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Canasta Card Game Rules for Beginners

Canasta Card Game Rules for Beginners

Canasta has been known for its crooked rules, which sometimes can get very confusing, especially for a beginner. This article elaborates Basic Canasta card game rules which will help you understand the game better and faster.
Shreyas Dasharathe
Did You Know?
The name 'Canasta' was inspired from a small wicker basket which its inventors had borrowed at a restaurant to store their cards.
Canasta (which means 'basket' in Spanish) is a card game that originated in Uruguay in 1939. It spread across other regions in the 1940s, and gained immense popularity in the 1950s after it was introduced in the United States in 1948. Canasta can be played with various variations in its rules; however, Basic Canasta would be an ideal start for a beginner. Let's get straightaway to the instructions to play Canasta.

Basic Canasta consists of 4 players (it can also be played by 2, 3, 5, or 6 players with certain variations in the rules). 2 packs of 52 cards are used, including the jokers. The players need to form partnerships (2 each in case of 4 players), and partners sit opposite each other. Partners can be chosen at random or by drawing cards, wherein the players with higher ranks form a pair, and the ones with lower ones form the other. However, each player has to draw a card to see who plays first. The rank of cards follow the order: A (highest), K, Q, J, 10, 8, 9 , 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. For cards of the same rank, the order of suits is Spades (highest), Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs. This order is valid only for the draw. Players drawing Joker cards must draw again. The player sitting to the right of the person who draws the highest card gets to deal the first hand.
Starting Play
canasta seating positions
The dealer has to deal 11 cards each, and place the rest of the pile in the center of the table, face-down. This is called the Stock pile. The top card on the Stock pile is placed face-up next to it. This forms the Discard pile.
canasta piles
If the faced-up card on the Discard pile is either a Red Three, a Joker, or a Deuce, keep turning the cards until otherwise.

Once the game begins, the main objective is forming 'melds'. A meld is a set of 3 or more cards with the same rank. The suit of the card is irrelevant here. The range of ranks for valid melds is 4 to K.

canasta melds
With every turn, a player has to-
  • Draw a card either from the Stock pile or Discard pile (but under some restrictions, which are mentioned later in the article) for the player to make a Meld if he/she wishes to.
  • Discard a card from the hand and place it on the Discard pile, face-up
Every card has been assigned certain points, which add up when a Meld is formed. And, every team has an initial Meld requirement of 50 points at the beginning of every game. The sum of the points of the cards in Melds should exceed the initial requirement limit. This limit increases depending on the team's current score.

Card Points
Red 3 100 each (200 each if all 4 are on the same side)
Black 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 5
8, 9, 10, J, Q, K 10
2 (wild), A 20
Joker (wild) 50

Team Score Initial Meld Requirement
Negative 15
0-1495 50
1500-2995 90
3000 or above 120

For example, if a team has a score of 1,800, they have to make Melds which add up to a minimum of 90 points. So, you can make A-A-A-A, 9-9-9, which adds up to (20+20+20+20 + 10+10+10) = 110 points. Any Meld adding up to a total of less than 90 is invalid.

Remember: Deuces and Jokers are wild cards. They can be clubbed with other (natural) cards to make a Meld. Example: 7-7-7-2, 8-8-8-2-Joker. However, a Meld with more number of wild cards than natural cards is invalid. Example: 7-7-2-2-2, 8-8-2-2-2-Joker.
The Discard Pile
If drawing the top card from the Discard pile, the player also has to pick up the entire Discard pile. However, he is entitled to draw the top card alone only for their partnership's initial Meld. The player can pick up the top card to form a Meld (with natural or wild cards). He can also add this card to an existing Meld on the table. There are situations when the Discard pile gets frozen for a player or partnership. This happens when:

  • The top card on the Discard pile is a black 3. The next player cannot pick up from the Discard pile. However, the player after him can.
  • The top card is a wild card or a red 3. The pile becomes frozen for all partnerships in this case. These cards are placed at right angles to the pile, so that they are visible when other discarded cards are placed on top of it.
  • Also, the Discard pile is by default frozen to a partnership, unless it makes its initial Meld.
The Discard pile is unfrozen only when:
  • A natural card comes on top of the Discard pile. The pile is unfrozen as long as a black 3, a wild card, or a red 3 is not on top.
  • A player can form Melds. If he has two or more than two natural cards of the same rank, he can pick up the card on the top and make a Meld, thus unfreezing the pile. He has to show the melding cards in hand to the other players before taking the top card.
Rule for Red 3s: Red 3s are special bonus cards. If a red 3 shows up on a player's opening hand, or in his draw, he must lay it on the table. These cards act as bonus points or negative points at the end of the game, depending on whether the partnership wins or loses.
canasta formations
A Canasta is formed when a Meld of 7 or more cards is made. The number of wild cards cannot exceed the number of natural cards. If a Canasta is made of completely natural cards, it is known as a Pure or Natural Canasta. The one consisting of wild cards is called a Mixed Canasta. A Natural Canasta has advantages over a Mixed Canasta in scoring bonuses, which is explained in the table below.
Ending a Play
A play ends when the Stock pile exhausts or a player 'goes out'. A player goes out when he is out of cards in hand. A partnership is required to have made at least one Canasta for either of them to go out. However, a player can go out if he makes a Canasta while going out. A general rule suggests that a player asks his/her partner before going out. If the partner does not permit this, he cannot. Once a player goes out, the game ends and scoring begins.

Although black 3s cannot be melded, a player can meld them if this allows him to go out. These Melds cannot have wild cards.

Sometimes, a player may choose to hold on to his Melds, and even a Canasta, throughout the hand, and go out with a 'concealed' hand. A concealed hand gets him bonus points. But if a player from the other side goes out before him, these in-hand cards count as negative points, and will be deducted from his side's total score.
canasta scorecard
Points are awarded to each team on the basis of the number of Melds, number of Canastas, and other bonus points like the red 3s. Bonuses are awarded as follows:

Bonus Points
Going out 100
Going out concealed 200
Mixed canasta 300
Natural canasta 500
For every red 3 100
If all the red 3s are together 800

All points for the cards in hand have to be subtracted from the total score. If a side hasn't made a Meld, the bonus points of the red 3s are to be subtracted from its total score. A minimum score of 5,000 points is required for a team to win. The first team to score 5,000 points wins. If both teams have a score of less than 5,000, a new play has to begin until a team reaches 5,000. If both teams have scored more than 5,000 points, the one with the highest score wins.
Canasta is still being played by millions around the globe and with various variations in the rules. These variations primarily differ with regions and nations. Although a number of versions are available all over, Basic Canasta is the best way to start.