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Canasta

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BICYCLE CANASTA GAMES
Bicycle Canasta Playing Cards

CANASTA CARD GAME
Piatnik Canasta Cards

ROTATING CARD TRAY
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Introduction

The game of Canasta is said to have originated in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1939 (see for example Philip E Orbanes' article The Canasta Story). 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, some players have continued to develop the game, and these groups now favour a different version, called Modern American Canasta on this page.

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.

The Cards

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:

Jokers  . . .  50 points each
A, 2  . . .  20 points each
K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8  . . .  10 points each
7, 6, 5, 4  . . .  5 points each

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.

The Deal and Play

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:

  1. Place the necessary cards from your hand face up on the table, and add the top card of the discard pile to them to form a valid meld or melds.
  2. Take all the remaining cards of the discard pile and add them to your hand.
  3. If you wish, make further melds from the cards you now have in your hand.
  4. Discard one card face up on the discard pile to end your turn.

Melds and Canastas

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 substitutes 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.


Classic Canasta

Canasta was standardised in the late 1940's and is still played in more or less this classic form in many parts of the world, including some parts of America. However, those who prefer the "Modern American" game may prefer to skip this section, since many of the Classic rules are not relevant in that 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 Deal

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.

Melds in Classic Canasta

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.

The Play in Classic Canasta

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:

  1. you play two cards from your hand that make a valid meld with the top discard: these could be either two natural cards of the same rank as the top discard, or one such natural card and one wild card, or
  2. the top discard matches the rank of one of your partnerships existing melds, and you add it to that meld.

The procedure for taking the pile was described in the general rules. You must show that you can use the top card in a valid meld before you are allowed to pick up the rest of the pile. After picking up the pile, you can then make further melds. For example, if there is a five on top of the pile and another five buried, you cannot use a single five in your hand to take the pile and meld the three fives. But if you have two fives in your hand you can meld these with the five on top of the pile, take the pile, and then add the other five to this meld.

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.

Frozen Discard Pile

There are three ways that the discard pile can be frozen against your partnership.

  1. The discard pile is frozen against all players if it contains a wild card. To show that it is frozen, the wild card is placed at right angles in the pile, so that it is still visible after other cards are discarded on top of it.
  2. In the unusual case where a red three is turned up to start the discard pile after the deal, the discard pile is frozen against all players, and the red three is placed at a right angle to show this.
  3. If your partnership has not yet melded, the discard pile is frozen against you.

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.

Initial Meld Requirement in Classic Canasta

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

To achieve this count, you can of course put several melds at once, and the melds can be of more than the minimum size of three cards. The standard values of the cards you play are added to check whether the requirement has been met.

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 individual 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 minimum 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.

Threes in Classic Canasta

Red threes are bonus cards.
If you draw a red three, you must immediately be place it face-up on the table with your partnership's melds (or where your melds will be, if you have not melded yet). You then draw a replacement card from the face-down stock. Although red threes score bonus points they do not count as meld, and do not help you to satisfy the minimum count requirement for your initial meld. Also they do not prevent you from subsequently scoring the bonus for going out with a concealed hand.
Occasionally it happens that a red three is turned up at the end of the deal as a start card for the discard pile. This freezes the discard pile (see below). When the discard pile is eventually taken, the player puts the red three face-up with the partnership's melds, but does not draw a replacement card.
Black threes are stop cards.
By discarding a black three you prevent the next player from taking the discard pile. However, black threes do not freeze the pile. After the black three is covered by another card, it has no further effect, and the pile can be taken in the usual way.
Black threes cannot be melded, except in one exceptional case. A player who is going out may meld a group of three or four black threes as part of that last turn. Such a meld of black threes cannot contain wild cards.

End of the hand: Going Out

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.

Classic Canasta Scoring

When the play has ended the hand is scored. Each partnership's score for the hand consists of:

  • the total value of any bonuses they are entitled to - see the table below,
  • plus the total value of all the cards they have melded,
  • minus the total value of any cards remaining in their hands,

The bonus scores are as follows:

For going out100 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) canasta500 points
For each mixed (black) canasta300 points
**For each red three laid out, if the team has at least one meld100 points
**For all four red threesan 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.

Classic Canasta Strategy

Here is an archive copy of Tuomas Korppi's Canasta Strategy Guide for the classic game.

