Pontoon

Introduction

Pontoon is the British version of the internationally popular banking game Twenty-one, perhaps now best known in the form of the American Casino version Blackjack. The game Pontoon and its name are derived from the French Vingt-et-un (21). The variation Shoot Pontoon makes the betting more interesting, by incorporating the betting mechanism of Shoot.

Players, Cards and Objective

Pontoon can be played by any number of players from two upwards - it works well with 5 to 8 players - using a standard 52 card pack. For a large number of players, say 8 or more, two 52 packs can be mixed together. The players also need a supply of money or chips for betting.

The cards have values: ace is worth 1 or 11 at the holder's choice, kings, queens, jacks and tens are worth ten, and the remaining cards are worth their pip value. Each player's basic aim is to form a hand whose total value is as near as possible to 21, without going above 21.

One player is designated as the banker. The banker has an advantage, so the first banker is chosen at random (whoever cuts the highest card). In each hand, each of the other players bets on having a better hand than the banker.

  • The best hand of all is a Pontoon, which is 21 points in two cards - this can only consist of ace plus a picture card or ten.
  • Next best after a Pontoon is a Five Card Trick, which is a hand of five cards totaling 21 or less.
  • A hand of three or four cards worth 21 points beats everything else except a Pontoon or Five Card Trick.
  • Hands with 20 or fewer points and fewer than five cards rank in order of their point value - the nearer to 21 the better.
  • Hands with more than 21 points are bust and are worthless.
If the banker and a player have equal valued hands, then the banker wins.

Example: A-J (Pontoon) beats 7-3-4-2-2 (Five Card Trick) which beats 9-8-4 (21) which beats 9-A (20) which beats 9-6-A (16)

The Deal and Initial Stakes

The banker deals one card face down to each player, starting with the player to dealer's left, going round the table and ending with the dealer. All the players except the banker may look at their card.

Now starting again with the player to dealer's left and going around clockwise, the players other than the banker place their initial bets in front of them. A minimum and maximum for initial bets must be agreed before the start of the game, and each player may bet any amount within these limits, but must bet at least the minimum.

The dealer now deals a second card face down to each player, and all the players look at their two cards. If the banker has a Pontoon this is immediately exposed, and the banker collects double the amount staked from each of the players.

The Players' Turns

If the banker does not have a pontoon then, beginning with the player to dealer's left and continuing clockwise, the players each have a turn to try to improve their hand if they wish by acquiring extra cards. When it is your turn, you have the following possibilities:

Declare a Pontoon
If your two cards are an ace and a ten point card, you declare it by putting them on the table with the ten point card face down and the ace face up on top of it.
Split your cards
If your two cards are equal in rank, you may split them into two hands by putting them face up on the table and placing another bet equal to your initial bet. The banker immediately deals another card face down to each of your hands, and you then play the hands one at a time, as separate hands with separate stakes. If either of the new cards dealt is equal to the first two you may choose to split again, creating three or even (theoretically) four separate hands, each with its own stake. Note that you cannot split two ten point cards unless they are actually equal - two queens can be split but a queen and a jack cannot.
Buy a card
If the total value of your cards is less than 21, you may say "I'll buy one". You must increase your stake by adding an amount at least equal to and not more than twice your initial stake (so for example if you had bet 6 initially you could add to it any amount from 6 to 12, making a maximum of 18 in total). The dealer then deals you another card face down. If your total is still less than 21 you may buy a fourth card; this time you may add to your stake any amount between your initial stake and the amount you added previously. So if your initial bet was 6 and you bought a third card for 10, you may buy a fourth for any amount from 6 to 10. If your four cards still total less than 21 you may buy a fifth card in the same way.
Twist
If the total value of your cards is less than 21 you may say "Twist me one". Your stake is unaffected, and the dealer deals you one card face up to add to your hand. If your total remains below 21 you may ask for a fourth card to be twisted and then a fifth, in the same way.
Stick
If the total value of your cards is at least 15 you may say "stick". You stay with the cards you have, your stake stays as it is and it is the next hand's turn to play.

If at any time buying or twisting a card causes the total value of your hand to be more than 21 you are bust; you must immediately throw in your hand face up, and the banker takes your stake and adds your cards to the bottom of the pack.

You can begin by buying one or more cards and continue by twisting, but once you have asked for a card to be twisted you can no longer buy cards - any further cards you want can only be twisted.

When your hand reaches five cards without going over 21 you have a Five Card Trick, and you are not allowed any more cards.

At any time when your total hand value is at least 15 and not more than 21 you can choose to stick, keeping your cards and stake as they are, and the turn passes to the next hand.

When you have split your hand, you play the two hands one after the other - once you have stuck or gone bust on the first hand you play the second one.

The Banker's Turn

When all the players except the banker have had their turns the banker's two cards are turned face up. The other players' cards will not be visible at this point, except where they have split, twisted, declared pontoons or gone bust.

The banker may add more cards to the initial two by dealing them face up one at a time. At any point, when satisfied with the hand the banker can stay - i.e. stop dealing and play with the cards as dealt. The possible outcomes are:

The dealer goes bust
If a card is dealt that takes the dealer's hand over 21, the dealer loses and pays out an amount equal to their stake to all the players who have not gone bust, paying a double stake to any hand that was a Pontoon or Five Card Trick.
The dealer stays on 21 or less, with four or fewer cards
The dealer pays an amount equal to their stake to any player who has a higher value hand than the dealer, and collects from those who have equal or less. Pontoons and Five Card Tricks are paid double. For example a dealer who stays on 18 will say "paying 19". Everyone then exposes their cards and those who have 19 or more win, those with Pontoons and Five Card Tricks win double and the rest lose. A dealer who makes 21 will be paying Five Card Tricks and Pontoons only. Note that unless you have a Pontoon or a Five Card Trick, it makes no difference whether you have 2, 3 or 4 cards. 19 in two cards is exactly equal in value to 19 in four cards.
The dealer makes a Five Card Trick
The dealer pays Pontoons only. Any player with a Pontoon receives double their stake from the dealer. Everyone else (including anyone who had a Five Card Trick) loses double their stake to the dealer.

