The game of Canasta is said to have originated in Montivideo, Uruguay, around 1940. From there it spread to Argentina, the USA and throughout the world. It was extremely fashionable in the 1950's, threatening for a while to displace Contract Bridge as the premier card game.
The rules were standardised in North America around 1950, and it was this version of the game, which will be called Classic Canasta on this page, that gained worldwide popularity. In many countries, Classic Canasta is still played in more or less its original form, sometimes alongside a number of variations. In North America, however, the game of Canasta has continued to develop, and the version now favoured by many American players, called Modern American Canasta on this page, is very different from the classic game.
Canasta is generally agreed to be best for four players, playing in partnerships. However, there are playable versions for two and three players, which are given later on this page.
General Rules and Terminology
To avoid repetition, this section describes the terms and processes that are common to most or all versions of Canasta.
Canasta is normally played with two standard 52 card packs plus four jokers (two from each pack), making 108 cards in all. They have standard point values as follows:
The cards A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4 are called natural cards. All of the deuces (twos) and jokers are wild cards. With some restrictions, wild cards can be used during the game as substitutes for a natural card of any rank.
The threes have special functions and values, depending on which variation of Canasta is being played.
Each player is dealt a hand of cards, and in the centre of the table is a face-down pile of cards called the stock and a face-up pile of cards called the discard pile. The player to the left of the dealer plays first, and then the turn to play passes clockwise. A basic turn consists of drawing the top card of the stock, adding it to your hand without showing it to the other players, and discarding one card from your hand face up on top of the discard pile.
After drawing, but before discarding, you may sometimes be able to play some cards from your hand face up on the table. To play cards to the table in this way is known as melding, and the sets of cards so played are melds. These melded cards remain face up on the table until the end of the play.
The play ends when a player goes out, i.e. disposes of all the cards in his or her hand. You are only allowed to go out after your team has fulfilled certain conditions, which vary according to the type of canasta played but always include completing at least one seven-card meld or 'canasta' (see below). Having achieved this, you can go out by melding all but one of the cards in your hand and discarding this last card. In many versions of Canasta you can also go out by melding your whole hand, leaving no discard. The game can also end if the stock pile runs out of cards: if a player who wishes to draw from the stock is unable to do so, because there are no cards left there, the play ends immediately and the hand is scored.
Under certain conditions, instead of drawing from the stock, you are permitted to take the whole of the discard pile. In order to do this, you must be able to meld the top discard, without needing any of the other cards in the discard pile to make your meld valid. The procedure in this case is:
The object of the game is to score points by melding cards. A valid meld consists of three or more cards of the same natural rank (any rank from four up to ace), such as three kings, six fives, etc. When playing with partners, melds belong to a partnership, not to an individual player. They are kept face up in front of one of the partners. Typically, a partnership will have several melds, each of a different rank. You can add further cards of the appropriate rank to any of your side's melds, whether begun by yourself or by your partner, but you can never add cards to an opponent's meld.
Wild cards (jokers and twos) can normally be used in melds as subsititutes for cards of the appropriate rank. For example Q-Q-Q-2 or 8-8-8-8-8-2-joker would be valid melds. There are, however, restrictions on using wild cards, which vary according to the type of Canasta being played.
Threes cannot be melded in the normal way. They have special functions, which are different depending on whether you play classic or modern American canasta.
A meld of seven cards is called a canasta. If all of the cards in it are natural, it is called a natural or pure or clean or red canasta; the cards are squared up and a red card is placed on top. If it includes one or more wild cards it is called a mixed or dirty or black canasta; it is squared up with a natural black card on top, or one of the wild cards in it is placed at right-angles, to show that it is mixed.
In some versions of Canasta you may create a meld of more than seven cards, simply by continuing to add more cards of the same rank to an already complete canasta. If it is allowed, a meld of eight or more cards is still regarded as a canasta. If any wild cards are added to a previously pure (red) canasta, it thereby becomes mixed (black).
