This guide will cover the basic canasta rules
Canasta (Spanish for “basket”) originated in South America. Some 50 years ago it was the most popular card game in the United States, from whence it spread to Europe and became something of a craze before going into decline. Its detractors claim it is over elaborate, but it retains the loyalty of a widespread band of enthusiasts.
-Cards: two standard packs plus four jokers well shuffled. Jokes and deuces are wild. Red 3s are bonus cards and are not used in the play. All other cards are called “naturals”.
-Ranking: for cutting the pack only, the cards rank Ace (high) down to deuce (low), and the suits spades (high), hearts, diamonds, clubs (low). Jokers rate zero. In play, ranks are irrelevant buy have values for scoring purposes.
-Deal: partners, who have been decided by cutting or other convenient means, sit opposite each other. Each player receives 11 cards singly, face down. The remainder forms the stockpile, which is placed face up beside the stock. If the turn-up is a red 3 or a wild card the next card is turned over to cover it, and again is necessary, until the turn-up is natural.
Object of the game
To score points by declaring and building on melds of three or more cards of the same rank; and to earn bonuses, especially by forming canastas (melds of seven cards or more).
Eldest starts and first places any red 3(s) held face up on the table, replenishing his hand with the same number of cards from the top of the stockpile. He then draws a card from stock. If it is a red 3, this is at once laid face up on the table and another card is drawn to replace it. Eldest then declares any melds, provided that the point count of the cards is melded add up to the minimum requirement (see table below), by placing them face up on the table. More than one meld can be declared on a turn. No meld may contain more wild cards than naturals. Black 3s, exceptionally, may not be melded until play ends (see below). Declaring melds are always optional, and a player with two melds in hand could elect, for example, to declare only one of them.
Instead of drawing from stock, Eldest could have taken the up pile, known as the “pack” or “pot”, provided that the top card could be melded with two natural cards from hand and provided that the minimum point requirement for the initial meld was met. Notice that the entire discard pile is taken, not just the top card. Thus Eldest might, in melding the top card, have acquired red 3(s) and/or wild card(s). Any red 3 is at once placed face up on the table but, because the card was from the pack and not from the stock, no replacement card is drawn. Now Eldest discards by taking a card from hand and placing it face up on the pack (or beside the stock if the pack has been taken).
The other players in turn follow much the same procedure, in sequence:
(1) On the first round only, declaring and replacing any red 3s; (2) Drawing a card from stock (declaring and replacing it if a red 3) or taking the pack; (3) declaring any melds if desired and/or adding matching cards or wild cards to the partnership’s declared melds; and (4) discarding.
Once one player of a partnership has declared a meld or melds meeting the minimum point requirement, the other player is free to (1) put down any meld; (2) take the pack by matching the top (natural) card with two natural cards of the same rank or one natural card and a wild; and (3) add a card or cards of matching rank(s), and/or wild cards, to partner’s meld(s). The melds of a partnership are kept together, either player being free to add further cards to the exposed melds provided that at no time does a meld contain more wild than natural cards.
When a canasta is formed, it is squared up. A red card is then turned over on top if it is a natural canasta (no wild cards), and a black card if it is a mixed canasta (includes one or more wild cards). There is no restriction on the number of wild cards that can be added to a canasta; but if a wild card is added to a natural canasta. No card forming part of a meld can be picked up subsequently or diverted to any other purpose. The pack – but never just the top card – may be taken at any time, either to form a meld or in order to add the top card to an existing meld of the partnership, unless the pack is frozen when certain conditions apply.
The pack is frozen when (1) it contains a red 3 or wild card (which could have been discarded to it, when it is normally placed sideways at the bottom of the pack); or (2) the top card is a black 3. A frozen pack may be taken only if the player matches the up card with two natural cards of the same rank, and, in the case of black 3s, only to go out. If a player discards a black 3, the next player may not go out on that turn, even though he is holding a pair of black 3s. That player’s discard will unfreeze the pack unless it is another black 3 or wild card.
The hand ends either when the pack is exhausted or when one player goes out (has no cards left). A player may not go out unless the partnership has at least one canasta; and when he is going out he may – but does not have to – discard. It is etiquette for a player to ask partner’s permission before going out, the response being blinding.
A player may go out “blind”; that is, placing the whole hand on the table without having previously melded or laid off cards on partner’s melds. The hand must include a canasta and cards cannot be laid on partner’s melds. This earns double bonus.
This takes place at the end of the hand. Each declared meld is scored by adding up the points of the cards it contains; thus a meld of a 7 of diamonds, 7 of diamonds, 2 of spades, joker is valued at 80 points, and 3 of clubs, 3 of clubs and 3 of spades is valued at 15 points. Bonuses are added.
Players, including the partner of the player going out, are penalised for cards held in hand according to this same scale. Thus a player holding a mixed canasta in the hope of going out concealed will attract a penalty of 300 points in addition to the card count. If a partnership has failed to declare a meld it is also penalised for any red 3s declared. This system can result in a partnership having a negative score.
The game ends when one partnership reaches or passes 5000 points when the settlement, if any, is made on the difference between the two totals.
