A Different Kind of Blackjack: How to Play Spanish 21

・Spanish 21 is a variant of blackjack in which all the ten-spot cards have been removed, resulting in a 48-card deck.
・The game is offered in land-based and online casinos.
・To compensate for the removal of the tens, and resulting higher house edge, the game has some very liberal playing rules and bonus hands.
・The basic playing strategy is different from a traditional game.
・Depending on the mix of playing rules and number of decks of cards, the house edge can be as low as 0.37% using the Spanish 21 basic playing strategy.
・There is a published card counting system for this game.

Spanish 21 was invented in 1995 and the game has proliferated in land-based and online casinos. The game is played like the traditional game of blackjack with one major distinction: all four 10-spot cards are removed so a deck of cards in Spanish 21 contains only 48 cards. The objective is the same as it is in a traditional blackjack game, namely, having your hand total higher than the dealer’s hand without busting.

Playing blackjack with a deck of cards that does not contain any ten-spots has a profound effect on the player’s odds because a player will be getting fewer blackjack hands (and the 3 to 2 payoff), and the dealer will not bust as often. In fact, the casino’s edge over a basic strategy player increases about 2% due to the removal of the four tens.

Playing a game with a house edge of 2% is suicidal; however, to compensate for this large disadvantage, there are several very liberal playing rules and interesting and unique bonus hands offered in Spanish 21 that significantly reduce the house edge.

To make it easier for you to understand the playing rules for Spanish 21(S21), I’ve summarized them below and compared them to a traditional game of blackjack (TR21)

TR21: Played with one, two, four, six, or eight decks of cards
S21: Six or eight decks of cards

TR21: Cards can be dealt by hand, from a dealing shoe, or with a Continuous Shuffling Machine (CSM)
S21: Dealt either from a dealing shoe or from CSM.

TR21 and S21: Dealer receives a hole card

TR21 and S21: Dealer must hit on 16 or less and stand on 17‒21. With soft 17, can either hit or stand depending on casino rules.

TR21: A player’s 21 pushes a dealer’s 21 but loses to a dealer’s blackjack.
SP21: Any player’s 21 beats any dealer’s 21. However, it losses if the player has 21 in more than two cards and the dealer has a blackjack.

TR21: A blackjack hand occurs when the initially dealt two cards total 21, and it always pushes if the dealer has a blackjack in the same round.
S21: A player blackjack always wins regardless of what the dealer has. (Even if the dealer has a blackjack or 21.)

TR21 and S21: The rules for hitting and standing are the same.

TR21: You can double down after you receive your initial two-card hand. Once you draw a third card, the double down option is no longer available.
S21: You can double down on any number of cards.

TR21: Doubling down after pair splitting is usually, but not always, allowed.
S21: Always allowed.

TR21: You can usually resplit pairs up to three or four hands but not with a pair of aces, which you can split only once.
S21: You can resplit up to a maximum of four hands, including aces.

TR21: Late surrender is sometimes allowed. You can only surrender the initial two-card hand. Once you draw a third card, the surrender option is no longer available.
S21: Surrender is always allowed even after hitting, pair splitting, or doubling down. In case of the latter, it is known as “double down rescue.”

TR21: Insurance pays 2‒1.
S21: Same 2‒1 payoff but because there are fewer tens in Spanish 21, the house edge skyrockets to 24.7%, making it one of the worst bets in a casino.

TR21: Bonus hands rarely offered.
S21: There are many bonus hands in Spanish 21. Below is a list of them.

Note: The above bonus payouts apply even if the hand resulted from a split; however, doubling down negates the bonus payout.

In some casinos, a player may double down and then double down once more up to two times (known as redoubling). For example, assume a player bets $5 and is dealt a 3-2, which totals 5, and the dealer has a 6 upcard. He doubles down for an additional $5 and draws a 3 for a total of 8 (total bet =$10). He now has the option to double a second time for another $10 wager. Let’s assume the draw card was a 3 giving him a total of 11 (total wagered is $20). The player is also allowed to redouble again for $20 (the total amount wagered would be $40). This playing option to double and redouble is a very favorable player rule when optimally implemented.

