Pontoon is a variation of the popular card game, Blackjack. The American version, Blackjack, as well as Pontoon, the British version, both derive from the original French game of Vingt-et-un, or “Twenty-one.”
However, while Blackjack and Vingt-et-un are practically identical games that go by different names, Pontoon is actually a unique game with slightly different mechanics.
How to Play Pontoon?
The Pontoon card game can be played with as few as two players, although just like its sister game Blackjack, Pontoon is much more fun when there are more than two players sitting at the table.
Deck and Setting Up
Pontoon is played utilizing the Anglo-American, standard 52-card Deck. The Joker variants should not be used, or at least the Jokers should be removed before play if they are present.
A game may utilize multiple decks to account for these multiple Players, if necessary.
When multiple decks are combined into one, this is known as a shoe. Whether forming a shoe, or a simple one-deck stock of cards, the decks should be shuffled by the Dealer, who is chosen randomly among the Players.
Betting and Min/Max
Before the Deal begins, the Player must declare to each of the Players the game’s “minimum” and “maximum.” As Blackjack, and by extension Pontoon, are gambling games, there is a requirement of betting as it is an integral piece of the game.
Betting does not necessarily need to be with cash, any number of things can be gambled for, so long as it can be represented in tokens or numerical value. There are two important numbers that the Dealer must declare: The minimum and maximum.
The minimum and maximum are merely the limits placed on the bets of this particular game of Pontoon.
- Self-Explanatorily, the minimum is the smallest amount of money a Player may bet, and they must bet this amount every game if they wish to remain at the table.
- The maximum bet is inversely the upper limit placed on a Player, who may not bet more than that number.
The minimums and maximums are designed to keep the game from stalling the game by folding every time their face-down card is bad, or to keep the game from being too fast-paced as multiple Players go “all in” and lose their entire stockpile of chips/tokens in a single game.
These min/max bets allow for a longer, more steady game of Pontoon to be enjoyed.
When the stock is completely shuffled properly, the Dealer should begin the process of dealing.
Just like in Blackjack, each Player is given one face-down card, dealt to them one at a time by the Dealer, who then will deal out their own face-down card last.
This card should be secret from the table, but the Player who possesses the card may look at their card. The only Player that is not allowed to check their face-down is the Dealer themselves.
Once this face-down has been dealt out, Players must then put in their bets.
Regardless of whether a Player does not like their face-down or not, they must pay the minimum if they are sitting at the table. Each Player must, before each hand, pay at least the minimum bet.
The Dealer does not have to bet at all, as their betting positions are rather different. The Dealer, rather than putting up an amount of money and being paid based on that wager, instead must pay or be paid by each Player depending on the outcome of the game and the wager made by each Player.
- Once all bets are settled, each Player is then dealt a “public card” or a face-up that the entire table will be able to see. The Dealer must also deal themselves a public card.
- Once each Player has two cards, the Dealer may then look at their face-down card as well as their public card.
- If the Dealer achieves a natural “Pontoon”, this game’s version of 21, from their initial deal then the Dealer instantly wins and takes the total pot for themselves.
- If the Dealer does not have a Pontoon at the start of the game, then each Player is then given the chance to “hit” or draw more cards from the deck to increase their chances of winning.
Pontoon is distinct from Blackjack, in that it has special “melds” that are not found in regular Blackjack. These will be explained below in the Melds section.
In the basic sense, Pontoon is Blackjack, and the name refers to achieving 21 points just like in Blackjack.
|Ace||1 or 11|
|2-10||Same as card number|
- Face cards are worth 10 points.
- Aces are worth 11 or 1, depending on the Player’s choice
- Numbered cards have the same number of points associated with their value.
- Pontoon does not have a “blackjack”, or a single card that wins the hand.
At the end of a given hand, the Dealer must pay those Players who beat them, and be paid by the Players that did not.
Implications of Being the Dealer
Being the Dealer is both a blessing and a curse, as the Dealer plays with advantage (winning all ties) and stands to make a large amount of money if all the Players at the table bust or otherwise lose.
However, the Dealer could also stand to lose a significant amount of money, forced to pay each Player who beats them from their own pot, based on the bets of those Players.
This concurrent advantage/disadvantage is why the game has maximum bets, so that the Dealer cannot be cleaned out (run out of money) by a single hand.
Ending a Hand
Once a hand ends and all bets have been paid out to their respective winners, the Dealing position will move clockwise to the next Player at the table and a new game begins.
Depending on the number of Players, and therefore the number of cards dealt in that game, the new Dealer may either shuffle the shoe/stock, or continue playing with the same deck and remove the previously played cards from play.
The Pontoon rules are summarized below:
- Players must at least bet the minimum and can bet no more than the maximum.
