How to Play Canasta

Four Methods:The BasicsPlaying the GameTwo-Handed & Three-Handed CanastaStrategy

From the Spanish for "basket," canasta is a card game for 2, 3 or most commonly, 4 players. It was developed in Uruguay in 1939 from an earlier form of rummy, spread through South America and was introduced to the United States in 1948 as "Argentine Rummy." Most popular in the United States in the 1950s, the game has spawned a number of variations of its own. Here are the rules for playing the original forms of canasta.

Method 1
The Basics

  1. Image titled Play Canasta Step 1
    Know each card's value. In order to understand the scoring system, you'll need to know the value of the cards. They are consistent within the game.
    • Jokers are with 50 points
    • 2's and Aces are 20 points
    • 8's through Kings are 10 points
    • 4's through 7's are five points
    • Black 3's are used as "block" cards; when discarded, the next player cannot pick up the pile for that turn. Black 3's can be placed down for points if and only if the player is going out and has no other card in his or her hand to be discarded. When used in this manner, black 3's are worth five points
      • The value of the meld is determined by the rank of the card within the meld. What's a meld, you ask?
  2. Image titled Play Canasta Step 2
    Make melds. A meld is a group of cards (3 minimum) that each have the same rank. The initial meld in a hand must be worth at least 50 points (though this value increases as the game progresses. Upon reaching 1,500 points, the player must have a meld of at least 90. At 3,000 points, the player must have a meld of 120). Melds can include several groups of cards. For example, if you need to have a meld of 90 for a hand, and you have three 5's, 7's, and aces, you can place all of these cards down for a total of 90 points. Once you have your first meld down, you're free to meld in whatever combinations you see fit.
    • Each meld must have a least two natural cards (no wilds, etc.)
    • Jokers and 2's are wild and can be any value (except 3's)
    • A meld of 7 is a "Canasta." They must have at least 4 natural cards. A natural Canasta has no wilds and is worth 500 points, as opposed to a "dirty" Canasta, which has at least one wild card in it and is worth 300 points.
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    Get excited about red 3's. They are treated as bonus cards, and are scored separately from melds at 100 points each. If a player has a red 3 in his or her hand, it must be laid on the table at the start of his turn, and the player draws a replacement card from the draw pile in addition to the regular draw of two cards he or she just made. If a player draws a red 3 from the draw pile, it is laid on the table and the player draws another card. Failure to do so penalizes a team 500 points.
    • Melds cannot be made of red 3's, though if you have 7, you're pretty set.
  4. Image titled Play Canasta Step 4
    Know how to go out. This ends the hand. When you get rid of all your cards (after you have at least two Canastas), it is known as "going out." If you have a partner, you must ask them if you can go out. If they say "no," the game must continue.
    • If you can go out all on one turn (getting rid of all your cards in one go), that is known as a "concealed hand." This is worth 200 points, instead of going out on the regular, which is just 100.

Method 2
Playing the Game

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    Pair into partners. Partners to play canasta can be chosen and the dealer determined by drawing cards from a spread deck as in contract bridge, with the 2 highest draws and 2 lowest draws partnering, and the highest draw choosing the dealer.
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    Deal 11 cards to each player. You will be working with 2 decks (both with jokers). The remaining 64 cards become the draw pile, or stock.
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    Turn the top card of the draw pile face up and place it next to the draw pile. This card forms the discard pile, or pack. Players may, in turn, draw the top card from either the stock or the pack. If a player takes the top card from the discard pile, he also takes the cards underneath it.
    • Throughout the game, you see cards come and go that you want. You'll have to determine whether taking the whole pile is worth the few cards you want.
    • If the card turned over is a red 3 (3 of hearts, 3 of diamonds) or a wild card (joker or deuce), the discard pile cannot be taken (it's "frozen").
  4. Image titled Play Canasta Step 8
    Give each player a turn, going clockwise around the table. A turn consists of drawing a card from the draw pile or taking the discard pile, attempting to create or add to an existing meld and discarding a card –(unless the player has no cards left after melding).
    • As discussed previously, a meld consists of 3 or more cards of the same rank (e.g., all kings, all jacks, all 10s). No more than 3 of the cards in a meld can be wild cards (jokers or deuces), and wild cards cannot be melded by themselves. A meld of 7 or more cards is a canasta; each team must complete at least 1 canasta before its players have gotten rid of all the cards in their hands (gone out).
    • Red 3s (3 of hearts, 3 of diamonds) cannot be included in a meld, and black 3s (3 of spades, 3 of clubs) can only be melded by themselves – but only if this permits the player to go out.
    • Players can add only to their own or their partner's melds, not to an opponent's meld.
    • A player can take the discard pile instead of drawing a card from the discard pile only if he or she can use the pile's top card in a new or existing meld in that turn.
    • A player can prevent the next player from taking the discard pile by discarding a black 3 or wild card to end his or her turn.
  5. Image titled Play Canasta Step 9
    Evaluate the total value of the cards in the first meld each team makes. Each card has a point value, as described below. The first meld must be 50 points. As the scores progress, the first meld's value increases.
    • If a team's total score is from 0 to 1,495 points, their initial meld must be worth at least 50 points. If their total is from 1,500 to 2,995, it must be worth at least 90. If their total is over 3,000, it must be worth at least 120. (However, if the team has a negative score, the minimum is reduced to 15.) Only the top card from the discard pile, if it is taken to make the initial meld, may be counted toward making the minimum. Until a team can make an initial meld that meets the minimum value, including or excluding the pack's top card, neither player can take the discard pile.
    • If a player plays an initial meld that fails to meet the minimum, the cards must be taken back and the team's minimum is raised by 10 points.
  6. Image titled Play Canasta Step 10
    Continue play until the stock is exhausted or all players have gone out. If no one has gone out by the time all the cards in the stock have been drawn, play continues as long as someone can take the top card of the discard pile and put it with a new or existing meld. However, no player down to a single card can take a discard pile of a single card.
  7. Image titled Play Canasta Step 11
    Score all the cards played. Each team scores points for the cards in all the melds it has made. Points are also awarded for having red 3s, making canastas and going out. Scores are added to scores accumulated in previous rounds.
    • Each canasta made without wild cards (natural canasta) earns 500 points, while each canasta made with wild cards (mixed canasta) earns 300.
    • A player who goes out by melding all his or her cards in 1 turn (concealed) earns 200 points, while a player going out after melding on several successive turns (unconcealed) earns 100 points.
    • Red 3s score 100 points each; if a team has all 4 red 3s, they earn 800 points. However, if a team has red 3s but no melds, they are penalized 100 points for each red 3.
    • Subtract the total value of any cards remaining in a team's hands from their total score.
  8. Image titled Play Canasta Step 12
    See if either team has reached 5,000 points. The first team to do so wins. If neither team has done so, the cards are shuffled and the previous 6 steps are repeated.