If you peruse the above rules for Spanish 21, you can see how extreme they are. For example, you can double down after drawing any number of cards to your hand not just after receiving the initial two cards. For example, suppose you have 3-4-2-2 for a four-card 11. You have the option of doubling down even though you have four cards in your hand. Suppose the card drawn on the double down is not helpful for our hand. You could exercise the “double down rescue” option, which means you would forfeit your original bet but keep the secondary bet made in doubling.

If you are getting excited about playing Spanish 21, then pay attention to this. If you play the game as you would a traditional game of blackjack, you will be hammered. That’s because with all the ten-spot cards removed, the ratio of low cards to high cards in Spanish 21 is much different from a traditional blackjack game. Normally, four out of 13 cards in blackjack are ten-value cards (30.8%), but with Spanish 21, this ratio is reduced to three out of 12 (only 25%). In addition, if you get a 21 in blackjack, you don’t have a guaranteed win, whereas, in Spanish 21, you do (except you lose in one instance … if you have a multi-card 21 and the dealer has a blackjack). The bottom line is this: these differences in rules have a great effect on the basic playing strategy.

Here’s an example of how the basic strategy differs. If you have a stiff 12 through 16 in a traditional blackjack game, and the dealer shows a 2 through 6 upcard, you should stand (except hit 12 against dealer’s 2 and 3). With Spanish 21, hitting becomes more attractive because you have less chance of busting (because there are fewer tens per deck), and if you draw to 21, you automatically win. Therefore, the traditional “stand on stiffs” rule becomes “hit” in Spanish 21 when your hand contains four, five, or six cards. The traditional basic strategy advises you to stand with some hands regardless of the number of cards in your hand; however, with Spanish 21, the number of cards in your hand can influence whether you play a hand one or way or another.

Here’s another example. Suppose you are dealt a 10-4 against a dealer’s four upcard. In a traditional game, basic strategy states to stand. With Spanish 21 you would also stand, except if your 14 consists of four or more cards, in which case you should hit.

The potential bonus payout for five- and six-card 21 also affects the playing strategy. In fact, you’ll risk busting some hard totals containing four, five, or six cards by taking another hit for a chance at a bonus 21 payout.

The bottom line is that the basic blackjack strategy for Spanish 21 is different, and slightly more complicated, than the traditional basic playing strategy. It’s not impossible to learn the basic strategy for this game, you just have to spend a little more time doing it.

Note: You can find a basic playing strategy for Spanish 21 in the book The Pro’s Guide to Spanish 21 and Australian Pontoon by the late Katarina Walker, or on wizardofodds.com.

According to the detailed study on Spanish 21 done by Katarina Walker, the house edge can be as low as 0.37%, making it a very favorable game for basic strategy players. Note that the house edge changes depending upon the rules, and the number of decks of cards (see below).

Note: s17, means dealer stands on soft 17
h17, means dealer hits soft 17

Your best game is when the dealer must stand on soft 17 and six-decks of cards are used.

Match the Dealer Side Bet
This side bet is offered on most Spanish 21 games. The player wins the side bet if the rank of either or both of his or her initial two cards matches the rank of the dealer’s up card. The house edge can be as low as 3.1% depending on the payouts. A study was done on whether card counting could be used for this side bet. For details, click here.

In Australia and some Internet sites, Pontoon is offered, which is similar to Spanish 21, but with some slight differences in rules. I don’t have the space to list them; however, if you want to play Pontoon, I strongly encourage you to read Walker’s book on the game.

Spanish 21 on the Internet
Some gambling sites offer Spanish 21. Others offer a similar game under a different name (e.g., Pirate 21). In any event, I would recommend you check the playing rules to be sure that all the liberal rules mentioned above are offered.

Card Counting in Spanish 21
Can you count cards playing Spanish 21? The answer is yes, and you’ll find details in Walker’s book, which contains a detailed counting system for the game.