An Introduction to Pontoon
As with Blackjack, the aim of the game is to build a hand as close to 21 in value as possible but without exceeding 21 and going bust. At the end of the round, as long as the player’s hand is closer to 21 than the dealer’s hand is, then the player wins. There is one exception to this, if the dealer’s hand is worth 21 but consists of more than 2 cards, and the player is holding 5 cards and hasn’t gone bust, then the player will win. This is called a Five Card Trick and it also offers the game’s biggest payout.
The similarities to Blackjack do not end there. When calculating a hand’s value, the face cards are worth 10 (Jack, Queen and King), the number cards (2 to 10) are worth their face value, and Aces are worth 1 or 11. As a result, 21 can be formed with just two cards, and Ace and a 10 Card. It is called Pontoon and it is the best possible hand.
The game is played with eight decks of cards that are shuffled into a shoe. At the start of a round, the player places a bet and then receives two face-up cards. The dealer will receive two face down cards, which is an important difference to Blackjack. However, the dealer will check their cards immediately and if they are holding Pontoon the cards are revealed and the round ends.
There are then a few basic options for the hand. Players can Hit, Stand or Double:
- Hit – An additional card is dealt to the hand, if it doesn’t send the hand bust then players may hit once again.
- Stand – The hand remains as it is.
- Double – The initial bet is doubled, the hand receives one more card.
At this point, there are a few important differences from Blackjack that should be noted. First, there is no option to take out insurance. Secondly, the player must draw more cards until the hand is worth at least 15. Thirdly, after doubling, players can draw as many cards as they wish (in Blackjack only one more card is drawn).
If the first two cards dealt to a player are identical in value then there is the option to Split. This requires placing a second bet equal to the first and it separates the two cards into distinct hands that can then be played individually. Importantly, if a split hand contains an Ace and a ten or picture hand then it still counts as Pontoon (in Blackjack it would count as 21).
When the player has finished, the dealer plays. The dealer will always hit on 16 and Soft 17, a hand is considered Soft if it contains an Ace. The dealer will then stand as soon as his hand is a Hard 17 or higher (a hand is Hard if it does not contain an Ace).
There are only a few types of payouts in Pontoon. A winning hand is paid out at 1:1 with the exception of a Five Card Trick and Pontoon. Both of these hands payout at 2:1 and they will beat all other hands (Pontoon ranks above a Five Card Trick). Another important difference to Blackjack is that in the event of a tie, the dealer always wins.
The hand rankings in Pontoon are very simple to remember. Pontoon is the strongest hand and beats all others; it is followed by a Five Card Trick, a hand of 21, and finally a High Card Total (the most valuable hand on the table worth less than 21).
Basic Pontoon Strategies
When considering Pontoon strategies there is a very big difference to Blackjack, it is not possible to see any of the dealer’s cards. Also, a Five Card Trick is just as valuable as Pontoon. As a result, the strategy is based upon the visible cards in a player’s hand.
There are three important points to consider, the value of a hand, the number of cards in the hand, and whether the hand is hard or soft (i.e. whether it contains an Ace).
Now we will look at a number of different scenarios.
Hard Hands Containing Three or Four Cards
This is a very easy situation to handle. You can only stand if you have a hard hand of at least three cards (none of which are Aces) that is worth 15 or more. Furthermore, it is a very common situation, so it is a good basic rule to remember.
The strategies you will need to use will vary depending on the number of cards you have as playing with five cards is very different. That is why for now we are focusing on playing with three or four cards. There are actually just four things that you need to remember.
- Stand if the total is 15 or more
- Double if the hand is worth 10 or 11
- Double if you have 9 made up of three cards
- Hit on all other totals that are 14 or lower.
It takes no time at all to get used to these four simple rules, and you will find that it makes a huge difference to your success playing Pontoon.
Soft Hands Containing Three or Four Cards
Soft hands, which means that they contain an Ace, are even easier to learn how to deal with. There are just three rules that you need to learn:
- If you have three cards – Hit on 18 or Lower and Stand on 19 or Higher
- If you have four cards – Hit on 18 or Lower and Double on 19 or Higher
- There is one exception, if you have already doubled at an earlier stage, then you should stand if you have soft 21 with four cards, instead of hitting. If you forget, it will not make a huge difference, but it will slightly increase the house edge.
Once again, these are very simple strategies. In fact, this is a massive advantage of playing Pontoon, the strategies are much easier to learn and internalise than most Blackjack strategies, so you will find the rate of play is much faster.
Hands Containing Four Cards
It is worth treating this as a separate section than two or three cards as it makes the strategy a bit easier to learn. In Pontoon, the strategy generally calls for players to be a bit more aggressive when they are holding four cards. This is because the rewards for a Five Card Trick are double that for a regular winning hand, so it is definitely worth trying to achieve. Furthermore, if you have doubled during the hand, then the rewards are actually four times greater. Therefore, the following rules are very important. However, there are just two of them to learn, so it is not very difficult.
- If you have a soft total and four cards, then you should always double. In this situation, you cannot lose by going bust, so you are guaranteed a five-card hand.
- If you have a hard hand and four cards, then you should double is it is worth 16 or less, hit if it is worth 17, and stand if it is worth 18 or more.
Ultimately, if you have a hand of four cards, then you are in a strong position and the rules governing it are very straightforward.
Hands Containing a Pair
When examining Blackjack strategies, the rules governing when to split a hand are often very complicated. Furthermore, a player might put a great deal of effort into learning them, only to find that the scenario very rarely occurs. Luckily, in Pontoon, things are much simpler.
All hands containing a pair should be played like any other hand. There are two exceptions to this, pairs of 8s and pairs of Aces.
- If you are holding a pair of 8s then you should always split if the game allows it, otherwise you should stand.
- If you are holding a pair of Aces then you should split if the game allows it, otherwise you should hit. If you happen to be playing a version of the game where split Aces cannot form Pontoon, then you should hit instead, but this is a very rare rule change.
Using the four sets of rules described above, it is possible to work through some very basic examples.
You are holding 8, 4, 6. This is a hard hand with three cards (the first set of rules). The total is 18, which means that you stand.
You are holding 2, 3, 4, 5. This is a hard hand with four cards (the first set of rules). The total is 14, which means that you hit.
You are holding A, 3, 7. This is a soft hand with three cards (the second set of rules). The total is 11/21. The lower total is important here, it is 11, which means you hit. This is because you want to try to form a five-card hand.
You are holding A, 3, 4, 5. This is a soft total with four cards (the second/third set of rules). The rules say that you always double.
You are holding 3-3. This is a pair but it is not an A or an 8. Therefore, you hit.
You are holding 8-8. You should split and play the hands separately.