When it comes to casino games, there are more than a few that seem very similar to the sort of games that you might have played when you were younger. Who amongst us didn’t play a card game with friends or family in which we tried to get lower than 21? That is, in essence, the way both pontoon and blackjack work as card games, with minor differences between them. The terminology is largely the same, but that doesn’t mean that you can discuss the two games interchangeably when there are differences to think about.
The games are related, which is why some casinos will offer one or the other and some, especially online casinos, will offer both. Pontoon was created in the United Kingdom, whilst blackjack is an American creation. Despite what many people think, the two are not linked in the sense that the invention of one didn’t give rise to the other. The two games do have links to the French game of vingt-un, which translates as 21 and was a very popular card game in France during the 18th century, having moved over from 17th century Spain.
How the Games Are Played
The two games of pontoon and blackjack have a similar basis. That is to say, they both require the players to not go over the total of 21 with the cards that they’re dealt. The games involve the punter putting their stake down in order to declare their interest in playing the game, with the exact nature of that stake being dictated by the casino. At this point, the dealer deals one card to all players involved in the game, including themselves, before following that up with the second card. Their first card is face down and the second card is usually turned over in blackjack but not pontoon, whilst all player cards are dealt face up.
Once the cards have been dealt, the player needs to decide what they want to do next. If they have been dealt a ‘natural’ winning hand, then the player wins regardless of what the dealer has. A natural winning hand is a card with a value of ten combined with an Ace. The ten point cards are the ten itself as well as the Jack, Queen and King of any club. That hand shares the name of the game that you’re playing, which means that it is referred to as ‘Pontoon’ if you’re playing pontoon and ‘Blackjack’ if you’re playing blackjack.
If the player does not have a natural winning hand then they can decide whether or not they want to take another card. This is where the first difference between the two games rears its head, with pontoon players having to take a hit if they have less than 15. Whereas blackjack players could, theoretically at least, stand with whatever hand they have, pontoon players need to keep taking cards until their hand reaches 15 or goes higher. There is also the fact that pontoon dealers must hit on a soft 17, but that is down to house rules in blackjack.
Pontoon dealers are better off than blackjack dealers, insomuch as they will win on occasions when the result is tied. In other words, if the players stands on 18 and the dealer hits 18, in blackjack the punter gets their stake back but in pontoon they lose it. This is a massive advantage for the dealer in pontoon, but it is offset in a few different ways. The first is that players can choose to double with any amount of cards in pontoon, whereas in blackjack you can only double once and the third card signals the end of your game.
A pontoon player can double at any stage of the hand, including after they’ve taken a hit, which isn’t an option for a blackjack player. Another difference between the two games is that the dealer will check for pontoon before hands are played, which isn’t the case in blackjack. The final thing that is worth mentioning as a big difference is that a natural winning hand pays 2/1 in pontoon. In blackjack, that hand is paid at 3/2, which is obviously a lower amount. Pontoon also pays out at 2/1 for a five-card trick, which isn’t a legal hand in blackjack, provided the dealer doesn’t have pontoon.
The House Edge
Whilst it might seem as though many of the things in pontoon are in favour of the dealer, the reality is that the House Edge in pontoon is much lower than in blackjack. That is because the reality is that there are about the same number of rules in favour of the dealer as the punter in pontoon. There are also fewer rule variations from one casino to another with pontoon, whereas blackjack tends to see different house rules based entirely on which casino you’re choosing to play the game in. This makes it much easier to have a consistent way of playing.
The result of all of this is that the House Edge for pontoon sits at about 0.38%. That is very favourable when compared with blackjack, the House Edge for which stands at about 0.5% if you use Basic Strategy. The reality is, however, that most people don’t use Basic Strategy, meaning that the House Edge is more likely to be about 2% for the majority of players. With this in mind, it obviously makes sense to look to play pontoon rather than blackjack if you’re in a casino that offers both games to its punters.
Ultimately, of course, the very existence of a House Edge means that you’re going to lose money the longer you play. Whichever game you opt for, if you find yourself in front then you’d do well to walk away from the table and cash out as soon as you can. If you keep on playing then the House Edge is likely to catch up with you sooner rather than later and whether it is 0.38%, 0.5% or 2%, it is money that you’ll lose in the long-term.