British games – Pontoon, the British Alteration

Most of us will have whiled away wet childhood afternoons with games of pontoon. In a caravan, at our grandparents’ house, or maybe even in the back of a car, we will have learned the beguiling charm of a game that manages to be both one of the most simple card games in the world and a mathematical conundrum that has inspired the work of some of the world’s most distinguished mathematicians.

The unambiguous equation of making 21 or going bust could hardly be simpler. Even more straightforward than whist, it is a game that most of us encounter before we have been introduced to such mysteries as long division, algebra or trigonometry. Those mathematical delights come later in the educational process. But as a fast turnaround – play and repeat – recreation pontoon is the perfect game for youngsters who may be keen to learn and play, but who above all else want a straightforward game that involves a certain pace. And pontoon is certainly a game that ticks that box – at least it does when you’re only playing it for fun.

More than childhood amusement

There is, of course a more grown-up version of the game that has another, far more consequential dimension than the simple childhood matter of play, win/lose and repeat. Games of 21 have a long historical backstory that some say goes all the way back to the Romans’ love of gambling games – its European title of vingt et un points to its wide international spread as well as its historical depth, just as its more commercial incarnation as casino blackjack underlines its ubiquitous contemporary spread. The prevalence of blackjack in pop-culture is actually quite amazing, and it’s become one of the world’s most popular casino games; you can even find blackjack as a theme in Hollywood films such as Rain Man and The Hangover. However, many people do not realize that the game is descendant of the British game pontoon.

For all the millions that are won and lost in casinos around the world, and all the febrile calculation that is devoted to the professionalised gambling that it attracts, the peculiarly British rendition of pontoon, with its echo of time gone by and its faint whiff of the stiff upper lip of the days of Empire, suggests a far more childishly innocent endeavour.

The coining of ‘pontoon’

The precise point where Brits started referring to ‘pontoon’ rather than vingt et un, or blackjack (which seems to have a relatively modern American origin) is shrouded in the mists of historical uncertainty. It is most plausibly argued that the story is one of British military history. Some say the game was extensively played by the trench-bound Tommies of the First World War. The long hours of confined boredom behind the lines would have been the ideal setting for a game that needed only a pack of cards and a few moments peace and quiet. Whether or not they played the vanilla childhood version or played for some sort of stake is less certain.

But why the name pontoon? No-one really knows. There are suggestions that it is simply a calque – a direct rendition of a foreign word – from vingt et un. The contention is that somewhere along the way someone misheard vingt et un as pontoon and the misinterpretation was taken up and perpetuated. This seems slightly farfetched on any number of counts. Vingt et une might be a step closer, but even then it is still quite a leap.

A different version rests on the idea that troops in either the Crimea or France or India (depending on who you believe) learned to play the game at a venue that they reached by crossing a pontoon bridge. Of course, this argument might stand equally well for the game of bridge, and so it’s hardly much of a help.

The American angle

It is far easier to put a finger on the American coinage of blackjack. It seems that when the state of Nevada legalised gambling in 1931 casino bosses sought to incentivise would-be gamblers by offering an additional bet to the traditional ‘21’. The mechanics of the game are identical in all respects. Anyone making 21 with the ace of spades and either of the two blackjacks would be paid out at the rate of 10-1. The coining of the name blackjack for all forms of the game in the US seems entirely plausible on this basis. The ace of spades has its own peculiar set of associations.

Conspicuously, it is in the US that mathematical interest in the game took off. Such highbrow high rolling is, of course, a million miles away from the gentle introduction that most of us will have first encountered with our siblings on one of those wet childhood afternoons at our grandparents’ house or a caravan somewhere in deepest Wales. The linguistic distinction between US usage and British dialects is a subject with its own long and lively history. Whether you call it a form of British slang, or simply a British alteration, pontoon is just one small recreational microcosm of our unfolding and always growing story.

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