While the 18th century French card game vingt-et-un (twenty-one) evolved into Blackjack in the United States, it took a slightly different turn in Britain, where it became Pontoon. Many of the features of these games are similar, such as being played against a dealer with a standard 52-card deck with Aces counting as 1 or 11 and face cards as 10. The player’s objective is to obtain a hand totaling more than the dealer’s, but without going over 21.
Just as a “blackjack” is the top hand in Blackjack, so the top hand in a game of Pontoon is a “pontoon,” consisting of an Ace and a card valued at 10 points. One major difference, however, is that the second best hand in Pontoon is any five cards totaling 21 or less—what is known in some circles as a “five-card trick” or a “five-card Charlie.” Hands that have a value of 21 and consist of three or four cards are beaten by these two hands. Otherwise, the highest hand wins, and any hand exceeding 21 is a “bust” and loses.
In casinos, Pontoon is often played with a double deck with cards reshuffled after each hand. Prior to receiving their cards, players make their bets, including any side bets allowed. One popular side bet offered at some tables is “Sweet 16.” It pays 1:1 if the player’s first two cards total 16~21 or contain an Ace. A pair of 2’s or 7’s is a “push,” and all other hands lose the side wager.
Once all bets have been made, the players are each dealt two cards, face up in most casinos, but face down in others. The dealer also receives two cards and turns one up, retaining the other as a hidden “hole” card. Players the have the option to draw additional cards or stand on what they have been dealt. Pairs may be split to form two hands, typically one time only.
Doubling is quite different in Pontoon compared to Blackjack. The player may double his/her wager before drawing a card at any time during the game and as many times as desired, as long as the hand’s total does not exceed 21. For example, a player might double down on a 5-4 hand totaling 9, draw a 2 to make 11, and then double down again to catch a 10 for 21. Or if the 5-4-2 hand catches an Ace to make 12, the player may wish to double and try to catch a fifth card less than 10 to make a Charlie. It is also permitted to draw a card after doubling without doubling again.
This liberal doubling rule makes Pontoon a very active and exciting game. It also reduces the house edge, so a few modifications have also been made in the way the dealer’s hand must be played. Most Pontoon tables require the dealer to hit any total of soft 17 or less, and stand on all hands valued at hard 17 or higher. But there are no pushes in Pontoon. The dealer wins all ties, which includes pontoons and Charlie’s as well as hands of equal value.
For example, if a player draws an 8-7-6 and the dealer draws 5-4-2-Ace-4, the dealer wins. Similarly, if a player holds 5-4-2-Ace-9 for a total of 21 and the dealer shows 6-5-Ace-3-5 for a total of 20, the dealer still wins, because the hands are both Charlie’s. This “no push” rule tilts the house edge back to the casino’s advantage in a big way.
In Australia and Malaysia, along with some online casinos, the game of Pontoon has been further modified to remove all of the tens from play, making it more like Spanish 21. Players are well advised to check the rules closely before participating in any card game, of course, but this is especially true of Pontoon played outside its home base in Britain.