On the face of it, Pontoon and Blackjack are almost the same game.
The objective is the same, to get as close to 21 as possible without going bust; you must beat the dealer; you are dealt 2 cards to begin with and can call for more if you want them; the payout for a win is 1:1 as it is in blackjack; even doubling and splitting are still allowed.
However, it’s the way in which the game plays out and the rules pertaining to each action that differentiates the two games, and the terminology is different too, and often confused by hobbyist players. Ever heard a tourist call ‘twist’ at a blackjack table? They’ve got their games mixed up.
So while both games are certainly from the same family, they are distinctly different in their execution.
The Differences Between Pontoon and Blackjack
As with blackjack, there are different variations of pontoon out there, but most of the following is universally true.
One of the key differences between the two games is the payout for getting 21. Getting blackjack traditionally pays out at 3:2, while getting pontoon pays out at 2:1, so pontoon players get the sweet end of the deal here.
Another major difference is that both of the dealer’s cards are dealt face down, so you have no idea what they might be holding. That means you can’t play as strategically as you can in blackjack, and therefore blackjack players (or at leas those who know what they are doing) have the advantage here.
The third big change is that in pontoon, a tie is a loss for the player, even if they are tied with 21. This is a major disadvantage as there is no such thing as a push, so while blackjack players will be getting their stake returned, pontoon players will be losing theirs.
Let’s look at some of the other differences one at a time.
The first thing to get your head around if you are jumping from blackjack to pontoon is the difference in terminology.
It’s a minor thing really that doesn’t affect the outcome of the game, but it’s part of the overall experience or ‘feel’ and as much as anything else you will quickly out yourself as a newbie if you get it wrong.
As you can see, the terminology is a bit more fun with pontoon, but apart from the doubling/buying option, the terms mean the same thing in both games; twisting will get you another card, sticking will keep your hand the same, and splitting will split your hand into two hands.
Interestingly, the player must continue to twist until they have a hand worth at least 15 in pontoon, whereas in blackjack the player can stand on any amount if they want to.
Doubling/Buying a Card
Doubling in pontoon is known as ‘buying’ or as a ‘buy’, because you are buying the card instead of taking one for free (twisting). This means your bet is doubled.
The key difference here, and a major advantage for pontoon players, is that you can double at any point in the game when playing pontoon, including after a split. You can buy/double on both hands from a split, but only one act of doubling is permissible per hand, so timing is key.
This also means that, unlike in blackjack, doubling your bet does not stop you calling for further cards, so you can buy a card after the deal and still go on to win with a 3 card hand or greater.
This can really up your ante as your hand improves, and when you consider the 5 card trick rule as well, you can see how this ability could be hugely favourable.
5 Card Trick
The second best hand you can get in pontoon in the 5 card trick.
This is any hand below or equal to 21 that is made up of five cards. This is an automatic win if it occurs unless the dealer has pontoon, but if not the player wins even if their total hand value is less than the dealer’s.
So a player’s hand of 2 Clubs, 2, Spades, 3 Spades, 5 Hearts, and 6 Diamonds would beat a dealer’s hand of 10 Clubs and 9 Diamonds, even though the dealer’s hand totals 19 to the player’s 18.
The other great thing about this rule is that a 5 Card Trick win pays out at 2:1 like a natural pontoon would.
Which is Better: Pontoon or Blackjack?
There are some areas in pontoon where the player is better off and some where blackjack is more favourable, and you must also consider the style of play that you prefer.
As for which game is ‘better’, well that is largely a personal choice.
Blackjack players can play their hand with a little knowledge of the dealer’s hand since they can see the up card, allowing them to make decisions based on probability. They can also reduce losses thanks to tied hands resulting in a push.
Pontoon players can play based on probability too, but only to a lesser extent, however, they can enjoy greater payouts for natural pontoon as well as the 5 card trick, plus more freedom when doubling.
The house edge for pontoon can be as low as 0.20% when using optimal strategy, whereas even the most favourable blackjack games can only get to 0.28% assuming the player uses a perfect strategy. More usually though, 0.50% is a more realistic edge for blackjack.