For each partnership, the first turn during a hand when they put down one or more melds is called their initial meld. When making the initial meld for your partnership, you must meet a certain minimum count requirement, in terms of the total value of cards that you put down. You are allowed to count several separate melds laid down at the same time in order to meet this requirement. In some versions (including Modern American), the initial meld must be made entirely from your hand; in others (including Classic) you are allowed to use the top card of the discard pile along with cards from your hand to satisfy the minimum count, before picking up the remainder of the pile.
The initial meld requirement applies to a partnership, not to an individual player. Therefore, after either you or your partner have made a meld that meets the requirement, both of you can meld freely for the rest of that hand. However, if the opponents have not yet melded, they must still meet the requirement in order to begin melding.
This game was standardised in the late 1940's and is still played in many parts of the world. American players may wish to skip this section, since it introduces several concepts that are no longer relevant in the Modern American game.
As usual, there are four players in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other. Two 52 card standard packs plus 4 jokers are shuffled together to make a 108 card pack.
The first dealer is chosen at random, and thereafter the turn to deal rotates clockwise after each hand. The dealer shuffles and the player to dealer's right cuts. Each player is dealt 11 cards, and the rest of the cards are placed in a face-down stock pile in the centre of the table. The top card of the stock is taken off and placed face up next to the stock pile, to start the discard pile. If this first face-up card is wild or a red three, another card is turned and places on top of it, continuing until a card which is not a wild card or red three is turned up; the wild card or red three should be stacked at right angles to the rest of the pile, to indicate that it is frozen (see below).
Each player must immediately place face-up in front of them any red threes they were dealt, and draw an equal number of cards from the top of the face-down pile to replace them.
Every meld must contain at least two natural cards. The smallest meld, as usual, consists of three cards, which could be three natural cards (such as 8-8-8) or two natural cards and a wild card (such as Q-Q-2).
Melds can grow as large as you wish. A meld of seven or more cards counts as a canasta. No meld can contain more than three wild cards - so a six card meld must include at least three natural cards, and a canasta must contain at least four natural cards. There is no limit on the number of natural cards that can be added to a complete canasta. A wild card added to a pure canasta of course makes it mixed. Once a canasta contains three wild cards, no further wild cards can be added.
Note that in this version of Canasta, melds consisting entirely of wild cards are not allowed.
It is not allowed for one partnership to have two separate melds of the same rank. Any cards melded by a partnership which are the same rank as one of their existing melds are automatically merged into that meld, provided that the limit of three wild cards is not exceeded. It is however quite possible and not unusual have a meld of the same rank as one of your opponents' melds.
As usual, each turn is begun by either drawing the top card from the face-down stock or taking the whole of the discard pile. The player may meld some cards (and must do so if taking the discard pile). Each turn must be ended by discarding one card face-up on top of the discard pile.
A player may always opt to draw the top card of the face down pile. You can only take the discard pile if you can meld its top card, combined with cards from your hand if necessary. There are additional restrictions on taking the discard pile if it is frozen against your partnership (see below).
But first let us consider the case where the discard pile is not frozen against you. In that case, if the top card of the pile is a natural card (from four up to ace), you can take the pile if either:
Note that you can never take the discard pile if its top card is a wild card or a black three.
Note also that it is not necessary to take the discard pile in order to meld. If you wish, you can meld after drawing from the stock.
There are three ways that the discard pile can be frozen against your partnership.
When the discard pile is frozen against you, you can only take it if you hold in your hand two natural cards of the same rank as the top card of the discard pile, and you use these with the top discard to make a meld. This meld can either be a new one, or could be the same rank as an existing meld belonging to your partnership, in which case the melds are then merged.
For example, suppose the pile is frozen us and our team already has a meld of 4 sevens on the table. If the player before me discards a seven, I cannot pick up the discard pile unless I have two further sevens concealed in my hand. If do have 2 sevens in my hand, I can add them and the discarded seven to our meld (making a canasta), and take the pile.
