How to Play Canasta - Rules of the Game

Written by Abha Vardhan (2019)

Canasta is a popular card game that is fun to play and great for socializing with a small group of people. It is played between two teams with two sets of 54 cards. These cards are comprised of 52 cards and 2 jokers. This means that this card game is played with a total of 108 cards.

The two teams of two players compete (each teammate faces each other), so, there are four players in total and two sets of 54 cards to play the Canasta card game. The natural cards are Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five and Four. All the jokers and twos are considered wild cards. Wild cards are used as a replacement during the game for a natural card; however, some limitations may occur.

Prior to beginning with the basics of the Canasta card game, it is imperative that you know the main purpose of this game. Your objective is to make as many points as possible and beat the competing team. You score points by melding cards and creating canastas.

Terminologies Used in the Canasta Card Game

There are terminologies used in the game that you must know before you play:  

  • Meld: Players score points by forming melds, which are groupings of three or more cards of a similar rank, with or without the use of wild cards.
  • Canasta: A meld of seven equal cards is called a canasta.  There are two types of Canastas; one with identical cards, and the other with cards of the same colour that follow each other.
  • Natural Canasta: A natural canasta is one that has seven or eight cards of the same value without any wild card.  Seven or more cards of the same colour that follow each other without a wild card are also called a natural canasta.
  • Mixed Canasta: Seven or eight cards of the same value with the wild card is what is called a mixed canasta. Seven or more cards of the same colour that follow each other, with a wild card, is also called a mixed canasta.

When you create a Canasta, square up the pile in a way that the top card remains visible. The pile should have a red as a top card if it’s a natural Canasta, and a black card on the top if it’s a mixed Canasta.

  • Wild Cards:  These are the jokers and the twos that work as wild cards in the game.  They can replace a natural card in the game.
  • Special Cards: The Blacks are the cards that help hinder the opponent. You can prevent the opponent from taking the discard pile when you throw this card into the discard pile. The next player will now have to draw a card from the deck (as you have blocked the discard pile). The Red cards bring bonuses to the team that owns them.

How to Deal Cards?

When four players are playing the Canasta card game, two players pair with each other and create two teams. The players of one team sit facing each other. One of the players shuffles all the cards and the player sitting to the left of this player distributes eleven cards to each player, face down.

Each player picks up their cards and checks them and makes sure to keep them hidden from their opponents. This set of cards that player has, is called a player’s hand.

The dealer places the rest of the undealt cards, face down, on the centre of the table,  and it is now the stock. The top card of the stock is taken, placed nearby, face up, and is considered a discard pile. If the top card of the stock is a joker or a smaller value card such as two or three, then more cards are checked in the stock until a natural card, which is 4 or higher appears. It is then used in a discard pile. 

How to Play Canasta Card Game:

The player seated next to the dealer starts the game in a clockwise direction. On their turn, the players pick the top card of the stock and add it to their hand without revealing it to the opponents.

At this point, the player can either put down a meld or just hold on to the cards. They complete their turn by discarding one card from their hand and place it face up in the discard pile so that rest of the cards are covered and only the discarded card is visible.

The game progresses and on their turn, each player has the option to pick a card, create a meld or hold onto their cards, and then discards the card. The player goes out of the game by throwing all their cards except the last one. The hand finishes when they discard the last card.

After the hand is over or there are no cards left in the sock, scores for both teams are calculated and the dealer deals a new hand.

What Must You Know About Opening?

After the player has picked up the card and wants to place a meld or canasta on the table during their turn, they must open. This is done before discarding the card.

When ‘opening’, the player must put meld or melds in front of him. It is also important that players are only eligible to ‘open’ when the total card points are equivalent to a certain total point value, which can range from 50 to 120.

Once a player is ‘open’, they can add or play new melds on their following turns without any constraints.

Things to Keep in Mind

Canasta is an interesting game with several rules and guidelines. Here are a few important things to consider when playing a canasta card game.

  • Cards are melded in columns of a minimum of three cards. For instance, you can create a combination of three Queens or four Kings. After you have melded the cards, you cannot include them in your hand unless you undo the meld.
  • After the player has created melds, they finish their turn by discarding a card. At this point, the players check their melded cards to see if they follow the game rules. It is worth noting that it is not necessary to discard a card as the player can use all to meld his cards.
  • Players can take the entire discard pile instead of drawing a single card. Nevertheless, if a player wishes to take the whole discard pile, he must know if it’s frozen or unfrozen. In order to pick up a frozen discard pile, the player must own two matching natural cards in their hand, so that they can add these two matching cards with the top card of the discard pile and then place this new meld on the table. After playing the meld, the player takes the remaining discard pile and adds it to their hand.
  • When you prepare a meld with natural cards, you don’t add wild cards to it and make it mixed canasta. Even though you can make a mixed canasta, you make more points when you make a natural canasta.
  • If a player finds three reds (diamonds or hearts) in their hand during any point of the game, they should keep all the three cards face up on the table and take a replacement card from the stock.

The Values of Cards

There is a different value to each card, whether it is natural cards, wild cards or special cards.

·         Natural Cards

Aces: 20 Points

K, Q, J, 9, 8: 10 Points

7, 6, 5, 4: 5 Points

Black 3s: 5 Points

·         Wild Cards

Jokers: 50 Points

Deuces (2s): 20 Points

·         Special Cards

Red 3: 100 each (200 each if one team or player plays all four)

  • Natural Canasta: 500 Points
  • Mixed canasta: 300 Points
  • For each red three: 100 Points (200 each when all four reds are with one team or player)
  • Going out: 100 Points
  • Going out concealed: (extra) 100 Points

Going Out and Scoring

When the player uses all the cards in their hand, they go out. To go out, the player should have melded at least one canasta or they must have at least one card in their hand.

If a team or a player goes out without opening, they are given an extra 100 points, which is referred to as ‘going out concealed.’

After the round is over, each player counts the points they have collected during the round and adds it to their total score. The score should be written on a sheet of paper, which is divided into two columns. The entries should have the scores of the earlier deal along with the collected totals. The team that collects 5000 points first is declared the winner.

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