Classic Canasta Variations

Restrictions on taking the discard pile
Two variations are commonly played:
  1. A player is not allowed to take the (unfrozen) discard pile in order to add its top card to a completed canasta.
  2. A player is not allowed to take the (unfrozen) discard pile with one matching natural card and one wild card. Two natural cards are needed.
When these variations are played together, the only only difference between a frozen and an unfrozen pile is that a player can take the unfrozen pile if its top card matches an existing meld of less than seven cards belonging to that player's team.
Note that when playing these variations it is normally still possible to take a pile whose top card matches the rank of one of your team's completed canastas provided that you have two matching natural cards; the three additional cards are then added to that canasta.
A problem arises if you try to play variation 1 above but not variation 2. What happens if a player takes an unfrozen discard pile using one natural card and one wild card when the rank of the new meld matches that of an existing canasta that already contains three wild cards? There are at least four possible solutions:
  1. Modify the rule against having two melds of the same rank. A meld of less than seven cards is called an open meld, and you cannot have two open melds of the same rank, but once you have completed a canasta you can start a new meld of that same rank.
  2. Remove the limit on wild cards for melds of more than seven cards. You still need at least four natural cards in a canasta, but you can then add wild cards to it without limit.
  3. Keep both the rule against two melds of the same rank and the wild card limit, but do not allow a player to take the pile using one natural and one wild card to add to a canasta that already contains three wild cards.
  4. Introduce a rule that you can never take the pile when its top card matches one of your team's canastas, even if you have two natural cards of the same rank in your hand.
Players should agree in advance which of these solutions they wish to adopt.
Discard pile always frozen
Some play that the discard pile can only ever be taken by a player who can meld its top card with a pair of matching natural cards from hand. In classic canasta terminology, this is equivalent to saying that the discard pile is always frozen.
Wild Card Melds
Some play that it is possible to put down a meld consisting entirely of wild cards. This can consist of twos and jokers in any combination. A meld of seven wild cards is a wild canasta, and a typical bonus for it is 2000. Some increase this bonus if the canasta consists entirely of twos or contains all four jokers.
When playing with wild card melds it is usually illegal for a team that has begun a wild card meld to use wild cards in any other meld until a wild card canasta is completed. In some circles there is a penalty - typically 1000 points - for a team that starts a wild card meld but does not complete a wild card canasta.
Viennese Canasta
In Austria classic canasta is played with the following modifications  
  • Red threes count positive if and only if the team has melded at least one canasta. A mere initial meld does not suffice.
  • A meld must not contain more wild cards than natural cards, thus a meld like Q-Q-2-2-2 is not allowed.
  • If a player discards a card that could be added to an opponents' completed canasta the left hand opponent must not take the discard pile. (The discard of such a card is equivalent to the discard of a black three.)
  • A player may not claim the bonus for going out concealed if he takes the discard pile. Going out concealed with a complete Canasta included in the hand that goes out is called "Hand-Canasta", and is rewarded by a 1,000 point bonus. If a player melds out and meets all the previous requirements except that he does not meld a complete canasta of his own, then this is called "Verdeckt Ausmachen", for which his side is awarded a 200 point bonus (instead of only 100 points).
  • A player with only one card in his hand may take a one card discard pile under the same conditions which would entitle him to take a discard pile of two or more cards.
 
A comprehensive description in German of Viennese Canasta including penalties, rules for 2, 3, 5, or 6 players, progressions, and tournament procedures may be found on Roland Scheicher's Wiener Canasta page.

Modern American Canasta

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 Deal

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.

Melds

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 cannot contain wild cards unless 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.

One team is not allowed to have more than one meld of the same rank. However, it is possible for both teams to meld the same rank. For example after one team has put down an initial meld of aces with wild cards, the other team may also use aces with wild cards for their initial meld.

No meld can ever contain more than seven cards. Therefore, after you have completed a canasta of any particular natural rank, further cards of that rank are useless to your team, since you cannot start a second meld of the same rank. The other team can lay down a meld of this same rank if they wish, though they will not be able to build them into a 7-card canasta, since each canasta uses at least five natural cards and there are only eight of each card in the deck.

The Play in American Canasta

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. You then continue your turn by melding (if you can and wish to) and discarding.

It is permissible to a retain threes in your hand rather than melding them. Usually it is not advisable to do this: you would rather have the replacement card. However, you may wish to keep one three if your team has not yet melded and you trying to collect a straight - see special hands. Later, you may wish to meld a three that you had been keeping in your hand, for example if your partner melds, making the special hand impossible. You may meld this three at the start of your turn, before drawing from the stock, and as usual you must draw a replacement card for the three. You then draw another card from the stock or take the pile to begin your regular turn (for example, if the replacement card for your three makes a natural pair in your hand that matches the top card of the pile, you may use this pair to take the pile).

