Pontoon is a name shared by two distinct card games, both blackjack variants. For those in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, pontoon is a card game similar to match play 21 or Spanish 21, while in the UK, a game of pontoon holds closer to the traditional blackjack rules, but can be quickly distinguished by the verbal usage of the terms “twist” and “stick”.
The Malaysian version of pontoon is played in Australian, Malaysian, British, and Singaporean casinos. using multiple customized decks of cards. In the Treasury Casino, Brisbane, it is known as Treasury 21. In Jupiters Casino, Gold Coast, it is known as Jupiters 21, in the Reef Casino, Cairns, it is known as Paradise Pontoon, and in Tasmania, it is known as Federal Pontoon.
The British blackjack variant called pontoon is played in the UK and Commonwealth with single 52-card decks. British pontoon uses the terms “twist” (hit), “stick” (stand) and “buy” (double the bet, not to be confused with doubling down) and a different set of rules. The rules for buying in pontoon include allowing the player to buy on any hand of 2 to 4 cards, allowing the player to twist after he buys.
The remainder of this article refers to the Malaysian version of pontoon.
Pontoon is the British or domestic version of blackjack, which in turn is the American version of vingt-et-un (French for twenty-one), a French gambling game popular at the court of Louis XV and later, much favored by Napoleon, especially at St. Helena. In the twentieth century, it became the most popular game of the armed forces of English-speaking nations. Pontoon, unlike casino Blackjack, has no official rules and varies widely from school to school.
Pontoon is an arithmetical game played on a table with the same layout as blackjack. In each deal, the player’s aim is to receive cards totaling more in face value than the banker’s, but not exceeding 21, otherwise, he is “bust” and loses. A 21 consisting of an ace and a card worth 10 is a pontoon and pays extra. A player’s 21 or pontoon always beats a dealer 21 or pontoon. Like Spanish 21, it is played from either a shoe or a 4-deck continuous shuffling machine (CSM). The shoe games use six or eight Spanish decks, which are regular 52-card decks, minus the ten-spot cards. Cards Two to Nine count 2 to 9 respectively, courts 10 each, Aces 1 or 11, depending on what is better for the hand.
Pontoon has similar rules to Spanish 21, with some notable differences, listed below.
Just like in Australian, Asian, and European blackjack, the dealer has no hole card (NHC). This means that the players do not know whether or not the dealer has a natural (a.k.a. blackjack, an ace and a 10-valued card) until the end of the round when the dealer draws his second card. Therefore, it is possible to draw to “21” and win against a dealer natural, which is player advantageous and not possible in either Spanish 21 or blackjack.
Because the dealer has no hole card, it is possible to double and/or split and lose multiple bets to a dealer natural. All casinos, except for Adelaide Casino, offer either BB+1 or OBBO to compensate.
An Ace in a pre-double hand is always counted as 1, rather than 1 or 11. For example, if the player doubles on soft 18 (an Ace plus one or more cards totaling 7), he/she is essentially doubling on 8. This rule makes doubling in soft hands highly inadvisable.
Players are not allowed to draw on split Aces (NDSA), which means that if the player splits Aces, he/she is given one card only on each Ace.
Compared with Spanish 21, which allows splitting to four hands (SPL3), there are limitations on how many hands players are allowed to split too. Casinos in Queensland and New South Wales do not permit resplitting (SPL1). In most venues, players cannot resplit aces (SPA1), apart from Burswood Casino, Perth, and Casino de Genting, Malaysia, where it is allowed to resplit once (SPL2).
Players can only surrender against a dealer ace or face (a.k.a., picture) card. If the dealer ends up with a natural, the player will still lose the entire bet; moreover, he/she missed out on the opportunity to draw to “21” and win unconditionally. This is why surrendering is a less valuable play in Pontoon than in Spanish 21.
In Adelaide Casino and Casino de Genting, Malaysia, it is allowed to double only on two-card hands. Elsewhere, players can double on any number of cards, which is called “not last chance” (NLC) doubling.
The dealer always hits on soft 17, abbreviated as H17.
Pontoon has the same super bonus payouts are Spanish 21, with the exception of Casino de Genting, Malaysia, which has a super bonus payout of RM1,000 on bets of RM10 to RM99, and RM5,000 on bets of RM100 or above.
Despite the player disadvantage of rules 2–9, on average, the house edges for Pontoon are lower than for Spanish 21, because rule 1 is so profoundly player advantageous. The rule differences mean that there are several significant strategy differences between Spanish 21 and Pontoon.