If your partnership has not yet melded, then in order to meld, the total value of the cards you lay down must meet a minimum count requirement. This requirement depends on your partnership's cumulative score from previous hands as follows:
|Cumulative score||Minimum count of initial meld|
|negative||. . . . .||15 points (i.e. no minimum)|
|0 - 1495||. . . . .||50 points|
|1500 - 2995||. . . . .||90 points|
|3000 or more||. . . . .||120 points|
We have seen that if you have not yet melded, the discard pile is frozen against you. Therefore, in order to achieve the minimum count, you must either meld entirely from your hand after drawing from the stock, or you must use two natural cards from your hand which match the top card of the discard pile. In this second case, you can count the value of the top discard, along with the cards you play from your hand in this and any other melds, towards the minimum count. You cannot count any other cards in the pile which you may intend to add in the same turn.
Example: there is a king on top of the discard pile and a king and a queen buried in the pile. You have two kings, two queens and a two in your hand. If your initial meld requirement is 50, you can meld K-K-K, Q-Q-2 using the king from the top of the pile, for 70 points. You can then add the king and queen from the pile to these melds in the same turn if you wish. But you could not make this play if you needed a minimum count of 90: even though the king and queen from the pile are ultimately worth a further 20, you cannot include these towards your initial requirement.
Bonuses for red threes, canastas and so on cannot be counted towards meeting the minimum. Even if you have a complete canasta in your hand, you are not allowed to put it down as your initial meld if the total value of its indivdual cards does not meet your minimum count requirement.
There is just one exception to the minimum count requirement. If, having drawn from the stock, you are able to meld your entire hand, including a canasta, without having previously melded any cards, you may do so (with or without a final discard) and go out without having to meet any mimimum count requirement. In doing this you will score the extra bonus for going out concealed. This option remains available to a player who has exposed red threes, provided that they have not melded anything else.
The play ends as soon as a player goes out. You can only go out if your partnership has melded at least one canasta. Once your side has a canasta, you may go out if you can and wish to, by melding all of your cards, or by melding all but one and discarding your last card. It is legal to complete the required canasta and go out on the same turn.
If your side does not yet have a canasta, you are not allowed to leave yourself without any cards at the end of your turn: you must play in such a way as to keep at least one card after discarding. It is against the rules in this case to meld all your cards except one. You would then be forced to discard this last card, which would constitute going out illegally.
Note that it is not always an advantage to go out as soon as you are able to; the cards left in your partner's hand will count against your side, and you may in any case be able to score more points by continuing. If you are able to go out but unsure whether to do so, you may if you wish ask your partner "may I go out?". This question can only be asked immediately after drawing from the stock or taking the discard pile, before making any further melds other than the one involving the top card of the pile if it was taken. Your partner must answer "yes" or "no" and the answer is binding. If the answer is "yes", you must go out; if the answer is "no" you are not allowed to go out. and the answer is binding. You are under no obligation to ask your partner's permission before going out; if you wish, you can simply go out without consulting your partner.
Another way that play can end is when there are no more cards left in the face-down stock. Play can continue with no stock as long as each player takes the previous player's discard and melds it. In this situation a player must take the discard if the pile is not frozen and if the discard matches any previous meld of that player's side. As soon as a player is entitled to draw from the stock and chooses to do so, but there is no card in the stock, the play ends.
If a player draws a red three as the last card of the stock, the red three is placed face up as usual and then, since there is no replacement card that can be drawn from the stock, the play immediately ends. The player who drew the red three is not allowed to meld nor discard.
When the play has ended the hand is scored. Each partnership's score for the hand consists of:
The bonus scores are as follows:
|For going out||100 points|
|*For going out concealed - that is, the player's whole hand is melded in one turn, and includes at least one canasta.||an extra 100 points, making 200 for going out.|
|For each natural (red) canasta||500 points|
|For each mixed (black) canasta||300 points|
|**For each red three laid out, if the team has at least one meld||100 points|
|**For all four red threes||an extra 400 points, making 800 for red threes|
|*Note. To score the bonus for going out concealed, the player must not have previously melded, must not add any cards to partner's melds, and must put down a complete canasta. The player going out concealed may take the discard pile in their final turn and still score the concealed bonus; if they take the discard pile and partner has not yet melded, they must satisfy the relevant initial meld requirement.|
|**Note. If a partnership did not manage to meld at all, then each of their red threes counts minus 100 points instead of plus 100. If they are unlucky enough to have all four red threes and have not melded, they score minus 800 points for these threes.|
After the bonuses have been calculated, the cards melded by each team are counted using the standard values - see general rules. Black threes are worth 5 points each. For ease of counting and checking, the usual method is to group the cards into piles worth 100 points each. (Note that in a canasta, the values of the cards themselves are counted in addition to the bonus for the canasta, so for example a natural canasta of seven kings is really worth 570 points altogether - 500 for the canasta and 70 for the kings.)
