Pontoon is a derivative of Spanish 21 played mainly in Australia and Malaysia. Most land-based Australian casinos offer some version of the game, while leading online casinos carry similar titles such as Microgaming’s Spanish Blackjack. It is not to be confused with the British blackjack variant of the same name.
Pontoon’s popularity in Australia and a number of Asian countries stems from its comparatively low house edge. While the exact figure can fluctuate from game to game depending on which hole card rules are in play, you can find pontoon games with a house edge as low as 0.38 per cent.
How is Pontoon played?
Pontoon is played with a 48-card deck, often referred to as a “Spanish deck”. This is simply a standard 52-card French deck with the face-value 10s removed.
The game can be played with four to eight Spanish decks, either in a traditional shoe or an automatic shuffling device. Australian pontoon tables are almost identical to regulation blackjack tables in appearance, with eight betting boxes and an insurance line.
The game is dealt in exactly the same manner as a regular blackjack game. The croupier deals a face-up card to each player before taking a face-down card and then dealing each player a second face-up card. Insurance and/or surrender is offered if the dealer’s card is an Ace or picture card, and then each player may complete their hands by taking the following actions: hit, stand, double down, or split a pair of equally ranked cards.
As in blackjack, the aim of the game is to beat the dealer’s score without exceeding 21 points. An initial two-card hand of an Ace and any picture card (Jack, Queen, or King) is called pontoon, or a ‘natural’, and is paid 3 to 2. There are a number of other increased payouts for specific hands of 21 points, while winning hands of 20 points or less pay 1 to 1.
Australian pontoon rules
There are 10 universally accepted rules for pontoon in Australia:
1. The dealer does not take a hole card.
2. The dealer always hits on soft 17.
3. Doubling after splits (DAS) is allowed.
4. Doubling is allowed on nine, 10 and 11 only.
5. Late surrender is available when the dealer’s initial card is a Jack, Queen, King, or Ace.
6. If you have a total of 21, you are paid out immediately.
7. Unlike most blackjack games, in pontoon you can surrender after doubling down. This ‘double down rescue’ rule requires you to forfeit half your total bet. For example: if your initial stake was $15 and you double your bet to $30, you can then opt to forfeit $15 and keep the remaining $15.
8. Five-card 21 pays 3 to 2, a six-card 21 pays 2 to 1 and a 21-point hand of seven or more cards pays 3 to 1. However, these bonuses do not apply if you have doubled down.
9. A total of 21 made up of either Six, Seven and Eight or of three Sevens pays 3 to 2 in mixed suits, 2 to 1 in the same suit and 3 to 1 in Spades only.
10. If you have three suited Sevens and the dealer’s show card is also a Seven, you win the Super Bonus. Bets between $5 and $24 pay $1,000, while wagers of $25 or over win $5,000. Furthermore, everyone with a bet on the table receives a $50 “envy” bonus.
Besides that set of core rules, there are several other conditions which can vary from game to game:
– Number of Spanish decks used can range from four to eight per shoe.
– Number of splits/re-splits allowed.
– Re-splitting Aces may or may not be allowed.
– Some games only permit doubling on the first two cards of a hand, while others allow it on any number of cards as long as the points total is between nine and 11.
Hole card rule variations
As with Australian blackjack games, and any other version of 21 where the dealer takes no hole card, pontoon may use one of four special rules to govern what happens when the house draws a natural.
Original Bets Only (OBO)
If the dealer makes a pontoon when you have splits and doubles on the table, all you lose is your original bet.
Busted Bets Plus One (BB+1)
If the dealer makes a pontoon, you lose any busted bets and an amount equal to your original bet (if you have that much left).
Original and Busted Bets Only (OBBO)
If the dealer makes a pontoon, you lose any bets that have busted during play but only lose original bets on doubles. Thus, it’s possible to lose all splits and yet only forfeit half of a double.
European No Hole Card (ENHC)
If the dealer makes a pontoon, you lose all doubles, splits and original bets.
What else is Pontoon known as?
Many Australian casinos have their own branded versions of pontoon. While there are slight rule variations from venue to venue, each of these incarnations carries a house edge of between 0.3 and 0.5 per cent – much better value than the vast majority of land-based blackjack in Australia.
- Treasury 21 – Treasury Casino, Brisbane – BB+1
- Jupiters 21 – Jupiters Casino, Gold Coast – BB+1
- Paradise Pontoon – Reef Casino, Cairns – BB+1
- Federal Pontoon – Wrest Point Casino, Hobart, and Country Club Casino, Launceston – BB+1
- Crown Pontoon – Crown Casino, Melbourne – BB+1
Australian and Malaysian pontoon rules also share much in common with the American casino game Spanish 21, including bonus payouts, the ‘double down rescue’ rule and the 48-card Spanish deck. The only major differences from pontoon are that the dealer takes a hole card and that players are usually allowed to double down on any points total.
Online pontoon options
Those who have played real money pontoon online might be confused by the game we’ve described here. That’s because the digital versions found at most Internet casinos follow the rules of British pontoon – a wholly different game, albeit another offshoot of blackjack.
If you want to play Australian pontoon games online, we recommend Spanish Blackjack Gold. Available at leading Microgaming casinos like RoyalVegasCasino.com, this Gold Series title is almost identical to Aussie-style pontoon and has a house edge of only 0.38 per cent.