How to Play Spanish 21

Spanish 21 is a variant of the traditional game of blackjack. Instead of the usual 52 cards per deck, the game is played with a 48-card Spanish deck, which is the standard 52-card deck with the four tens removed.


Playing blackjack without the player-friendly tens is not good for players (the house edge zooms to roughly 2 percent). However, to compensate for the removal of the tens, the playing rules for Spanish 21 are much more liberal than for blackjack. For example, if you get 21, you always win even if the dealer has 21; you can surrender anytime, even after doubling, pair splitting, and hitting; and some hands, such as a five-, six-, and seven-card 21, pay a bonus. The table below summarizes the Spanish 21 playing rules and compares them to the traditional game of blackjack.


PLAYING RULES

BLACKJACK vs. SPANISH 21*



Blackjack

Spanish 21

Number of decks

1, 2, 4, 6, 8

6 and 8

Dealer soft 17 rule

Can hit or stand

Can hit or stand

Blackjack payoff

3-2 or 6-5

3-2

Player blackjack

Always pushes when dealer has a blackjack

Always wins even if the dealer has a blackjack

Player 21

Always pushes when dealer has 21

Always wins even if the dealer has 21

Doubling down

Only after initial two cards

You can double on any number of cards.

Double after pair splitting

Usually allowed

Always allowed

Late surrender

Sometimes allowed

Always allowed. You can also surrender after doubling, pair splitting, and hitting.

Resplitting pairs

Usually up to three or four hands, but not Aces

Up to four hands including Aces

Insurance

Pays 2-1

Pays 2-1**

Bonus hands

Rarely

  • Five-card 21 pays 3-2

  • Six-card 21 pays 2-1

  • Seven-or-more card 21 pays 3-1

  • 6-7-8 and 7-7-7 (mixed suits) pays 3-2

  • 7-7-7 same suit pays 2-1

  • 7-7-7 in spades pays 3-1

  • $1,000 Super Bonus paid if player bets under $25 and has suited 7-7-7 against any dealer 7

  • $5,000 Super Bonus paid if player bets $25 or more and has suited 7-7-7 against any dealer 7. In addition, all other players get a $50 “envy bonus.”

(Bonus payouts apply even if the hand was the result of a split, but not as a result of doubling.)


* Spanish 21 is known as Pontoon in Australia. The rules are similar to Spanish 21 with these notable exceptions: the dealer does not receive a hole card, you can redouble up to three times, and the Ace in pre-doubled hands counts only as 1 (instead of 1 and 11). Redouble means that after your initial double down, you have the option to double down again (up to three times). Redouble is a very player-friendly rule.

** Because of the lower number of tens, the insurance bet in Spanish 21 with a 2-1 payoff has a much higher house edge than it does in blackjack. In fact, it is one of the worst bets in the casino.


If you’re getting excited about playing Spanish 21, listen up: if you play it like you play blackjack, you will get hammered. Why? Because with all the tens removed, the ratio of low cards to high cards in Spanish 21 is much different than in blackjack. Normally, 4 out of 13 cards in blackjack are ten-value cards (30.8 percent). In Spanish 21, this ratio is reduced to 3 out of 12 (only 25 percent). In addition, if you get a 21 in blackjack you don’t have a guaranteed win, whereas in Spanish 21 you do. The bottom line is this: these major differences in rules have a great affect on the playing strategy.


Here’s a concrete example: If you have a stiff 12 through 16 in blackjack and the dealer shows a 2–6, you simply stand (except you would hit 12 against dealer’s 2 and 3). With Spanish 21, hitting becomes more attractive because you have less chance of busting (remember there are fewer ten-value cards) and if you hit to 21 you automatically win. Therefore, some of the traditional “stand on stiffs” becomes “hits” in Spanish 21 when your stiff hand contains 4, 5, or 6 cards. So whereas the traditional basic strategy tells you to stand (or double) regardless of the number of cards in your hand, in Spanish 21 the number of cards in your hand can influence whether you play a hand one way or another.


Suppose you are dealt a 14 against a dealer’s 4. In blackjack you stand (designated S in strategy tables). In Spanish 21, you stand except if your 14 consists of four or more cards (designated S4 in the strategy table), in which case you would hit. So if you were to look at the complete basic strategy table for Spanish 21, it would contain not only the familiar H, D, and S’s but also S4, S5, S6, and D3, D4, and D5 to designate the exceptions in playing strategy (either standing or doubling) based on the number of cards in the hand.


If you’re beginning to think that the basic strategy for Spanish 21 is more complicated than it is for blackjack, you’re right. But, it’s not something that you can’t master; it just takes a little more time to learn compared to the blackjack basic playing strategy.


So where can you find the basic playing strategy for Spanish 21? You’ll find accurate basic strategy tables for h17 and s17 on www.wizardofodds.com (Spanish 21 page). In addition, there is an excellent new book on Spanish 21 written by Australian Katarina Walker (The Pros Guide to Spanish 21 and Australian Pontoon), which also contains basic strategy tables plus a detailed explanation of the strategy including tips on how to learn it.


Walker computed the house edge for 6- and 8-deck Spanish 21 games. With a 6-deck, s17 game, the house edge (as a percentage of initial wager) using the Spanish 21 basic playing strategy (U.S. standard rules) is only 0.37 percent (see table below).



Spanish 21 House Edge


Rules

Decks

House Edge

s17

6

0.37%

s17

8

0.38%

h17

6

0.78%

h17

8

0.79%


As you can see from the table, a Spanish 21 game with s17 is much more player-friendly than one with h17. So how do you know which casinos offer an s17 Spanish 21 game? As a general rule, the casinos in Atlantic City and Connecticut offer them, whereas those in Las Vegas offer mostly h17 games. You can also find the casinos with the best rules for Spanish 21 by going to www.spanish21.com/goodlocations.php. Tip: There are also some casinos in the U.S. that offer an h17 game with the player-friendly redouble option. This reduces the house edge to 0.42 percent (6 decks) and 0.44 percent (8 decks). Consult the above web site for a list of casinos that allow redoubles.


You might be wondering whether card counting works for Spanish 21. The answer is a resounding YES! I don’t have the space to get into it, but Walker’s book contains a detailed treatise on how to count cards at Spanish 21 and Pontoon.