Canasta, Spanish for “basket”, is a card game similar to Rummy. The game Canasta as it is played traditionally today comes to us from Uruguay and spread across Latin America in the 1940s. In the 50s and 60s, the game took off across the United States. Many people in America still think of Canasta the way they think of gin cocktails or bakelite — artifacts of the 1960s. In spite of its retro reputation, the game of Canasta remains popular even today, with dozens of Canasta Clubs, meetup groups, and competitions scattered across North America.

Canasta seems like a complicated game — there’s lots of scoring oddities and card types to learn — but it basically consists of making “melds” of cards. Melds are groups of cards with common ranks. In this article, you’ll learn how to deal Canasta, the rules of scoring Canasta, and a few strategic notes such as “freezing the pack”.

Canasta – Players

Traditional Canasta requires four players, in two groups of two. Traditionally, the pairs face each other across a table, rather than sitting side by side.

Canasta – Object of the Game

The object of Canasta is to be the first team to score 5,000 points or more by making melds of cards. Along the way, you and your partner should try to form “canastas” (melds of seven cards) in order to earn bonus points.

Canasta – Cards and Decks

To play Canasta, you mix together two standard 52-card, including the four jokers, for a grand total of a hefty 108 cards. To keep the game interesting, play with two identical packs of cards.

In Canasta, Joker cards and all twos (“deuces”) are wild cards — they can be made into melds only with cards that are the rank of 4 or higher. These cards, 4 and higher of either color, are called “natural” cards in Canasta. Remember that you cannot use more than one wild card in a three-card meld.

Another note on special cards in Canasta — threes (or “treys”) are a special case in Canasta. Red threes are not used in standard Canasta play — they are “bonus cards” that are worth 100 points apiece if you meld by the end of the hand — but they cost each team 100 points apiece if that team has not melded by the end of the Canasta hand. As soon as you have a red three in your hand, lay it faceup on the table in front of you.

If on the other hand a red three is dealt to you, you must immediately place it on the table and draw another card from the draw pile. If you then draw another red three, you have to put it on the table and draw another card from the stock — in other words, you can’t end a draw turn with a red three. If your team manages to lay down all four red threes by the end of any one hand of Canasta, the red three bonus is doubled to 800 points. This is an astounding amount of points in a game that traditionally only scores up to 5000.

Black threes are used in play, but they can’t be melded like other cards unless you are “going out”. Black threes are also prohibited from melding with any wild cards — jokers and twos. Black threes have a special use in Canasta that we go over later in this guide — “freezing the pack”.

Canasta Melds and Melding

Back to melding — you must lay melds face up on the table as soon as they are made. Partners combine their melds and together try to make canastas — canastas are really just melds composed of seven cards. The wild cards (remember that jokers and twos are wild cards) can be used in melds as any desired rank except threes (black or red), but remember that wild cards cannot form a meld on their own. “Canastas” have to contain a minimum of four “natural” cards — cards ranked four or higher.

The first meld for each pair has to add up to a specific point value in order for it to count — this “initial meld” point value increases or decreases during the course of a round of Canasta depending on the score already achieved. Generally. the first meld must consist of at least 50 points to be “tabled”. The first player to meld for a side must table at least 50 points of meld. Each card in a meld has a point value:

  • Joker: 50 points
  • Deuce: 20 points
  • Ace: 20 points
  • King through 8: 10 points
  • 7 through 4: 5 points
  • Black 3s: 5 points

Be careful when building melds — you cannot make two melds of the same rank in one hand. You are allowed to make a meld using a rank that the other team is using — just not your own team.

Canasta Scoring

To figure out the value of a particular meld, you add up the point value of each card in your melds. Note that every meld must have at least two natural cards. The initial meld score requirement gets higher and higher as the player’s score increases.

  • Score of less than 0: 15 points
  • Score of 0 to 1,495: 50 points
  • Score of 1,500 to 2,995: 90 points
  • Score of 3,000 or more: 120 points

Dealing Canasta and Playing

To deal Canasta, the dealer hands each player 11 cards, (44 in all), dealing clockwise and starting with the player to the dealer’s left. The remaining cards are set in a stack, and the top card in the stack is turned up and becomes the first card of the discard pile. The remaining cards should be placed in the middle of the circle of players and is called the “stock”.

Some rules on the top card — if the first upcard shown is a joker, two, or a red three, turn up another card from the stock and place it on top of the upcard. Play can’t start if the top card of the “discard pile” is a joker, two, or red three.

The player to the dealer’s left starts the game play, and it moves clockwise until the hand is over. The player may take the top card from the stock pile or from the discard pile — but using the discard pile comes with a price. If you pick from the discard pile, you must take all the cards in that pile. In order to take the discard pile, you must be using the top discard pile card to make a meld. This is called “taking the pack”.

Canasta seems more complicated than it really is. Once you get into the spirit of playing and melding (like any seemingly complex game) the scoring comes naturally.

Pour a round of martinis, crank up the bossa nova, and enjoy a round of Canasta at your next party. You’ll be the envy of your whole swingin’ neighborhood.