How to Play Canasta

Canasta, the Spanish word for basket, is a card game that evolved in Uruguay and spread across Latin America in the 1940s. In 1950, the game swept like wildfire across the United States and remains popular today.

In this article, we will highlight how to play Canasta and other variations -- such as Italian Canasta, Pennies from Heaven, and Samba. We will focus on every aspect of the game, including how to deal and score, and intracacies such as treys, taking the pack, freezing the pack, and scoring. Tips are included to help you maneuver through the game.

Now let's get started by reviewing how to play standard Canasta.

Number of players: Four, in partnerships. Pairs face each other.

Initial Melds and Bonus Points

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

To calculate the value of a meld, add up the point of each card in the meld. Note that a three-card (or longer) meld must have at least two natural cards. The initial melding requirement increases along the way as detailed below:

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

Each red 3: 100 points

Going out: 100 points

Going out on a concealed hand: 200 points

Each mixed canasta: 300 points

Each natural canasta: 500 points

Melds: A meld is a combination of cards that must consist of a minimum of three cards, all of the same rank.

Object: To score 5,000 points or more by melding cards and forming canastas (a meld of seven cards that is awarded extra points).

The cards: Two standard 52-card decks are mixed together with four jokers, totaling 108 cards. Remember to use decks that look the same on the back. Jokers and deuces (2s) are wild and can be melded only with cards that are 4 or higher (called "natural" cards). Essentially, a three-card meld can only have one wild card.

Dealing: The first dealer is the player who sits to the right of the player who draws the highest card from the deck. Redraw if the card is a joker or two players draw the exact card, such as 7. If more than one card is of the same rank but different suits, suits are ranked from spades (high), hearts, diamonds, to clubs (low). The player who draws the second highest card sits to the right of the dealer. The deal then rotates clockwise.

Any person can shuffle, but the dealer has the option to shuffle last. The player to the dealer's left has the option to cut the deck.

The dealer gives each player 11 cards, one at a time, dealing clockwise and starting with the player to the dealer's left. The next card is turned up and becomes the first card on the discard pile. The remaining cards are placed facedown in the middle of the table and become the stock.

If the first upcard is a joker, deuce, or a red 3, turn up the top card from the stock and place it on top of the upcard. Continue to turn up the top card from the stock until a natural (4 or higher) card appears.

Playing: The player to the dealer's left leads, and play continues clockwise until the hand is over. The player may take the top card from the stock or the discard pile. If you pick from the discard pile, you must take all the cards in that pile and use the top discard to form a meld (see "Taking the pack").

After you have drawn a card and melded, you must discard (unless you are going out). All the cards in the discard pile must be squared up, except as noted later.

Your team does not have enough points to table your initial melds, so you must take from the stock.
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Because you and your partner have not melded yet and this is the first hand, even if you took the 6 to make a meld of three 6s along with your meld of a 2- 4- 4, you still would not have enough points (45 points) to table your initial melds, so you must take from the stock.

Melding: Melds are placed faceup on the table as they are made. Partners combine their melds and together try to make canastas (seven-card melds). The wild cards (jokers and 2s) can be used in melds as any desired rank except 3s, but they cannot form a meld on their own. Canastas have to contain a minimum of four natural cards. The first meld for a side has to add up to a specific point value. The point value increases or decreases during the course of a game (see the "Initial Melds" sidebar for clarification).

Partners can make a meld of the same rank of opponents' meld, but they cannot make two or more melds of the same rank for themselves (for example, your team cannot make two melds of 6s). You cannot add cards to your opponents' melds.

The treys: Red 3s are not used in play. They are bonus cards worth 100 points each if you have melded, but they are penalty points (minus-100 points each) if you have not melded by the end of the hand.

As soon as you have a red 3, place it faceup on the table. If a red 3 is dealt to you, you must place it on the table during your turn and draw another card from the stock. If you draw a red 3, then you must place it on the table and draw another card from the stock.

If you obtain a red 3 from the discard pile, you must place it on the table but cannot draw another card from the stock. If your team lays down all four red 3s by the end of the hand, the bonus is doubled to 800 points.

Black 3s are used in play, but they can't be melded unless you are going out and cannot be melded with wild cards (jokers and 2s). Black treys also work as the stopper cards if you choose to "freeze the pack" (see below).

Taking the pack: You can "take the pack" or pick up the entire pile of discards if you can meld the top card on the pack and you meet the following conditions: If your team hasn't made a meld, you will have to use two natural cards in your hand to meld with the top discard; you must score a minimum number of points in your initial meld made from only cards in your hand and the top discard(see "Initial Melds" sidebar); if your team has previously made a meld, then you can use a natural card and a wild card from your hand, as well as the top discard from the pack.

You also can take the top discard when you use it to add on a meld. After your team makes your first meld, you can create new melds or you can add to melds to build canastas. Whatever cards remain from the discard pile after melding are added to your hand.

Partners may add cards to each other's melds once they are on the table. This is how smaller melds are built into canastas, which comprise seven or more cards.

Once a canasta is made, it is squared into a pile, with a red card from the meld placed on top to signal a natural canasta (no wild cards in the meld) or a black card to signal any wild cards. Since partners can continue to build on canastas, if wild cards are added to a natural canasta, the signal card must be switched to a black suit. This is important to follow since natural and wild canastas are scored differently.

Tip: When taking the pack, do not meld everything in it immediately. It is wise to keep some cards so that you will have natural pairs to take a frozen pack (see below).

Freezing the pack: This strategic move makes it difficult for opponents to take the cards from the discard pile, or pack, but it can be a risky choice.

Anytime a black 3 or a wild card is placed on the discard pile, the pack is frozen. As long as either type of card is on the pack and placed sideways in the stack, no player can take cards from the discard pile.

You can never take the pack if the top discard is a wild card or a 3. To break the freeze you must display a natural pair from your hand to meld with the top discard of the same rank.

Going out: In order to go out, your team must have one or more canastas, either previously made or made when you go out. You cannot have any cards left in your hand. At this point discarding is optional. Unless you go out, however, you must always have at least one card in your hand. A player with only one card cannot take the pack if only one discard is in the pile.

During your turn but before you take from the discard pile, meld, or add to a meld, you can ask, "Partner, may I go out?" Partner can say only "Yes" or "No." If the answer is "Yes," you are required to go out. If the answer is "No," the game must continue.

A hand also ends when the stock is exhausted. If the last card is a red 3, turn it up. Play immediately ends with no discarding or melding.

If the last stock card is not a red 3, play continues as long as the discard pile can be legally taken. Remember: If you have only one card in your hand, you cannot take the discard pile if it has only one card. You can, however, take the pile if you meld or add the top card to a meld and the pack isn't frozen.

A concealed hand: If you are able to meld your entire hand in one turn, and go out, you have "a concealed hand."

You receive twice the bonus points for going out -- that is, 200 points. The player of a concealed hand cannot have made any melds or added to the partner's meld during any previous turns.

If you take from the discard, you must have already met the required minimum points, not counting the canasta if your partner has not melded. If you take from the stock, you do not need to meet that requirement. At any time, you can ask another player to reveal how many cards are left in his or her hand.

Scoring: Keep score in columns titled We and They. First, add up the value of all melded cards, and then add the bonus points. Next, the tally of all cards left in each player's hands (even if they make a meld) are subtracted from the team's total for the score of the hand.

Now that you know the basic rules and advanced strategies of standard Canasta, the next section will show you how to make it more exciting by playing a high-scoring version, Italian Canasta.