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:

  • Threes can never be discarded, except as your final discard, when going out.
  • When the discard pile is empty (on the first turn of the game, or when you have taken the pile at the start of your turn), it is illegal to discard an ace or a seven, unless these are the only natural cards you have in your hand at the time you discard. If you discard an ace or seven in this situation, you must show your hand if requested by an opponent, to prove that you had only aces, sevens and wild cards.
  • It is illegal to discard a wild card, except in the following cases:
    1. You may discard a wild card as your final discard, when going out.
    2. In rare cases, you may reach a situation where your hand consists entirely of wild cards. If on your turn you then draw yet another wild card, you may discard a wild card of your choice. The next player is not allowed to take the pile (since there are no natural cards that can match your discard). If requested by an opponent, you must show your hand to prove that you had only wild cards.

The Initial Meld in American Canasta

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.

1. Minimum count and three card meld from hand
You can make the initial meld for your team by melding cards from your hand whose total value is at least the minimum count. The minimum count depends on your team's cumulative score at the start of that hand:
    Cumulative score
    Minimum count of initial meld
    less than 3000  . . . . .  125 points
    3000 to 4995  . . . . .  155 points
    5000 or more  . . . . .  180 points
Note that in this game, a team that has a negative score is still subject to the 125 point minimum count.
This initial meld from your hand must include either
  • a meld that contains at least three matching natural cards, or
  • a wild card meld (at least three wild cards) from your hand.
Your meld of three matching natural cards may include additional cards from your hand, including wild cards, in order to bring the count up to the minimum requirement.
When making the initial meld you may take the discard pile in the same turn (insetad of drawing from the stock), if you hold a pair of natural cards which you can meld with the top card of the discard pile. The minimum count and the required three card natural or wild meld must already be present and complete in your hand and must be laid down before you are allowed to take any card from the pile. The pair that you use to take the pile could be within one of the melds you are using to meet the initial meld requirement, or it could be a separate pair of another rank - but in this last case, the point value of the cards in this pair do not of course count towards meeting your minimum count, since they are not a complete meld from your hand.
 
2. The Splash
If you have a natural canasta (seven natural cards of the same rank) or a wild card canasta (seven cards that are twos or jokers) in your hand, you may meld them as the initial meld for your team. In this case you do not have to meet any minimum count requirements.
If this canasta was already complete in your hand before your turn, and you also have a natural pair of a different rank that matches the top card of the discard pile, you can use the pair to take the discard pile in the same turn. However, you cannot claim a splash using six cards from your hand and the seventh card of the canasta from the discard pile.
3. Special Hand
Any of the special hands that you agree to allow enables you to make the first and only meld for your team by laying down your entire hand after drawing from the deck and thereby end the play - see below.
Notes on taking the discard pile when making the initial meld.
  1. If you take the discard pile you cannot have drawn in that turn. Therefore, in order to take the pile, you must have the initial meld complete in your hand before the start of your turn. Unless you were dealt this meld in your original hand, this means that you could in fact have melded on your previous turn. However, good players often prefer to hold back from melding as soon as they can waiting for a better set of cards or a better opportunity.
  2. You can take the pile if you have a natural pair matching the natural card on top of the pile. Natural means any card from 4 to Ace inclusive. For example if you put down from your hand A-A-joker, Q-Q-Q, 9-9-2 and you have a pair of 10's in your hand, you can take the discard pile if the top card is a 9, a 10, a Queen or an Ace. Aces are natural cards, even when used in a meld of mixed Aces (but see variations).
  3. Nowadays many groups prefer not to allow the discard pile to be taken on the same turn as the initial meld - see variations.

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).

American Canasta: End of the Play

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:

  1. your team has completed two canastas, and
  2. you are able to meld all but one of your cards and discard your last card.

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.

American Canasta: Special Hands

A special hand is a combination of 14 cards which entitles you to go out by exposing your entire hand after drawing from the deck, 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.