The cards remaining in the hands of the players are also counted using the same standard values, but these points count against the team and are subtracted from their score.
A cumulative total score is kept for each partnership. It is possible to have a negative score. When one or both partnerships have a total of 5,000 or more points at the end of a hand, the game ends and the side with the higher total score wins. The margin of victory is the difference between the scores of the two sides.
Tuomas Korppi has written a Canasta Strategy Guide for the classic game.
Although this version of the game is now widespread in America, it is not to be found in the standard American card game books, which surprisingly continue to describe only the classic game. I am grateful to Shirley Schwartz, M Glatt and Lorraine Seman for describing this game to me; also to the American Canasta Association, who at one time had a web site including a partial description of the rules of the game. The web site has since disappeared and I do not know whether the Association is still in existence.
As usual, there are four players in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other. The winners will be the first team to achieve a cumulative score of 8500 or more points, or the team that has more points if both teams achieve this on the same deal. Two 52 card standard packs plus 4 jokers are shuffled together to make a 108 card pack. Sometimes a special tray is used to hold the draw and discard piles but this is not essential.
The dealer shuffles, the player to dealer's right cuts. 13 cards are then dealt to each player. Also, a packet of four cards and a packet of three cards are placed face down near the centre of the table - these are called talons, wings or bonus cards and are usually placed either side of the draw and discard piles. The undealt cards are placed face down in the centre to form a draw pile. No card is turned face up to start a discard pile - the play begins with the discard pile empty. Sometimes a card near the bottom of the draw pile - say the 6th card from the bottom, is turned at right angles to the remaining pile so that the players will know when this card is reached how many cards are left in the draw pile. This is useful in this version of Canasta because many hands end with neither team having gone out.
One procedure for dealing is as follows: when performing the cut, the player to the dealer's right lifts the top part of the deck, places the bottom 5 cards and the 6th card at right angles face down on the table to form the bottom of the draw pile, then uses the next 7 cards from the bottom to constitute the two talons, and finally places the rest of the section on the draw pile. Meanwhile the dealer takes the cards that were left by the cutter and deals 13 cards to each player, one at a time, placing any remaining cards on top of the draw pile, or taking cards from the top of the draw pile to complete the deal if needed.
The turn to deal passes to the left after each hand.
In this game, twos and jokers are wild, and threes are special. The remaining cards, from 4 up to ace, are called natural cards. However, melds of sevens and aces are subject to some special rules and restrictions.
A meld of 4s, 5s, 6s, 8s, 9s, 10s, jacks, queens or kings consists of at least three and not more than of seven cards of the appropriate rank. Wild cards can be used as substitutes for one or two of the cards, provided that the meld includes at least two natural cards, and not more than two wild cards. A seven card meld is called a canasta, and since the number of wild cards is limited to at most two, a canasta must contain at least five natural cards.
A meld of sevens consists of from three to seven sevens: wild cards cannot be used in a meld of sevens. Note that although there is a bonus for completing a canasta of sevens, if you start a meld of sevens but fail to complete your sevens canasta you incur a penalty at the end of the play.
A meld of aces can only contain wild cards if it is part of the team's initial meld and includes at least one wild card from the outset. In that case it can contain from three to seven cards, including at least two natural aces and not more than two wild cards. A meld of aces begun after your team has put down its initial meld cannot include wild cards - it can only consist of from three to seven natural aces. If an ace meld is begun pure (whether as part of the team's initial meld or later), no wild cards can be added to it. A pure meld of fewer than seven aces incurs a penalty at the end of the play.
A meld of wild cards consists of from three to seven twos and jokers in any combination. If your team starts a meld of wild cards, you cannot add any wild cards to any of your other melds until your wild card canasta is complete. If you have a wild card meld of fewer than seven cards when the play ends, your team incurs a penalty.
