Last Updated: August 10, 2010

Spanish 21

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Spanish 21 is a variation of blackjack, that in some cases is the best bet in the casino. In locations where the dealer stands on a soft 17, or redoubling is allowed, Spanish 21 may be a better bet than blackjack, depending on the specific blackjack rules. If you are looking for a change of pace from traditional blackjack but insist on a game with a low house edge, then you may find new excitement in Spanish 21.

In Australia and Malaysia, Spanish 21 is called Pontoon. There are some rule changes in Australia, which merit a separate page. For all the details please visit my page on Australian Pontoon.

The Rules

Spanish 21 uses six or 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 moves the odds in favor of the dealer. To make up for this, Spanish 21 gives the player a host of bonuses and favorable rules. There are lots of Spanish 21 games all over the country, so rules will vary somewhat from place to place, but the usual rules in the player's favor are:

  1. Late surrender allowed.
  2. Double after split allowed.
  3. Re-splitting aces allowed.
  4. A player 21 always wins.
  5. Player blackjack beats dealer blackjack.
  6. Player may double on any number of cards.
  7. Player may usually hit and double down after splitting aces.
  8. Player may surrender after doubling, known as "double down rescue." The player forfeits an amount equal to his original bet.
  9. 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. Bonus not honored after doubling or splitting.
  10. 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 usually do not pay after doubling or splitting, but some casinos allow it.
  11. 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.

Variable Rules

  1. Dealer may hit or stand on a soft 17.
  2. 6 or 8 Spanish decks can be used.
  3. Some casinos allow redoubling, up to three times.
  4. I have heard of some casinos not allowing surrender or drawing to split aces, but it isn't the norm.
  5. A face card and ace after splitting has been known to count as a blackjack, at at least one casino.

Strategy

Following is my Spanish 21 basic strategy when the dealer hits a soft 17.

Next is the Spanish 21 basic strategy when the dealer stands on a soft 17.

Note: If drawing to split aces is not allowed, and the dealer stands on soft 17 (as is the case at the Mohegan Sun), then hit A,A vs A.

The next table if for when the dealer hits a soft 17, redoubling is allowed, and the player has not already doubled.

The next table if for when the dealer hits a soft 17, redoubling is allowed, and the player has already doubled, which limits his options to stand, surrender, and double again.

Many readers have expressed doubt about my advice to hit 17 against an ace with 3 or more cards. However, I stand by what I said. The player will save about 2.8% of the initial wager by hitting as opposed to standing. The dealers will advise against this play and the other players may curse the day you were born, but trust me, the odds favor hitting.

House Edge

Following is the house edge under various common rules, before considering the Super Bonus.

  • Dealer stands on soft 17: 0.40%
  • Dealer hits on soft 17, redoubling allowed: 0.42%
  • Dealer hits on soft 17, redoubling not allowed: 0.76%

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.

Rule Variations

No Draw to Split Aces: At the Mohegan Sun drawing to split aces is NOT allowed. The effect of this rule is to increase the house edge by 0.29%.

Ace and 10 after splitting aces pays 3 to 2: I have an unconfirmed report that at at one time the Meskaki casino in central Iowa paid 3 to 2 on an ace and 10 after splitting aces. I have another unconfirmed report that as of Aug. 2010 they removed the Spanish 21 table completely. According to my calculations this lowers the house edge by 0.16%. Otherwise they hit a soft 17 and no redoubling, for an overall house edge of 0.60%.

Doubling only allowed on first two cards: I had a false report that a casino in Malaysia didn't allow doubling on any number of cards. If such a rule did exist, it would increase the house edge by 0.16%.

Where to find the Good Games

The owners of Spanish 21 maintain their own list of where the dealer stands on soft 17 or redoubling is allowed at www.spanish21.com/goodlocations.php.

Match the Dealer

In some locations, there is a "Match the Dealer" side bet available if the either or both of the player's first two cards match the dealer's up card. In a six-deck game, a non-suited match pays 4 to 1, and a suited match pays 9 to 1. In an eight-deck game, a non-suited match pays 3 to 1, and a suited match pays 12 to 1. The six-deck game side bet has a house edge of 3.06%, and with eight decks it is 2.99%.

Methodology

The Spanish 21 strategy found here is based on a combinatorial program which considered both card composition and the six deck nature of the game. In addition an infinite deck model was created in Excel, of which the basic strategy nearly agreed with that of the combinatorial model. The basic strategy found here does not agree with that of the late Lenny Frome in some borderline situations. Frome's strategy can be found in such books as 'Secrets of the New Casino Games' (Marten Jensen) and 'Armada Strategies for Spanish 21' (Frank Scoblete). Although I have a great deal of respect for Frome and his body of work, I strongly feel that his basic strategy is incorrect. I speculate he did notincorporate the double down surrender feature correctly into his analysis. My strategies also agree with those of Katarina Walker, who has done an amazing job analyzing Spanish 21 and its cousin, Australian Pontoon, as well as an independent analysis by Mike Hopson.

Acknowledgments

I would like to give a huge thanks to Katarina Walker for correcting some minor strategy errors in this page. She is the author of The Pro's Guide to Spanish 21 and Australian Pontoon.

German translation of this page.

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