Canasta Rules

The Rules for Canasta

Canasta Rules

Canasta rules are a little more complicated than many of their rummy counterparts. It’s not that Canasta rules are difficult per se, it’s that there are a lot of conditions in Canasta whereby certain cards have to be played sometimes and not played in other conditions.

Also, sometimes if some cards are discarded, it means one thing, while for other cards, it means something else. What happens is that Canasta rules turn something that could be an easy rummy-style game into something that requires thought and strategy. Therein lies the joy of Canasta.

Classic Canasta Rules

The following lists the basic Canasta rules for Classic Canasta, which is one of the more widely played games. These Canasta rules have been broken down first into a few basic concepts and then into phases to more easily follow what happens in the game.

Canasta Rule Concepts

You have to understand three important concepts about Canasta rules:

  1. Wild cards
  2. Melds
  3. Frozen discard piles

Wild Cards

If you’ve played card games before, you probably already know what a wild card is. If not, a wild card is simply one or more cards that at the time they are played, can take on any value. For instance, if you have a wild card and you want to make a set of three threes, all you need are two threes and a wild card. Conversely, if you want to make a set of Aces and you have two wild cards and an Ace, you can play the Ace and the two wild cards to make a set of three. In Canasta, twos and Jokers are wild.


A meld is a grouping of three or more cards of the same value. So three threes, five threes, four Kings, etc. The minimum size of a meld is three cards, while the maximum size is dependent on the variant of Canasta you are playing. Normally, the maximum is seven cards (called a canasta), but in some cases it can go above seven. Also, a meld must include at least one natural (non-wild) card.

Frozen Discard Piles

The final concept is called a frozen discard pile. The rules for how the discard pile becomes frozen will be discussed below, but what it means is that you cannot take all of the cards from the discard pile unless you hold two natural cards of whatever card is showing. So if the pile is frozen and has a Queen on top, you must be holding two Queens to take the cards from the discard pile. This will make more sense below.

How to Play Canasta Rules

Armed with these concepts, the Canasta rules can now be discussed. Canasta begins with the deal. Under classic Canasta rules, the first dealer is determined randomly and will pass to the left after every hand.

Phase 1: Dealing

Canasta is played with two decks of fifty-two cards and all four Jokers from both decks for a total of one hundred and eight cards. It is played with two teams of two players. Per normal card rules, partners sit across from one another.

Eleven cards are dealt to each player with one card turned face up to start the discard pile. If that card is a red three or a wild card, the discard pile is frozen to all partners. In this case, continue to take cards off the deck of undealt cards until you get a card that is not a red three or a wild card. Also, any players that can make a meld must do so and draw an equal number of cards into their hand. If your partner has not made a meld, the discard pile is frozen to you.

Phase 2: Playing

Play starts with the player to the dealer’s left. Each player must either draw a card from the undealt cards or pick up the discard pile. However, a player can only pick up the discard player if they can immediately make a meld with the top card. (Also, strangely enough, you cannot pick up the discard if the top card is wild or a black three.) So, if the top card is an eight, the player must immediately lay down a meld (or add to your partner’s meld) with that eight.

Once the player has either drawn or picked up the discard pile and played the mandatory meld, the player may choose to lay down additional melds, though he is under no compulsion to do so. There are restrictions, however, to the first meld you can play. The value of that meld must be worth a certain number of points based on your team’s score. Consult this chart to determine what that meld must first be worth:

ScoreMinimum Score of the First Meld
Negative15 points
0-149950 points
1500-299990 points
3000+120 points

See scoring for how much cards are worth.

Any time a meld is played for any reason, the player does not draw additional cards, which means that hands grow ever smaller. Secondly, when the player wants to signal the end of his turn, he discards one card into the discard pile. Lastly, black threes cannot form melds.

A note about discarding: if that card is a wild card, the discard pile becomes frozen to all players.

Play continues until someone runs out of cards by melding them or adding them to an existing meld. However, you can only go out if you or your partner has made at least one canasta.

Phase 3: Scoring

Each card that gets melded is worth a certain number of points:

Jokers50 points
Aces, Deuces20 points
Kings, Queens, Jacks10 points
10’s, 9’s, and 8’s10 points
7’s, 6’s, 5’s, 4’s5 points

You gain that number of points for each card you meld and that number of points is subtracted if you are holding them. Finally, there are bonuses added to your score:

Going out100 points
Each natural red canasta500 points
Each natural black canasta300 points
Each red three100 points
All four red three’s400 points
Going out concealed (i.e. in one turn with a canasta)100 points

Games are played to 5,000 points. If neither team has 5,000 points at the end of the game, cards are shuffled, deal passes to the left and the next hand is played.