Last Updated: June 9, 2013

Pontoon

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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.

The Rules

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.

Fixed Rules

  1. Dealer hits soft 17.
  2. Double after split allowed.
  3. Dealer does not take a hole card.
  4. Player may double on 9 to 11 only. If player were to double on a soft hand, the ace would be forced to count as 1.
  5. Player may take "late surrender." If the dealer has a ten or ace up, a laminated marker saying "surrender" will be put on the player's bet. In the event the dealer gets a blackjack, the player will lose the entire bet.
  6. A player 21 or blackjack wins immediately.
  7. Player may surrender after doubling, known as "double down rescue." The player forfeits an amount equal to his original bet. The surrender is adjudicated immediately, so it is like early surrender.
  8. A five-card 21 pays 3 to 2, a six-card 21 pays 2 to 1, a seven-or-more-card-21 pays 3 to 1. However, the bonuses are not paid if the player doubled.
  9. A 6-7-8 or 7-7-7 of mixed suits pays 3 to 2, of the same suit pays 2 to 1, and of spades pays 3 to 1. These bonuses do not pay after doubling.
  10. Suited 7-7-7, when the dealer has a seven face up, pays $1000 for bets of $5-$24 and $5000 for bets of $25 or over. In addition, all other players receive a $50 "envy bonus." This bonus does not pay after doubling or splitting.

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.

Variable Rules

  1. Four to eight Spanish decks.
  2. Hole-card rule. There are various possibilities, which are explained below.
  3. Number of splits allowed, either one or two.
  4. Resplitting aces may or may not be allowed.
  5. Doubling may be allowed with any number of cards, or only two.

Hole-Card Rules

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.

  • OBO (Original Bets Only): This is the rule followed in North America, where the player loses only his original bet if the dealer gets a blackjack. Usually the dealer will peek at the hole card if a blackjack is possible, so players won't waste time trying to beat an unbeatable hand. The OBO rule is followed nowhere in Australia, but deserves mention anyway.
  • BB+1 (Busted Bets Plus One): Under this rule, the player will lose any hands he busted, plus an amount equal to his original bet, if he has anything left.
  • OBBO (Original and Busted Bets Only): Under this rule, the player will lose any hands he busted, plus an amount equal to his original wager per hand. In other words, if the dealer gets a blackjack, the player is penalized for splitting, but not doubling.
  • ENHC (European no Hole Card): Under this rule, the player loses every bet on the table if the dealer gets a blackjack.

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.
Hand 2: Player hits and busts.
Hand 3: Player doubles to 20.

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.
BB+1: The dealer would take $10 from the remaining $30 on the table.
OBBO: The dealer would take $20, $10 from each of the two hands left.
ENCH: The dealer would take all $30 on the table.

Strategy

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.

House Edge

I'm going to use the rules in Sydney as the base rules. The variable rules in other parts of Australia are as follows.

  • 8 decks.
  • BB+1.
  • Player may split only once.
  • Player may double on any number of cards.

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.

Effets of Rule Variations

Rule Effect
Six decks 0.03%
Four decks 0.08%
OBBO -0.01%
ENHC -0.06%
Split 2-K 2X 0.03%
Split 2-K 3X 0.05%
Split 2-A 2X 0.11%
Double only 2 cards -0.16%

The next table summarizes the Pontoon rules in various parts of Australia.

Pontoon Rules Summary for Australia and Malaysia

Location Decks Max. Splits Resplit Aces Hole Card Double any Time House Edge
Canberra 4 1 No BB+1 Yes 0.34%
Melbourne, Tasmania 8 2 No BB+1 Yes 0.38%
Queensland 6 1 No BB+1 Yes 0.40%
Perth 8 2 Yes ENHC Yes 0.38%
Sydney 8 1 No BB+1 Yes 0.42%
Malaysia 8 2 Yes OBBO No 0.49%
Adelaide 8 1 No ENHC No 0.64%

Updates

  • I have an unconfirmed report that in Adelaide the player may now split twice.
  • I have a different unconfirmed report that Adelaide casino now uses four decks instead of eight. (6/9/13)

Super Bonus

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.

Acknowledgments

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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