, they are referred to as “pontoons”. Respectively, a pontoon beats all other hands and consists of an ace and a ten-value card, like a queen, king, jack, or a ten.
The coolest thing about pontoons is that casinos do these rarer hands a proper justice by awarding increased payouts of 2 to 1 for them, whereas in blackjack naturals would pay 3 to 2 at best for a payout that is one and a half times your original stake.
The second best hand in the game is called a 5-card trick. This is the same like the 5-card Charlie in blackjack, but it is next to impossible to find online or landbased tables where this Charlie rule applies – most casinos would only offer a payout on Charlies consisting of either six or seven cards. So basically, a 5-card trick consists of five cards with a total of 21 or below. It beats all other hands with the exception of pontoons. The payout is again improved at odds of 2 to 1.
Next in line is the standard total of 21, consisting of three or four cards. The only hands it is powerless against are the pontoons and the 5-card tricks. This hand rewards winners with an even-money payout. All other totals below 21 would also pay you even money as long as they are higher than the dealer’s total for the coup.
We regret to say the weakest point of pontoon stems from the fact the dealers take all ties, which altogether reduces the expected value of this otherwise bankable game. In regular games of 21, when both the player and the dealer hold the same card total, they push and the player has their original bet returned to them.
Rule Variations in Pontoon
We previously talked about how pontoon does not have official set rules, which is why you may come across tables with quite conspicuous rule variations. Most of these variations have to do with what happens when players lose to their dealers’ pontoons when having previously split their hands or bought cards. They were introduced by some casinos as a means to compensate players. Some variations favor the player but unfortunately apply only in specific countries like the USA. Here are some of the most popular rule variations at pontoon tables:
Original Bets Only, or OBO, is a rule which stipulates that the player would lose only his initial stake when the dealer flips over a pontoon. The reason for this is that the peek rule applies at these OBO tables meaning that the dealer would take a look at their two hole cards before players have completed their hands and would immediately declare pontoon, if they have one. This prevents players from fighting a losing battle trying to prevail over an unbeatable hand, but more importantly it spares them investing more money on splitting and buying cards.
Original and Busted Bets Only, or OBBO, is a rule variation that stipulates the players loses all busted hands plus the side bet they had made when splitting a pair. The player, however, is not penalized in the same way when they have bought cards in busted hands.
Busted Bets+1, or BB+1, stipulates you lose all hands you have busted when the dealer has declared pontoon plus your starting wager. This applies even in cases when you have invested more money on split hands.
Learning Optimal Strategy for Pontoon
Much like classic blackjack, pontoon is a game of dependent trials which means the cards that have left the shoe impact the probability of drawing to a winning total. This is exactly the reason why skilled players can improve their odds of winning and reduce the house edge to around 0.35% by following optimal playing strategy at the pontoon tables.
It should be noted, however, there are huge differences in optimal strategies for pontoon and blackjack, despite the strategy charts appearing seemingly identical. If you take a closer look at the pontoon chart, you will certainly notice it is different in that the dealer’s cards are not taken into account since here they do not have a face-up card to expose.
Here optimal play is composition-based, meaning that the best decisions are made on the basis of the number of cards that can make up winning hands. This results from the fact players aim at obtaining the highest paying hands like the 5-card tricks. You can see all the optimal play decisions in the chart appended to the article.
The crux of it is that when you are dealt soft hands, your chances of exceeding 21 decrease while the likelihood of drawing to a 5-card trick gets higher. Therefore, pontoon players are advised to double down on soft hands consisting of four cards for a total of 17 or less in an attempt to draw to a 5-card trick as this would earn them greater profits. Conversely, if you get dealt hard two-card or three-card totals of 17 or less, it would be best to stick since drawing extra cards is likely to result in a bust instead of a 5-card trick. The only exception from this rule is when you have a hard total of 17 with four cards in which case you are recommended to twist.
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Differences between British and Australian Pontoon
Remember when we mentioned that the version of pontoon played in Great Britain differs from the one played in Australian, Singaporean, and Malaysian casinos? To prevent you from getting the two variations mixed up, we shall outline some of the biggest differences between the games. The shortest explanation would be to say that pontoon outside the UK plays more like the game of Spanish 21.
First off, the pontoon variations that prevail in casinos across Asia and Australia use short decks, containing 48 cards each. All tens are removed from the decks, which reduces your chances of hitting pontoons but some of the rules have been modified favorably to attract the action of players.
One such favorable rule stipulates that players always win with pontoons and regular hands of 21 no matter what the dealer total is. You are also allowed to buy cards after splitting and late surrender is possible when the dealer exposes a ten-value card or an ace. This also means that Australian pontoon utilizes face-up cards for the dealer’s hands. This is yet another advantage for players because the dealer has only one hole card and you get to see the other. Additionally, you have the option to surrender after buying a card – this move is called Double Down Rescue.
The payouts also differ. In Australian pontoon, players are awarded payouts of 3 to 1 for hands consisting of off-suit 6, 7, 8 or three 7s. If the cards in the said hands are suited, they will pay 2 to 1 and if all three are of spades, the payout would increase to 3 to 1. The only downsides of the Australian rules are the dealer hitting soft 17s and the limitations on buying cards, which is allowed only on totals of 9, 10, and 11. Seven-card Charlies with totals of 21 return at a rate of 3 to 1.