Table 2 Canasta: Point values of cards
|Aces and 2s||20|
|K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8||10|
|7, 6, 5, 4, (black) 3||5|
|All four red 3s||800|
|Going out concealed||200|
Table 3 Canasta: minimum point requirement for initial meld
|3000 and over||120|
An example hand of Canasta
Both sides require 90 points to open.
A joker is turned up and covered by a jack of spades. West (Elder) puts down a 3 of diamonds and draws a 6 of hearts to replace it. He would like to meld the Jacks and add the 2 of diamonds, from hand and the covered joker to meet the opening requirement, but only the up card can be used in the initial meld. West now draws a 7 of diamonds and discards it.
North draws an 8 of diamonds and discards a Jack of diamonds.
With two jacks and a joker in it, the pack is already looking desirable.
East declares a 3 of hearts and takes the top card from the stockpile as a replacement. It’s an Ace of diamonds. East now draws the King of Spades and melds the two Aces with the joker for the minimum count (90 points), then discards the King of spades. This proves a dangerous discard, as South melds it with the two Ks in hand and then declares the two Aces with the 2 of clubs (90 points); picks up the pack; melds three Jacks; and takes the 7 of diamonds and the joker into hand. Finally, South discards the Queen of spades.
West draws Ace of hearts, adding it to the exposed meld, and discards the 9 of spades. North seizes on this and melds the four 9s taking the Queen of spades into hand and discarding 7 of hearts. East draws and discards 7 of clubs. South takes this and melds the four 7s, discarding 8 of spaces. South cannot go out because the partnership has not got a canasta.
West draws Jack of clubs, melds the three Jacks and discards the Queen of spades. North draws 9 of diamonds, adds it to the meld and discards 5 of spades. East draws 10 of diamonds and melds the 10s. East looks covetously at the discard pile with the Q in it and is fearful South will get it so discards 3 of spades to freeze it. South draws 3 of clubs, and, appreciating that his opponents want the Q, plays it straight to the up pile.
West draws 10 of diamonds, adds it to the meld, and discards 5 of hearts which should be safe since North threw 5 of spades on the last round. North draws 2 of diamonds and discards the Q of spades – a mistake. East melds the Q of spades from the up pile with two Qs in hand and takes the pack, adding the extra Q in it to the meld. East decides not to meld the 5s at this stage and discards 8 of spades. South draws 9 of hearts and adds it to the meld then asks partner if it is in order to go out. North appreciates that South probably holds two wild cards and a discard but says “No”, since North has two melds in hand and, with the opposition posing little threat, dreams of a natural canasta in 9s. Accordingly, South discards 4 of clubs.
West draws Q of hearts and feeds the meld.
Knowing that the opposition is on the point of going out, West adds the 2 of diamonds to the Qs in the hope that partner also has a wild card to yield a canasta. West then discards 8 of diamonds. North takes the pack, melding the four 8s but not the three 4s, and discards 3 of clubs. East draws 3 of hearts and draws 5 of hearts to replace it, then J of clubs. East now melds the four 5s, adds the K to the meld on the table and discards 3 of spades freezing the (valueless) pack for South. South draws A of spades and decides that East may be in danger of going out, so completes the canasta with the joker and discards the Ace. (To add it to the meld would mean that South would have to discard 2 of hearts, voiding the hand, which is illegal since South is not going out.)
West draws K of diamonds and discards 7 of Spaces.
North could take the pack, but could not then go out because it contains two black 3s. Accordingly, North draws from stock. The card is 8 of clubs and North asks South for permission to go out. The answer is yes, so North puts down the canasta of 8s and melds the 4s leaving no discard.
|Less card in hand||-20|
|+ Two mixed canastas||600|
|+ Going out||100|
|Less card in hand||-45|
|+ Red threes||600|
How to win
Canastas are the point-spinners. To gain these it is necessary to nourish your hand from the up pile: penalties for cards in hand are small compared to the potential profits of a large hand. In order to improve your chances of taking the up pile, do not reduce your hand to fewer than five or six cards – one is the legal minimum (short of going out). For this reason, make the initial meld with the minimum number of cards.
Be prepared to freeze the pack with a wild card to block your opponents, particularly if you hold several natural pairs which give you good chances of taking the pack later. Don’t be in a hurry to put down melds. It is sometimes good tactics to break a meld in hand for the sake of keeping the opponents out. Hold back cards that you know the opponents want. A false discard is often a good ploy.
In the early stages of a game the discard of ablack three is a signal to partner to meld if possible.
Going out is usually a defensive play to limit the score.
It has been said that Canasta has been played to different rules in every town and hamlet in America. A sensible rule permits a partnership to call “Acaba” (Spanish for “finish”) at any time, ceding the hand at a cost of 1500 points – a useful escape where the opponents have gained total ascendency.
The two-player game is excellent. Each player receives 15 cards and must get two canastas before going out. There are also versions for up to six players.
Uruguay canasta is a forerunner.
This is played as described, except that wild cards may be melded. A canasta of wild cards (which may not be added to) is worth 2000 points. The pack may only be taken by matching the up card with two natural cards from hand.
Two other closely related partnership games of some complexity are Samba and Combo. Both games use three packs plus six jokers, each player initially being dealt 15 cards.
Related External Links
A great set of rules of Canasta can be found at the pagat website.