Straight
This consists of one card of every rank: A-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-J-Q-K-joker. Exceptionally, for the purpose of making this combination, you are allowed to keep a three in your hand; however, if the game ends while you have a three in your hand, the three is scored in the same way as if you had laid it on the table.
Pairs
This is a hand of seven pairs. It must not contain any jokers or threes. There are two types:
  1. Without wild cards. Example: 4-4-5-5-7-7-8-8-9-9-10-10-Q-Q.
  2. With twos, sevens and aces:. Example: 2-2-6-6-7-7-9-9-J-J-K-K-A-A.
The following hand: 2-2-4-4-5-5-6-6-8-8-9-9-A-A is not valid, because a hand with a pair of twos must contain both sevens and aces as well.
Garbage
This consists of two sets of four of a kind and two sets of three of a kind, without any wild cards or threes. Example: \\.

American Canasta: Scoring

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 itemTeam has no complete canastasTeam has one complete canastaTeam has two or more complete canastasTeam goes out with a special hand
1. Bonus scores for canastas and for going outdoes not applybonus added to scorebonus added to scorenot counted
2. Penalties for incomplete canastaspenalty deducted from scorepenalty deducted from scorepenalty deducted from scorenot counted
3. Bonuses or penalties for threespenalty deducted from scorenot countedbonus added to scorenot counted
4. Scores for melded cardsdeducted from scoreadded to scoreadded to scorenot counted
5. Penalties for cards remaining in players' handsdeducted from scorededucted from scorededucted from scorenot counted
6. Scores for special handsnot countednot countednot countedadded to score

Note that if a team has at least one completed canasta, the values of their melded cards (item 4) are always added to their score, even if these cards form part of an incomplete canasta of aces, sevens or wild cards (item 2) for which the team is to be penalised.

Note that if one team goes out with a special hand, the other team scores in the normal way, depending on how many canastas they managed to complete.

1. Canasta and going out bonuses
Both teams score for any canastas they have managed to complete as follows:
  • each mixed canasta, using any natural rank except sevens: 300 points
  • each pure canasta, using any natural rank except sevens or aces: 500 points
  • each pure canasta of aces or sevens: 2500 points
  • a twos canasta scores 3000 points (this is a wild canasta made entirely of twos)
  • a joker canasta scores 2500 points (this must contain all four jokers, together with three twos)
  • any other wild canasta (containing one, two or three jokers) scores 2000 points
If any player succeeded in going out, their team scores an extra bonus of 100 points.
2. Penalties for incomplete canastas, and for unmelded aces and sevens
If a team has melded pure aces, sevens or wild cards but not completed a canasta of that type, they are penalised as follows:
  • for a pure ace meld of less than seven cards: minus 2500 points
  • for a sevens meld of less than seven cards: minus 2500 points
  • for a wild card meld of less than seven cards: minus 2000 points
If a player's hand contains three or more aces or three or more sevens at the end of the play, that player's team is penalised as follows:
  • for three or more sevens remaining in a player's hand: minus 1500 points
  • for three or more aces remaining in a player's hand: minus 1500 points
Because of this, near the end of the play it is not safe to retain three aces or three sevens in your hand. If you are confident that your team can complete an aces or sevens canasta you should meld them; otherwise you should normally discard so as to keep not more than two aces and two sevens.
If a team has a sevens meld of less than seven cards and one of the players of the team has more than two sevens in their hand at the end of the play, they will score both penalties - the penalty will be 4000 points in all. The same applies if a team has a meld of less than seven pure aces and three or more aces in a player's hand. If both players of a team have the same type of incomplete meld, for example three aces each, then there is a penalty for each player, total 3000.
3. Bonuses or penalties for threes
All threes melded by a team are counted as follows:
one red three      . . .    100 pointsone black three      . . .    100 points
two red threes    . . .    300 pointstwo black threes    . . .    300 points
three red threes   . . .    500 pointsthree black threes   . . .    500 points
four red threes    . . .   1000 pointsfour black threes    . . .   1000 points
  • If a team has no canastas, the total score for their melded red and black threes (calculated from the above table) is a penalty, to be subtracted from their score.
  • If a team has one canasta there is no score for melded threes.
  • If a team has two or more canastas, the total score for their melded red and black threes (calculated from the above table) is a bonus, to be added to their score.
4. Score for melded cards
If a team has completed at least one canasta, the total value of all the cards (other than threes) melded by the team, whether forming part of a canastas or smaller combinations, is added to the team's score. The standard values of the cards are used.
If a team has not completed any canastas, then the value of all their melded cards is subtracted from their score, along with the value of the cards remaining in their hands.
5. Penalty for cards remaining in hand
The total value of all the cards remaining in the hands of the players is subtracted from the team's score. The standard values of the cards are used. In the unusual case where a player has one or more threes in hand at the end of the play, these count 5 points each against the team.
6. Special hand scores
If the play ends by a player going out with a special hand, the team that went out scores only the amount shown below for the special hand. The scores described under items 1-5 above do not apply to that team. However, the opposing team calculates their score in the normal way. The special hand scores are:
  • straight: 3000 points
  • pairs without wild cards: 2500 points
  • pairs with twos, sevens and aces: 2000 points
  • garbage: 2000 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.

