How to Win at Canasta

Winning Canasta

How do I win at Canasta?

The rules are lengthy and can be hard to follow. The strategy involved can be difficult to master, which is a problem because the creators of the game were looking to make it all about strategy and less about chance.

Therefore, if you want to know how to win at Canasta, you are going to have to learn the strategy. Not just how to play the game, but the nuances and the subtleties. Then you can learn how to win at Canasta

To teach you that strategy, the following primer will give you some insights into the game and give you some hints about how to win at Canasta. This guide is far from comprehensive because the game itself provides a number of different situations, each with their own strategy. However, this is a good start and it should make you feel more confident that you know how to win at Canasta the next time you play.

Canasta Strategy

How to Win at Canasta: Hand Management

The most important type of strategy in Canasta is hand management. While that may not be the official term for the skill, what it involves is knowing when to hold cards and when to go ahead and lay them down into a meld. This is especially true in classic Canasta (the game around which these strategies will revolve) because you only draw one card and you have to discard a single card every turn.

Why is this a key strategy? Ultimately, the issue comes down to this: each time you play a card as a meld, you reduce the overall size capacity of your hand. So, at the start of the game, if you lay down a three card meld, your hand size will never again be able to grow above eight cards until the start of the next game.

At one level, this is not a problem. The whole point in the game is to lay down cards to make melds. That is how your score points and eventually win. Even more importantly, the more melds you have, the more options you give to your partner to play off your cards so that you can both earn points for your partnership.

However, at another level, you might not want to be in such a rush to lay down melds for one very important reason. This reason is that the more cards you have, the more options you have. The more options you have, the better chance you have at being able to take advantage of a winning strategy.

For players who are new to rummy, there will be great temptation to lay down melds as quickly as possible since each meld represents points on the board. However, players who are too quick to lay down a meld may find themselves with only one card very quickly. Once a player is only holding one card in his hands, their chances of being effective are nearly impossible.

This is because the player does not have enough natural cards to take the top card off the discard pile. This results in the players options being reduced to hoping they can draw a card to play off one of the melds in the game. That is not exactly a good position to be in either for the player since being ineffective is frustrating or for the partner, who is suddenly saddled with a lame duck opposite them.

So, what is the best strategy here? The key to understanding hand management is to be fully aware that different cards are worth different amounts. A joker is worth more than an ace which is worth more than a six and so on. If you have melds of a high value (either several jokers, three aces or kings, etc.) go ahead and play them. These should be of significant enough value that they are worth laying down.

However, if you are holding three fours, fives, sixes, etc. you should not be in such a hurry to lay them down. Hold on to them and see if you do not draw a better card. If you do, feel free to discard the melds of lower value so that you can start building melds of a higher value.

How to Win at Canasta: The Discard Pile- Friend or Foe

You may be thinking that one way around the ever-shrinking hand factor in canasta is to pick up the discard pile and play the cards in it. However, this is a risky thing to bet on for two reasons.

First, you can only pick up the discard pile under certain circumstances (namely when you have two naturals that match the top card.) How often is that going to happen in Canasta? Once every other hand? Once every three hands? It is just not a very reliable occurrence. In fact, it is one of the most luck driven things in a game that is supposed to minimize the overall impact of luck. So you can’t count on being able to rebuild your hand with the discard pile. You can, however, count on your hand getting smaller each time you meld.

Secondly, it’s risky because when you pick up the discard pile, you may well be picking up a lot of points. Remember in Canasta any points you are holding in your hand count negative to your partnership’s overall score. Going negative in any hand in Canasta is a bad, bad deal. Therefore, it can be an ill-advised play, especially towards the end of the hand when there is a chance that another player may go out soon.

That’s not to say that you should never pick up the discard pile. It is a good move for the same reason it can be a bad move: there is a whole mess of points in a big discard pile that you now have the ability to play. In fact, really high, game-changing scores in Canasta can only come from taking up the discard pile. Just be careful with it.

As I said before, these two insights into Canasta strategy will guide you as you learn how to win at Canasta. With that said, they are just the tip of the iceberg so practice, practice, practice and soon you will have your own winning strategies.