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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Rules and strategies different for each game

12 October 2004

Dear Mark,
Can you enlighten me as to whether the game Spanish 21 is the same game as Pontoon, which is available next to the blackjack tables here in Sydney, Australia? Cliff B.

Dear Mark,
Isn't Spanish 21 just a hybrid of Blackjack, and if so, wouldn't the basic strategy be the same for both games? Howard G.

Believed to be an early form of blackjack, Pontoon has many similarities to both Spanish 21 and blackjack, but all three games mentioned have plenty of rule variations, and each would use different basic strategies to bring the house edge to less than 1%.

Beginning with Cliff's question, Pontoon is played with eight 52-card decks with all cards having the same value as in blackjack. With Pontoon, any five-card hand, or a pontoon (a blackjack), pays 2 to 1, even after splitting. However, there is no dealer up-card and the dealer wins all ties. A five-card trick is any five-card hand that has not busted. Stateside, Cliff, we call it a five-card Charlie, but you are not paid for them here. All five-card tricks are of the same value; the point total does not matter.

There are plenty of other differences between Pontoon, Spanish 21 and blackjack, so possibly a second column on additional dissimilarities might be in the offing if my mailbag shows any more interest in this game.

Regarding the more popular game, Spanish 21, there are two notable exceptions when comparing it to a regular blackjack game. In Spanish 21, all the 10s (not the jacks, queens, kings) are removed from the deck. In addition, the player is paid for a hand total of 21, or the standard three-to-two payoff for a blackjack, even if the dealer's hand is a natural blackjack. Additional player-friendly rules are doubling down on two or more cards, pair splitting and double downs up to four times after splits, bonus payoffs for different combination 21s, and a super bonus that pays out $1,000 for a suited 7-7-7 when the dealer's up card is a seven.

So, guys, is Pontoon or Spanish 21, a decent play from the player's side of the table? Yes, definitely, if you utilize perfect basic strategy specific to each game. By employing Spanish 21 basic strategy — which obviously differs from normal blackjack strategy — you can reduce the house edge down to .8%. As for Pontoon, the house edge can be as low as 0.17%, so long as you follow correct play.

Dear Mark,
Your blackjack strategy card shows hitting a pair of sevens against a 10 when on a multiple deck game, but standing with them on a single deck. I don't quite understand why. Can you explain? Justin M.

The reason for the difference, Justin, is that once any card is withdrawn from the deck, it will have an impact on the distribution of the remaining cards.

Single deck basic strategy calls for standing pat with a pair of sevens against a ten. On a multiple deck game, most strategy cards advise that you hit them. The reason being, Justin, is that with a one-deck game the probability of drawing a third seven on the third card is only 2/49, or 4.08%. With six decks, the likelihood is 22/309, or 7.1%. Since the probability of catching that third seven on a single deck is lower, that is why it is best to stand versus hitting.

Gambling quote of the week: "I suspect that the spouses of gamblers have heard 'I broke even' more than any other lie." Stephen Dunn, Gaming author

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.