American Canasta: Variations

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 'safe' card - a card of the same rank as a completed canasta or of a rank where the opponents already have a 5- or 6-card meld, 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. On the other hand, some favour a stricter rule, and do not allow an initial meld of wild cards alone, but require a wild card meld to be accompanied by a natural three of a kind.

Some players do not allow the player making the initial meld for their team to take the discard pile, even if they have an additional pair with which to take it. The pile can only be taken if your side has already made its initial meld before your turn.

I have been told that some players allow the discard pile to be taken when making the initial meld for your team, except that if your initial meld includes mixed aces, you cannot use those aces take a discard pile topped by an ace.

Some players do not 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:

  • Some players allow the pairs hand with wilds, sevens and aces to use a pair of jokers or a pair of twos as the wilds.
  • Some players allow the pairs hand to include sevens or aces but never threes or wild cards.
  • Some players require for the garbage hand four natural sets of three equal cards plus two matching wild cards (two twos or two jokers).
  • Some players award a higher score of 3500 points for pairs and garbage hands.


Canasta for two players

It is possible to for two players to play a version of Classic Canasta. The modifications to the rules are as follows.

  • 15 cards are dealt to each player (rather than 11 each).
  • When drawing from the stock you draw the top two cards. At the end of a player's turn only one card is discarded as usual.
  • A player needs two canastas to go out.

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.

One-card Draw

In two-player canasta, a situation can be reached where there is only one card remaining in the stock. In this case, the player who draws it is considered to have made a complete draw and must complete that turn as though two cards had been drawn.

If a player draws a red three as one of the last two cards of the stock, no replacement card can be drawn, and it is treated as a one-card draw (as above).

A player who draws a red three alone as the last card of the stock may neither meld nor discard, and the hand ends immediately. The same happens in the unusual case where a player draws two red threes as the last two cards of the stock.

Variation

Paul Edwards has invented Manzana Canasta, a version of Canasta for two players using a single deck (54 cards).


Canasta for three players

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. In this case the partner who melds first must satisfy the initial meld requirement corresponding to their own personal score, and the other partner is then free to add to these melds and start new ones as usual.

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.


Canasta for Six Players

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:

  • Three 52-card packs with six jokers are used.
  • There can be three teams of two players, partners sitting opposite, or two teams of three players, each player sitting between two opponents.
  • 13 cards are dealt to each player.
  • Four red threes count 400 points only, five count 1000, six count 1200.
  • A team must complete two canastas before they are allowed to go out.
  • When three teams of two play, the game ends when one or more teams achieve a score of 7500 or more.
  • When two teams of three play, the game ends when one or both teams reach or exceed 10000 points; a team that has 7000 or more points requires at least 150 points for their initial meld.

Shirley Miller reports the following variation of the 6-player game between two teams of three:

  • Melds of three or more wild cards (any mixture of twos and jokers) are allowed; a wild card canasta gives a 2000 point bonus, but a team that starts a wild card meld but fails to complete the canasta before the game ends incurs a 2000 point penalty.
  • To go out, a team must have at least three canastas, at least two of which must be 'clean' (containing no wild cards).

Other Canasta Variations

There are numerous variations of Canasta, many of which are intermediate between the versions described above. Other rules sometimes encountered are:

  • The possibility of melding a sequence of 3 or more cards in suit (as in Samba).
  • A limit on the number of cards taken from the discard pile, such as only taking the top five cards, or only taking cards as far as the next wild card.
  • The non-dealing team gets a bonus if the player who cuts the cards takes exactly the right number of cards from the top of the pack to perform the deal.
  • An extra hand is dealt to each player (or to each team). This extra hand is sometimes called the 'foot' (as in Hand and Foot). These cards are picked up and played when you have used all the cards in your original hand, or satisfied some other condition.

Randy Rasa's Rummy-Games.com describes Canasta with several variations including , Bolivia, Cuban Canasta, The Sevens, Mexicana, Uruguay Canasta and versions for two, three, five and six players.

