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.
Canasta is normally played with two standard 52 card packs plus four jokers (two from each pack), making 108 cards in all.
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:
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.
Take all the remaining cards of the discard pile and add them to your hand.
If you wish, make further melds from the cards you now have in your hand.
Discard one card face up on the discard pile to end your turn.
Frozen Discard Pile
There are three ways that the discard pile can be frozen against your partnership.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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 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 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.