Pontoon Strategy Guide
Pontoon is a game in the blackjack family that is known for having a simplified rule set that promotes a ton of action and different types of strategies. It’s an excellent pick for players who want something that’s a bit off of the beaten path while retaining the need for skill-based play and good strategic choices.
Introduction to Pontoon
Of all of the various types of blackjack online, Pontoon is known for having certain rules that stand out as not really being held by any other game in the genre. As a result, it’s hard to find another game that’s really comparable, so it stands in a class of its own in that regard.
Pontoon’s unique mix of atypical rules creates a unique style of gameplay that comes along with unique strategies that are only marginally influenced by traditional approaches to blackjack.
With that having been said, you’re not going to find yourself completely lost if you come into playing Pontoon online or otherwise with a basic set of knowledge about blackjack in the general sense. However, you will need to make some serious adjustments to avoid falling into a number of common traps, which we will point out below.
House Advantage and Payout Rates
A good piece of news for players who might want to learn Pontoon strategy on a deep level is that the rules stay pretty much the same except for one very small point, so you can count on the house edge being consistent across different casinos and software providers.
With correct strategy, the house advantage of Pontoon is about 0.38 to 0.39 percent. This means that your payout rate will be more than 99.6 percent if you play particularly well, but the average skillful player can expect something in the range of 99.4 to 99.5 percent. This is because we can expect mistakes here, and the average mistake that a skillful player will make in this title does not add to the house edge all that much.
An important point to make about this game is that most potential mistakes will either have a huge impact on the house advantage or a pretty small one. There are very few, if any, “medium-level” mistakes. Since it’s difficult to make particularly bad mistakes once you understand the strategies that drive this game, it’s a safe title to try for players who are unsure about strategic titles that punish you for playing inconsistently.
Important Rules for Pontoon
The basic idea is that Pontoon is a stripped-down version of blackjack that adds an incentive to have more cards in your hand. The point values are the same as all other mainstream blackjack hands, and a “Pontoon” is the name for a natural 21, which is generally called a “blackjack” in other titles in the genre.
Those points aside, here are some rules that you’ll want to know:
- Five-card hands that have not busted beat all non-busted hands except for natural 21s/Pontoons.*
- Both of the dealer’s cards are dealt face-down, which removes one key piece of information compared to other blackjack games.
- The dealer does peek for a Pontoon before you get to make decisions. If the dealer has a natural 21, you lose immediately.
- Players can only stand with a total of at least 15 or with a five-card hand.
- You can hit after doubling.
- You can double with any number of cards, but you can only double once during each hand.
- Players can split to up to three hands.
- Hitting and doubling after splitting aces is allowed.
- Making a natural 21 after splitting aces is a Pontoon in this game.
- The dealer generally hits a soft 17, but this is variable and can slightly change the strategies used. See below.
- Winning Pontoons and winning five-card hands pay out at a very favorable rate of 2:1.
- If the hands tie, then the dealer wins.
* For example, five cards with a total of 19 will beat two, three or four cards that make a total of 20. All five-card hands tie regardless of point total.
What you’ll see here is that some of these rules are very favorable (eg: 2:1 on Pontoons, hitting after doubling), and some of them are very unfavorable (eg: losing on ties). However, these aspects of the game all come together to create some strategic guidelines that are much different than what you find in other blackjack games, and that’s what makes online Pontoon tables so popular.
Strategies for Pontoon
You have to consider three pieces of information in this game when making decisions:
- The point total of your hand
- The number of cards in your hand
- Whether your hand is hard or soft
Remember that you do not get to see either of the dealer’s cards in this game, so that will not be a piece of information to consider, which is something that will throw off a lot of newer players at first. However, if you focus on the above three points, then you’ll start off on the right foot instead.
With that said, we want to make one point very clear: If you have already doubled in a hand, and our recommendation is to double, then you should stand instead. The only exception, which is rare, to this is when you have a soft total of 21 with three cards. The normal recommendation is to double, but you should stand with it if you have already doubled instead of hitting.
Hard Hands With Three or Four Cards
Knowing that you can only stand with 15 or more makes playing hard hands pretty easy, and that’s useful since they make up a majority of the situations that you’ll run into.
The Pontoon strategies you need here will vary based on your number of cards because playing with five cards is much different. That’s why we’re focused on only play with three or four cards. Here’s what you need to know:
- Stand with all totals 15 or higher.
- Double with 10 or 11.
- Double with 9 if you have three cards.
- Hit all other totals 14 and lower.
It’s pretty straightforward and easy to remember, which is great since it makes it really difficult to make big mistakes.
Soft Hands With Three or Four Cards
Soft totals with four or fewer cards are even easier to learn to play. Here are the guidelines that you will need to know:
- With three cards, hit on 18 or lower and stand on 19 or higher.
- With four cards, hit on 18 or lower and double on 19 or higher.
- The exception is that, if you have already doubled, you should stand with a soft 21 with three cards instead of hitting. If you forget and hit instead, it won’t hurt your payout rate a huge amount, but it will still increase the house edge marginally.
Again, the strategies used here are incredibly straightforward. Something that surprises a lot of players along these lines is that Pontoon strategy in general is easier to learn than the appropriate strategies for most other styles of blackjack.
Playing With Four Cards
We break up playing four cards away from playing two or three because it’s the easiest way to learn to play perfect Pontoon strategy, and that’s because you generally get to be hyper-aggressive with four-card hands thanks to the way that the rules work about five-card totals being so strong and getting a double payout when you win.
That’s multiplied to 4x total if you doubled during the hand, so it’s really important to learn to play these correctly 100 percent of the time since so much more can be at stake.
- Always double with soft totals that have four cards. This is because you cannot lose by going bust, so you’re guaranteed a five-card hand.
- With a hard hand and four cards, double with 16 or less, hit with 17 and stand with 18 or higher.
There’s nothing else to learn with four-card hands. It’s really that simple.
Splitting strategies are often a pain for blackjack fans because they’re the most complicated part of the overall strategy to learn while representing a small minority of the actual number of hands you see.
Thankfully, they’re much easier to handle in Pontoon.
Play all paired hands like they are regular hard hands except aces and eights. With eights, always split if you have the option, and stand if you don’t.
With aces, you should generally split if you can and hit if you can’t. The exception to this is the Microgaming-powered version of the game where splitting aces and getting 21 isn’t a Pontoon. In that case, or any other game that uses this rule change, you should just hit instead.
For the same of clarity, when you’re playing the Pontoon games by Galewind, CryptoLogic, Betsoft, Realtime Gaming, Playtech and virtually every other online casino software developer (in addition to most brick-and-mortar games), splitting aces is correct when you can.
The rules of Pontoon make it sound like it will be an incredibly difficult game to learn how to play well. Ironically, the opposite is true, and it’s probably the easiest blackjack variation to learn to play and has a particularly high payout rate for correct play as well. As a result, we highly recommend that fans of table games learn to play this title perfectly since it’s generally worth it.