No meld can ever contain more than seven cards, and a team is not allowed to have more than one meld of the same rank. Therefore, after you have completed a canasta of any particular natural rank, further cards of that rank are useless to your team.
The player to dealer's left begins and the turn to play passes clockwise. If you have been dealt any threes, red or black, you may begin your first turn by placing all your threes face up in the space that will be used for your team's melds. You immediately draw an equal number of replacement cards from the top of the stock, and if any of these are threes you lay them out and replace them in the same way, until you have no threes among your 13 cards. You then begin your normal turn by drawing from the stock (or possibly taking the discard pile).
As a normal turn is begun by either drawing the top card from the face-down stock or taking the whole of the discard pile. The player may meld some cards (and must do so if taking the discard pile). Each turn must be ended by discarding one card face-up on top of the discard pile.
A player may always opt to draw the top card of the face down stock. If you draw a three you should normally place it face up among your team's melds and immediately draw a replacement card from the stock. However, if your team has not yet melded, it is permissible to a retain a three in your hand if you are trying to collect a straight - see special hands. At the end of the play, any three in a player's hand will score exactly as though it had been melded.
You can only take the discard pile if you have a pair of natural cards in your hand which are of the same rank as the top card of the discard pile. You must show your pair and meld these cards with the top discard before taking the rest of the pile into your hand. After picking up the pile, you can then make further melds. If your team has not yet melded, you cannot take the discard pile until you have met the initial meld requirement.
If the top discard matches the rank of one of your partnership's existing melds, you can take the pile if you have a pair of cards of the same rank in your hand, and your existing meld has three or four cards. The new meld of three cards is immediately combined with your existing meld of that rank. If your team has a meld of five or more cards matching the rank of the top discard, you cannot take the pile in any circumstances, since you would thereby create a meld of more than seven cards, which is not allowed.
It is not necessary to take the discard pile in order to meld. If you wish, you can meld after drawing from the stock.
It is illegal to meld in such a way as to leave yourself with only one card, unless you have satisfied the conditions for going out. If you are not going out, you must have at least two cards in your hand after melding: one to discard and one to continue play.
There are certain restrictions on discards:
The first meld made by each team during a hand is subject to some conditions. There are three possible ways to make a valid initial meld.
|Cumulative score||Minimum count of initial meld|
|less than 3000||. . . . .||125 points|
|3000 to 4995||. . . . .||155 points|
|5000 or more||. . . . .||180 points|
If you make the initial meld for your team, but do not go out on that turn, then after discarding at the end of your turn, you take one of the talons or wings and place it face down in front of you. If your team is the first to meld you take the four-card talon, and the player who makes the initial meld for your opponents will get the three-card talon. You are not allowed to use the talon cards in the turn in which you make the initial meld. At the start of your next turn to play you add the cards of your talon to your hand, place any threes that you find in it face up with your team's melds and replace them by drawing an equal number of cards from the stock. Then you begin your normal turn by drawing a card from the stock (or possibly taking the discard pile).
The play ends if a player goes out or if the stock becomes depleted so that a player who needs to draw a card cannot do so.
You can go out if you can satisfy both of the following conditions:
It is not legal in this version of Canasta to go out by melding all your cards - you must have a card to discard at the end of your turn. This final discard is made face-down, and this is the only case in which a wild card can be discarded.
When you are in a position to go out you may, if you wish, first ask your partner's permission. If you ask, and partner says yes, you must go out; if partner says no you cannot go out on that turn, and therefore you must keep at least one card in your hand after discarding. You may ask permission to go out only once in each hand.
If you satisfy the conditions for going out, you are free to go out on any turn without consulting your partner.
If you do not satisfy the conditions for going out, you are not allowed to leave yourself without any cards at the end of your turn: you must play in such a way as to keep at least one card after discarding.
It often happens that the end of the stock is reached before anyone has gone out. When there are no cards left in the stock, play can continue as long as each player is able and willing to take the previous player's discard. As soon as someone needs or wishes to draw from the stock - either at the start of their turn or to replace a three, the play immediately ends and the hand is scored.