The New Deal

If no one had a Pontoon, the dealer adds all the used cards to the bottom of the pack and without shuffling deals a new hand. This makes it possible to improve one's chances by remembering which cards are out of play. If there was a Pontoon, the cards are shuffled and cut before the next deal.

If a player other than the banker achieves a Pontoon without splitting their hand, and the banker did not have a Pontoon, then that player becomes the new banker from the next deal. If there are two or more such players, the one nearest to the dealer's left takes over the bank.

The bank can also change hands after any hand if the existing banker wishes to sell the bank to another player at a mutually agreed price.

Variations

For a relatively simple game, Pontoon has surprisingly many variations. Here is a selection:

  • Some play that only aces can be split, not other pairs of cards.
  • Some play that you must have at least 16 points (rather than 15) to stick.
  • Some play that after everyone else has made their initial bet, the banker looks at his own first card and can choose to double the bets. This is sometimes indicated by the banker putting out a stake equal to double the highest of the other players' bets. The effect is that the final payments are doubled, but this doubling does not affect the payments for Pontoon or Five Card Trick - these remain at double the amount staked, not four times.
  • The payout for a pontoon varies - some agree to pay a single or a treble stake, rather than double. Some play that the players are paid double but the dealer only collects a single stake for a pontoon.
  • If you have 4 cards totaling 11 or less, you are certain to make a five card trick. In this case some play that you cannot buy a fifth card, only twist one.
  • Some play that a hand of three sevens held by a player (not the banker) is a Royal Pontoon, which beats everything and is paid treble stakes.
  • Some play that a Pontoon consisting of an ace and a picture beats a Pontoon which is an ace and a ten. Some play that A-10 is not a pontoon at all, but just an ordinary 21. Some play that A-K or A-Q is a "natural" pontoon, which beats a "plain" pontoon of A-J or A-10.
  • Many play that any player whose two cards total a "hard" 13 (not A-2, which can be 3 or 13) is allowed to "burn" their hand. These two cards are shown and discarded, and two new cards dealt. The player's bet remains as it is. Some play that it is two cards making a hard 14 (not A-3) that can be burned, rather than 13, so with a pair of sevens you can either burn or hope for a third seven to make a Royal Pontoon. It is possible to burn after burning and to burn either hand after splitting.

Shoot Pontoon

The following description is based on information supplied by Jeffrey Burton.

Shoot Pontoon is Pontoon modified by incorporating the betting mechanism of Shoot in addition to the normal betting. Both Shoot and Shoot Pontoon were popular in Britain in the mid 1950's.

At the start of the game, the dealer forms a kitty by putting in any amount of money, between agreed minimum and maximum limits.

After all the players have bet on their first card, then starting again with the player to dealer's left, they each have a turn to make a shoot bet. Shoot bets are kept separate from the players' normal bets, and are placed between the player and the kitty. You are never forced to make a shoot bet but if you do, it can be any amount you choose, provided that the total of all the shoot bets is not more than what is in the kitty. Thus if the first player shoots half the kitty, the second player can shoot any amount up to half the kitty; if the first player decides to shoot the whole kitty, the remaining players cannot for the time being place any shoot bets at all.

After the shoot bets have been placed, the dealer deals everyone a second card face down. If the dealer has a Pontoon, all the shoot bets are added to the pot and the players each pay double their stake to the dealer. Otherwise each player has the same options as in normal pontoon, but with some extra betting opportunities:

The fourth card
Buying or twisting a third card is the same as in normal pontoon - no extra bets are allowed. If a player has a three card hand totaling less than 21 and wishes to ask for a fourth card, either by twisting it or (if the third card was bought) by buying it, then before receiving the card, the player is allowed to place a shoot bet. As before, this bet can be any amount which does not make the total of shoot bets greater than what is currently in the kitty. You can place a shoot bet before receiving your fourth card even if you did not shoot at your previous opportunity; conversely, shooting before your second card does not compel you to shoot before your fourth card. There is no further opportunity to shoot after you see your fourth card, even if you decide to take a fifth.
Splitting
When a player splits having made a shoot bet, the shoot bet remains on the hand containing the first card, and the player has the option to place a new shoot bet (not necessarily of the same amount) on the other hand, subject to the usual limitation that the total of all shoot bets must not be more than the kitty.
Going bust
If a hand goes bust, that hand's shoot bet, if any, is immediately added to the kitty - thus increasing the amount that subsequent hands can shoot.
At the end of the hand, after the dealer has played, all outstanding shoot bets are settled at the same time as the normal pontoon bets. Players who have a better hand than the dealer are paid an amount equal to their shoot bets out of the kitty, and players whose hands are equal to or worse than the dealer's have their shoot bets added to the kitty.

Before each new deal the dealer has the option to add more money to the kitty, but must not take anything out of it. If there is nothing in the kitty at the end of a hand the dealer must either put up a new kitty or offer the bank for sale to the highest bidder. When the deal passes to a new player, either because they had a Pontoon or because it was sold, the old dealer retrieves anything that was left in the kitty, and the new dealer puts up a new kitty.

Other Pontoon web pages and Software

Pontoon rules are also available on the Card Game Heaven web site.

Derek Lazenby's free Nickel Odeon Casino program for Windows includes a Pontoon game to play against the computer.