Here is an archive copy of the former Card Games Galore site describes several canasta variations: Canasta, Bolivian Canasta, Cuban Canasta, Joker Canasta, Mexican Canasta, Two-Player Canasta and Uruguay Canasta.

The following Canadian four-player variation was described to me by Barb Dejesus.

  • Three decks of 52 cards plus six jokers are used.
  • 15 cards are dealt to each player
  • After the deal, the top five cards of the stock are placed alongside it to start the discard pile, known as the 'prize pile' - four cards face down and one face up on top of it.
  • The non-dealing team get a bonus of 100 points if the player who cuts takes exactly the 60 cards required for the deal from the top of the pack.
  • A player drawing from the stock takes the top two cards.
  • You always end your turn by discarding one card; wild cards cannot be discarded.
  • The initial meld requirements are:
      0 - 1495........50 points
      1500 - 2995........90 points
      3000 - 6995........120 points
      7000 or more........150 points
    This requirement must be met from hand.
  • After your team has put down its initial meld, you can take the prize pile (discard pile) as an alternative to drawing two cards from the stock if you have in your hand two natural cards matching the top card of the pile and you immediately meld these three cards.
  • Wild card melds, consisting of any mixture of twos and jokers, are allowed.
  • Apart from wild card melds, every meld must contain at least as many natural cards as wild cards. Melds can grow to any size, and the same wild card limit applies to melds of more than seven cards.
  • You cannot go out until your team has completed two red (pure) canastas and one canasta of wild cards.
  • The target score for winning the game is 10,000 points.
  • Red threes are placed with your teams melds as soon as you acquire them, and replaced by drawing from the stock. They are worth 200 points each.
  • Black threes can be discarded, and block the next player from taking the pile. They can only be melded by a player who has all six of them, and only on the turn in which that player goes out. When melded like this they score +5 points each. Any black threes in a player's hand at when play ends count minus 100 points.
  • Canasta bonuses are lower than in other versions: 300 for a wild card canasta or a natural canasta; 200 for a mixed canasta.

Hand and Foot is a variation in which each player is dealt two sets of cards: a "hand" and a "foot".

Pennies from Heaven is a variation related to Hand and Foot, in which to go out you need a natural canasta, a mixed canasta, a wild card canasta and a canasta of sevens. Railroad Canasta is a similar variation.

Albany Canasta, as described by Duane Bristow (archive copy), is an unusual variation in which it is possible to take a part of the discard pile if you can meld the bottom card of those you take (as in 500 Rum).

Jonola, formerly known as Canasta Five, is a three pack canasta variation originating in New Zealand. Two cards are drawn from the stock, and the advantage of taking the discard pile is lessened by only allowing the top five cards to be taken.

Samba is a variation in which it is possible to meld cards in sequence in a suit as well as sets of equal cards.

Ronald Magazzu's book Royal Canasta describes a three-pack variation of classic Canasta incorporating wild card melds ("Bolivias"), sequence melds ("Sambas") and melds of seven threes ("Royal Canastas").


Canasta Software and Online Games

Canasta can be played online for fun or money at RummyRoyal.

Free Canasis.com is a popular online and offline canasta site that offers a large number of styles of canasta including styles not found anywhere else, with the ability to customize rules.

The 2010 version of Malcolm Bain's shareware classic Canasta program for Windows, with a new graphic interface, stronger computer opponents and other improvements, is available from Games Galore.

The collection HOYLE Card Games for Windows or Mac OS X includes a program that plays classic Canasta, along with many other popular card games.

Game Colony offers two-player Canasta games and multi-player tournaments, which can be played free or for cash prizes.

Mark-Jan Harte has published a Canasta program.

Special K Software has developed software to play the card game of Canasta. This software is available at www.specialksoftware.com.

A shareware two-player Canasta program which plays both the Classic and the Modern American game can be downloaded from Meggiesoft Games.

Gaming Safari offers a free online 2-player Canasta game against a human or computer opponent.

Randy Rasa's Rummy-Games.com has reviews of several canasta software packages.

Classic Canasta can be played on-line at

Other Canasta Related Web Sites

The canasta pages of Randy Rasa's Rummy-Games.com site have rules for several canasta variants.

Another set of Canasta rules is available at Rummy.com.

Rules of classic Canasta are available on the Card Games Heaven web site.

Antonin Jaun's German language site canasta.ch has rules and information for canasta and several of its variants.

Allan Bernard has published an Estonian translation of this page.

The International Canasta Meetup Day web site organises meetings of canasta players in various cities.