Last Update: June 9, 2013
There are two completely different blackjack variants known as Pontoon. One is played at Internet casinos using Real Time Gaming software, and is described in my page on RTG Pontoon. The other is played in Australia, and is very similar to what is called Spanish 21 in North America. This page shall address the latter Australian version. I can't speak for the rest of Australia, but in Sydney, Pontoon offers a much better bet than conventional blackjack, with a house edge about 1/3 less.
Pontoon uses four to eight Spanish decks, each deck consisting of 48 cards — the regular 52 cards, less the four tens. Any card counter can tell you that removing any 10-point card from the cards favors the dealer. To make up for this, Pontoon gives to the player a host of bonuses and favorable rules. The following rules are consistent to Pontoon, across Australia.
The European no-hole-card rule strongly favors the player in Pontoon. This is because a player 21 automatically wins, even if the dealer gets a blackjack. In American Spanish 21, the dealer blackjack beats anything except a player blackjack, depressing the player's odds.
What happens when the player doubles or splits, and the dealer gets a blackjack, depends on which casino you are in. In most cases, the rules followed are found nowhere else on earth besides Australia, so new terminology had to be established. Other sources on Pontoon and blackjack do not use the same terminology as I do, or use them differently. I have decided to go with the terms as used in the book The Pro's Guide to Spanish 21 and Australian Pontoon by Katarina Walker. Please do not write and tell me I have the terminology wrong, quoting some other web site. Nobody knows Pontoon better than Walker, so I can think of no better standard to measure to.
Let's look at an example. Suppose the player bets $10 and then splits eights against a dealer ten, to the following:
Hand 1: Player hits to 18.
Then, the dealer gets a blackjack. The following is what would happen under all four possible hole-card rules.
OBO: The remaining $30 on the table would push, because the player already lost $10 on the hand that busted.
The following table shows the basic strategy for Pontoon.
Next are the three tricky hands that depend on the hole-card rule being followed.
If the player splits eights against a ten, under the BB+1 rule, then he will be motivated to hit less. This is because a busted hand is always lost, but if the dealer gets a blackjack, only one split hand will be lost. In this situation, the player should stand on 16, instead of hitting. The only exception is if it is that last hand to be played, and all earlier hands busted.
I'm going to use the rules in Sydney as the base rules. The variable rules in other parts of Australia are as follows.
Under the Sydney rules, the house edge is 0.42%.
The following list is of rule variations you may encounter in Austalia. The table shows the change in the player's excpected value, so positive effects are good.
The next table summarizes the Pontoon rules in various parts of Australia.
The probability of hitting the Super Bonus is 1 in 668,382, with six decks, and 1 in 549,188, with eight decks. The reduction in the house edge depends on the bet amount, and to a lesser extent, the number of players. With no other players, and bets of exactly $5 or $25, the Super Bonus lowers the house edge by 0.030% in a six-deck game, and 0.036% in an eight-deck game. At a bet of exactly $5, the Envy Bonus lowers the house edge by an additional 0.0015% in a six-deck game, and 0.0018% in an eight-deck game, per additional player.
For bet amounts other than those indicated above, the benefit of the Super Bonus will go down as the bet amount goes up.
Katarina Walker is the undisputed queen of Spanish 21 and Pontoon. I only had time to visit one casino during my trip to Australia in 2008, the Star City in Sydney. Kat's book and answers to my many e-mail were invaluable for knowing Pontoon rules in the rest of Australia. She has also been good about catching minor mistakes in my Spanish 21 page.
MGP was kind enough to give me a copy of his amazing blackjack calculator. Put in any set of rules, and it will give you the correct strategy and house edge. It handles all kinds of obscure rules, including all the Pontoon rules. MGP was extremely patient and gracious in answering my numerous questions too. I think, and hope, the blackjack world will be hearing more from MGP in the future.
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