Method 3
Two-Handed & Three-Handed Canasta

  1. Image titled Play Canasta Step 13
    For two-handed Canasta, deal 15 cards to each player. Two-handed canasta otherwise plays by the same rules as 4-handed canasta, except for the following differences:
    • When drawing from the draw pile, a player takes 2 cards but discards only a single card.
    • A player must make 2 canastas before going out.
  2. Image titled Play Canasta Step 14
    For three-handed Canasta, deal 13 cards to each player. Three-handed canasta may be played under the same rules as 4-handed canasta, or with the rule modifications described in the following step.
  3. Image titled Play Canasta Step 15
    Establish the stock and pack as in 4-handed canasta. However, each player draws 2 cards from the stock and discards 1, as in 2-handed canasta. Whichever player first takes the discard pile plays as the lone player, while the other 2 partner against him until the round ends. If no one can take the discard pile, each player scores separately. If a player goes out before the discard pile is taken, that player becomes the lone player and the other 2 become partners.
    • The lone player scores only his or her own total, while each partner in the partnership scores for any melds or canastas made as well as for any red 3s played, provided one of the partners has melded.
  4. Image titled Play Canasta Step 16
    Award the win to the first player to score 7,500 points. Do not allow any player to go out before first making 2 Canastas. If someone is always winning, you may want to issue the other players a handicap.

Method 4

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    Keep an eye on the discard pile. Knowing just what cards and how many are up for grabs is key to recognizing when you should act and when your opponent probably will. Throughout the game, you'll see which cards they're going for -- if you're throwing them what they want, they'll surely make their move.
    • If the discard pile is full of low cards, you may not want to take it. They're worth so few points in the long run that it may not be worth it.
    • You could always force your opponent to take the deck, in a manner of speaking. If you have a card you know they need, throw it down. Can they resist picking up the giant pile of subpar cards? Probably not.
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    Keep your deuces and jokers...for a while. These are great cards -- they have a lot of value. But if you're nearing the end of the game, the last thing you want is to be stuck with them in your hand. They have a lot of value in the negative direction if you don't lay them on the table. And you'll end up kicking yourself if you could've played them.
    • If you think your opponent is about to go out (or you're nearing the end of the deck and you've established the game will end), get rid of them. It's better to do what you can now than be stuck with hundreds of points to get docked later. Quite obviously, this is one of the reasons the concealed Canasta is so powerful.
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    Don't put down your melds as soon as you can. You may feel proud and want to show off the points you're accruing, but this isn't the best strategy. Laying down your cards is literally showing your hand -- your opponents have a better way of hurting you, by withholding the cards you need. And once more, a surprise attack in Canasta is always best.
    • This may keep you from using wild cards when you wouldn't really need to, if you just gave it more time. Other players are likely to throw down cards you need, allowing you to use your wild cards elsewhere.
  4. Image titled Play Canasta Step 20
    If your opponent has just "taken the pack," go out as soon as possible. For one reason or another, they just took the pile and now are holding 25 cards in their hand. Great. Now it's your time to get the heck out of Dodge. The number of points in their hand will automatically negate whatever points you don't have sitting on the table.
    • As long as you have one Canasta, you're good. But if you don't, sorry -- not an option. You must have one Canasta before you go out (or when you go out).


  • A number of rule variations for playing Canasta exist. Most of these are named for the area where the variation originated, such as Bolivia, Oklahoma or Brazilian canasta. Many of the variations allow the ability to meld card sequences (such as 4-5-6, etc.) of the same suit. A sequence of 7 cards is sometimes called a "samba."

Things You'll Need

  • 2-4 players
  • Two decks of cards, with jokers (3 decks for some of the variations that incorporate melding sequences)
  • Score pads and pencils

Sources and Citations

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Article Info

Categories: Card Games