A special hand is a combination of 14 cards which entitiles you to go out by exposing your entire hand after drawing, without discarding. You are only allowed to put down a special hand if your team has not yet melded any cards. Three types of special hand are widely recognised: straight, pairs and garbage.
At the end of the play, each team reckons its score for the hand. There are six possible elements to this score, and the way they are combined depends on how many canastas the team has completed.
|Scoring item||Team has no complete canastas||Team has one complete canasta||Team has two or more complete canastas||Team goes out with a special hand|
|1. Bonus scores for canastas and for going out||does not apply||bonus added to score||bonus added to score||not counted|
|2. Penalties for incomplete canastas||penalty deducted from score||penalty deducted from score||penalty deducted from score||not counted|
|3. Bonuses or penalties for threes||penalty deducted from score||not counted||bonus added to score||not counted|
|4. Scores for melded cards||deducted from score||added to score||added to score||not counted|
|5. Penalties for cards remaining in players' hands||deducted from score||deducted from score||deducted from score||not counted|
|6. Scores for special hands||not counted||not counted||not counted||added to score|
|one red three . . . 100 points||one black three . . . 100 points|
|two red threes . . . 300 points||two black threes . . . 300 points|
|three red threes . . . 500 points||three black threes . . . 500 points|
|four red threes . . . 1000 points||four black threes . . . 1000 points|
Each team reckons its total score for the hand, as detailed in 1 to 6 above. This amount is added to its cumulative total. It is possible for a team to have a negative score for a hand - this will be the case, for example, if they fail to complete a canasta, and in that case their cumulative score will be reduced. It is possible for a team to have a negative cumulative score.
The overall object of the game is to have a cumulative score of 8500 or more points. When one or both teams achieve this, the game is over and the team with the higher score has won. The difference between the teams' scores is the margin of victory.
Some play that a team cannot go out if they have an incomplete canasta of sevens or pure aces. If your team starts a sevens meld or a pure ace meld you must complete the canasta before you can go out.
Some play that when the discard pile is empty, it is illegal to discard a card of the same rank as a completed canasta, unless you have no legal alternative.
Some players relax the rules for the initial meld, by not requiring it to include a meld of three matching natural cards.
Some players allow a team to start a meld of the same rank as a canasta completed by the opponents.
There is considerable variation in the special hands that are allowed and how they are scored:
It is possible to for two players to play a version of Classic Canasta. The modifications to the rules are as follows.
All other rules are the same as in four-player Classic Canasta. The target score is 5000 points; when one or both players reach or exceed this, the player with the higher score wins.
Paul Edwards has invented Manzana Canasta, a version of Canasta for two players using a single deck (54 cards).
It is possible to for three players to play a version of Classic Canasta.
13 cards are dealt to each player (but some play with 11 cards each as in the four-handed game). When drawing from the stock you take the top two cards, but in all cases you discard only one card at the end of your turn.
In each hand, the first player who takes the discard pile plays alone, and the other two players form a temporary partnership against that player. If a player goes out before anyone has taken the discard pile, the player who goes out is the lone player. If the play ends because the stock runs out, and no one has taken the discard pile by then, each player scores separately for that hand.
Each player keeps a separate cumulative score. The partners combine their melds, but not their red threes, and at the end of the hand the amount scored by the partnership for cards and canastas is added to both partners' cumulative scores, but each partner scores their own red threes. The lone player's score for the hand is added to that player's cumulative score.
Since each player has a different cumulative score, it sometimes happens that the two members of the partnership have different opening meld requirements.
Other rules are the same as in Classic Canasta. When one or more players reach 7500 or more points, the player with the highest score wins.
There are several ways of for six people to play canasta. The versions given in most of the books follows the rules of Classic Canasta with the following modifications:
Shirley Miller reports the following variation of the 6-player game between two teams of three:
There are numerous variations of Canasta, many of which are intermediate between the versions described above. Other rules sometimes encountered are:
The following Canadian four-player variation was described to me by Barb Dejesus.
|0 - 1495||........||50 points|
|1500 - 2995||........||90 points|
|3000 - 6995||........||120 points|
|7000 or more||........||150 points|
Samba is a variation in which it is possible to meld cards in sequence in a suit as well as sets of equal cards.