Canasta is a classic game for four players in partnerships. Originating in Uruguay in 1940, and further developed throughout the 1940s in Argentina, the game of Canasta became a fad in United States the early 1950s, challenging the popularity of the other popular partnership game of the 20th century, Contract Bridge. Since then, the game has evolved into a world-wide classic.
Canasta has the disadvantage of having a lot of intricacies to its rules, and rules that depend a lot on the scoring system, meaning that it can be somewhat overwhelming to novice players. Once it gets going, however, it is a quick and fun game.
Object of Canasta
The object of the game is to score 5,000 points before your opponent by forming melds of three or more cards of the same rank, and canastas, which are melds of seven or more cards of the same rank.
The players divide into two partnerships, sitting across from one another, so that the turn of play alters between partnerships when going clockwise. Set aside an area of the table for each partnership’s melds, and a neutral area accessible to all players for the stock and the discard pile.
Canasta uses a 108-card deck, consisting of two standard decks of playing cards, plus Jokers, shuffled together. The backs of both decks of cards should be identical. If you’re using Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, pat yourself on the back for your smart purchasing decisions. You will also need some form of scorekeeping apparatus. We recommend either a pencil and paper or a smartphone application, since abacuses that go up to 5,000 are kind of hard to find in this day and age.
Deal 11 cards to each player. Set the rest of the deck in the center of the table, forming the stock, and turn one card face-up next to it. This is the top card of the discard pile, otherwise known as the upcard. If the upcard is a joker, 2, or red 3, turn another card over from the stock to cover it (continue turning cards until the upcard is something other than one of these three ranks). If the discard pile started with one of these three cards, it is considered frozen (see below).
Card ranks and scoring
The following are the scores and special properties of all of the cards in the game:
- Red 3s: Red 3s serve as a bonus card and are simply laid in front of the player and a new card is drawn to replace them. 100 points.
- Jokers: Jokers are wild. 50 points.
- Twos: Twos are also wild. 20 points.
- Aces: 20 points.
- K–8s: 10 points.
- 7s–4s: 5 points.
- Black 3s: Can only be melded at the end of the hand, and prevent the discard pile from being taken when one is the upcard. 5 points.
Other than the colors of the 3s, suits do not matter. Both jokers are likewise equal.
Play of the hand
Before game play actually kicks off, any red 3s the players hold in their hand are placed in the partnership’s melding area and new cards are drawn to replace them. Likewise, any red 3s encountered throughout the game are laid down and new cards drawn to replace them. Red 3s found in the discard pile are not replaced, however.
The player to the left of the dealer goes first. The flow of the turn is to draw, meld if able and willing, and end the turn by discarding. A player may not deplete their hand of cards unless they meet specific requirements for going out, as described below.
When drawing, the player has the option to draw the top card of the stock, or to draw the upcard. To draw from the discards, the player must be able to immediately use the upcard in a meld (either by forming a new meld or extending an existing one with it); upon doing so, the player takes the entire discard pile into their hand! (This is a very good thing; the discard pile is often large and contains many things that are useful to the player.) Under some circumstances, however, the discard pile is frozen, which further restricts the ability of the player to take the discard pile—see below. A player also cannot take the discard pile when the upcard is a black 3.
After drawing, the player may meld, if able. A partnership’s first melds of the hand must meet a minimum value, depending on the partnership’s score at the beginning of that hand:
Note that a partnership with a negative score really has no “minimum” requirement; a minimum of 15 exists only by virtue of no valid meld having a score below this.
A meld consists of three or more cards of the same rank (traditionally fanned out so that the indices of all of the cards in the meld are visible). At least two cards must be natural (i.e. not a wild card), and a meld can never contain more than three wild cards.
After a meld has been laid down, further melding by that partnership is not subject to the minimums. When a meld has been laid down, it can be extended by either player in the partnership, either by adding more natural cards to it or by adding wild cards. Players cannot move cards between melds, or establish two separate melds of the same rank. Players cannot contribute to their opponents’ melds.
A meld of seven or more cards is called a canasta, which, if you were wondering, is Spanish for “basket”. Canastas involving wild cards are called mixed canastas (canastas sucias or “dirty canastas” in Spanish), and canastas free of wild cards are called natural canastas (canastas limpias, or “clean canastas”). The distinction is important because natural canastas score higher. Traditionally, elevation to canasta status is denoted by squaring the meld up into a pile, with a red card on top for natural canastas and a black card on top for mixed canastas. (Should a wild card be added to a natural canasta, the top card of the canasta is switched out so that it again displays the correct color.)
After any melds are made, the player discards any card other than a red 3, and play continues with the player to the left.
Freezing the discard pile
Should a red 3 or wild card end up in the discard pile, either by being the initial upcard, or (in the case of wild cards) by being intentionally discarded there, the discard pile is considered frozen. This is signified by placing the offending card at right angles to the pile, causing it to stick out when further cards are placed on top of it. When the discard pile is frozen, it may only be taken if its top card can be used to form a new meld with two or more other cards of the same rank (i.e. you cannot take a frozen discard pile to form a meld with two natural cards and a wild card).
Depletion of the stock
In the uncommon event that the stock is depleted before someone goes out, the game simply continues without a stock; play continues with players taking the discard pile, melding if able, and discarding, until a player goes out as normal, or is unable to take the discard pile, at which point the hand ends and is scored as outlined below.
If, however, the final card of the stock is a red 3, special rules apply. The player taking the 3 declares it as usual, then does any melding possible, after which play ceases. This player is not entitled to discard.
In order to go out, a partnership must have formed at least one canasta. At this point, you may go out by divesting yourself of your remaining cards, either by forming new melds, adding to existing ones, or discarding.
It is permissible to consult your partner before going out by asking “May I go out?” This is done to ensure that the partner does not hold an unduly high total value of cards, which will be charged against the partnership at the end of the hand. The answer given is binding. The only answer permitted is “Yes” or “No”—if any further information is given, the opposing partnership is entitled to answer the question “May I go out?” for the offending partnership, and their answer is binding, often with disastrous results.
A player also has the option of going out concealed. This is achieved when a player goes out without the partnership having previously melded anything, and scores a bonus.
After a player has gone out, the hand is scored. Each team scores the value of the cards it has melded, and the value of cards held in hand is deducted against the partnership’s score (except for any undeclared red 3s, which are handled as discussed in “Penalties” below). The following bonuses, if applicable, are also scored:
- Natural canastas: 500 points each.
- Mixed canastas: 300 points each.
- Red threes: 100 points each, unless all four are held, in which case they are 200 points each (for a total of 800).
- Going out normally: 100 points.
- Going out concealed: 200 points.
After all of the above has been accounted for, if neither partnership has reached 5,000 points, all cards are shuffled, and the deal passes to the left. If one or both partnerships has exceeded a score of 5,000, the partnership with the higher score at that point wins.
Throughout the game, various penalties can occur, as set out below:
- Undeclared red 3s at end of hand: –500 points each.
- Attempting to go out anyway when a partner says no: –100 points.
- Not being able to go out after having asked “May I go out?”: –100 points.
- Taking the upcard when unable to use it: –50 points.
Canasta for two players
Although Canasta is canonically considered a partnership game, early accounts claim that it was conceived as a two-player game, and it works well in that form. Play with two players is the same as the partnership game, except that fifteen cards are initially dealt instead of eleven, players draw two cards instead of one (though they still discard only one card), and two canastas are required to go out instead of one.