What is Canasta?

J. Beam

Canasta is a card game that is similar to, but more complex, than Rummy. In a Canasta game, players use matching cards to form melds and then play combinations of wild and matching cards to empty their hands and go out. This card game likely originated somewhere in South America before making its way to North America where it became very popular in the 1950s.

Canasta can be played with single players or partners.
Canasta can be played with single players or partners.

Despite early attempts to standardize the game of Canasta, there are several versions where game play and rules vary slightly. Canasta can be played individually or with partners depending on the number of players, which can range from two to six. Canasta is played with two complete decks of cards, including the jokers, for a total of 108 cards.

Playing Canasta proceeds clockwise around the table.
Playing Canasta proceeds clockwise around the table.

The Deal - The initial dealer is chosen randomly and the deal proceeds clockwise around the table for the duration of the game. Each player is dealt eleven cards with the remaining cards being placed in the center stockpile to form a draw pile. In some versions, the player to the dealer’s right is given the chance to cut the cards into an amount equal to the exact deal for bonus points. For example, in a four-player game, if the player to the dealer’s right cuts exactly forty-four cards off the top, they are awarded 100 bonus points.

Card Values - In most variations of Canasta, playing cards retain the following values:

  • Jokers
– wild cards worth 50 points
  • Deuces
  • – (2s of all suits) are wild cards worth 20 points
  • Red Threes
  • (3s of diamonds and hearts) are special cards retained and played to the side when dealt or drawn. They are worth extra points.
  • Black Threes, 4 – 7 all suits
  • - 5 points
  • 8 – 10, J, Q, K all suits
  • - 10 points
  • Aces
  • - 20 points

    Melding - Canasta requires individuals or partners to build an initial meld equal to or greater than a certain number of points. The value of the initial meld is based on the players’ current score. As their score increases, so does the required value of the initial meld.

    Game Play - Once players have melded the required value, they can begin to build sets, or canastas. A canasta is a set of seven of the same cards. Canastas can be made with any cards except wild cards and threes. The set can be comprised wholly of the natural cards or can be a combination of four or more natural cards with wild cards. Each natural canasta is worth 500 points while each canasta mixed with wild cards is worth 300 points.

    Play proceeds clockwise around the table. On each player’s turn they draw, play matching cards to form canastas, and discard. Players may also pick up the discard pile if they have a matching pair in their hands or melded in front of them. Canasta is played in hands, or rounds, and each hand ends when a player has played all their cards and goes out. Subsequent hands are played until an individual or partner score reaches or exceeds 5000 points.

    Though there are additional rules that come into play during Canasta and some rules and point values vary, the general game play remains the same in all versions. Much like Bridge, Canasta is a popular card game played in group tournaments. The four-player version is the most popular version played in a group setting. Canasta, like many other card games, can also be played virtually online.

    It takes two full decks of cards, including the jokers, to play canasta.
    It takes two full decks of cards, including the jokers, to play canasta.

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