- The first Dealer is chosen randomly, and after that, the Dealing position moves clockwise around the table.
- Just like in Blackjack, Players are trying to achieve a total of 21.
- All Players are against the Dealer, and the Dealer is against all Players.
- The first card is always dealt face-down, the second card (and subsequent cards from hits) are dealt face-up.
Melds and Hands in Pontoon
In Blackjack, the way to win is by achieving is simply by achieving 21, or a number as close to 21 as possible without going over 21, which is still a higher number than the Dealer’s total.
While this is also true in Pontoon, there are “melds” in Pontoon that also contribute to a win. Having a higher meld, even if the numbered total of the cards is lower than the Dealer’s, will still win the game for a Player.
These melds are explained below, in order of highest value to lowest value.
The Pontoon is the best hand in a game, as one would expect. Like the Blackjack of its sister game, Pontoon is a “natural 21” dealt at the start of the game.
To be a “natural” the initial two cards dealt to a Player, both the “private” and “public” cards, must total 21.
- If the Dealer and Player both have a Pontoon, the Dealer will win.
- The Dealer wins all ties, remember.
- When the Dealer is dealt a Pontoon, they end the game immediately and take all wagers from the Players for themselves.
There is no “blackjack” in Pontoon, and as such a Pontoon must be achieved by having an Ace and another face-card or 10 in the public and private cards.
The next best thing is to have a Five Card Trick. As the name suggests, this meld is a collection of five cards that do not go over 21.
For example, a 2, 3, 4, 4, 6, would be a Five-Card-Trick with a total of 19 points.
The only melds that can beat a Five Card Trick are Pontoons and other Five Card Tricks with a higher value.
If a Player does not have a Pontoon, or a Five Card Trick, then a Player should try to get as close to 21 as possible. It is advantageous to have more cards in your hand than the Dealer in many situations.
If the Dealer has 21, but does not have a Pontoon natural 21, then a Player with more cards will win.
For example, if the Dealer has in front of them 7, 7, 7, a Player with 3, 3, 5, 10 will win over the Dealer even though they both have 21, because the Player has more cards in their hand.
If a Player goes over 21 at any time, they automatically “bust” and lose the hand.
The following is a possible hand of Pontoon between three Players:
- Player 1 is the Dealer, and deals the private cards to each Player.
- Player 2 bets the Minimum.
- Player 3 bets the Maximum.
Public Cards are dealt.
- Player 2 has a 10, and 4.
- Player 2 hits and gets a 9.
- Player 2 busts.
- Player 3 has a 10 and an Ace.
- Player 3 has a Pontoon.
- Player 1 reveals their hand.
- Player 1 has a 3, 3.
The game ends, Player 2 pays Player 1 the minimum bet, and Player 1 pays Player 3 the maximum bet.
The game ended instantly because the Dealer did not have a Pontoon, but Player 3 did. Even if the Dealer hit and managed to achieve a Five Card Trick, they cannot ever beat Player 3.
Furthermore, Player 2 busted by going over 21, taking them out of the game and making them automatically lose, leaving Player 3 as the sole winner at the table over the Dealer.
Strategy & Tips
- Unlike Blackjack, the number of cards in the hand affects the outcome of the game. If you have a public and private card with a low score total, it would be wise to hit so long as there is not a large likelihood of busting. A Five Card Trick wins against other melds.
- If the private card is very low, you should bet the maximum. This is because a low private card increases the chances of a possible Five Card Trick, even if the Pontoon is not possible. If the Private card is an Ace, a Player should bet the maximum because the odds of a Pontoon are much higher. If the private card is a non-ace face card, a Player should bet somewhere in the middle. This is because a face card could convert into a Pontoon, but it also runs the risk of busting or running just short of 21, making a hit impossible.
- If the Player has an Ace in their hand but does not get a Pontoon, a Player may as well hit as many times as they are able. Aces may become 1s, rather than 11s, at the Player’s choice and on the fly. If a Player has an Ace and is going to bust, their Ace automatically becomes a 1.
Is Pontoon the same as Blackjack?
No, Pontoon has several rule changes compared to Blackjack. Although many of their rules are the same, there are unique mechanics in Pontoon that designate it as a distinct game in its own right.
What is the Five-card Trick in Pontoon?
As explained above, the five-card trick is a collection of five cards totaling or less than 21. A five-card trick is superior to other hands. Having five cards, but not 21, still beats a hand of 21 that is not a natural Pontoon.
What is the Lowest you can Stick on in Pontoon?
To “stick” refer to “standing”, the idea that a Player may continue to hit, but chooses not to. A Player may stick or stand at any point, and are free not to take any hits if they so desire, though this would just be losing the game for no reason.
Generally, a Player should stick on card totals that are no less than 19, as hitting on 19 makes it extremely likely to bust.