Canasta Rules: How to Play Canasta

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Canasta originated in Uruguay in the early 20th century. It became widely popular worldwide because of its fun gameplay and strategic depth. The name “Canasta” comes from the Spanish word for “basket,” representing the main goal of making card melds and sets.

Over the years, this classic game has captured the hearts of players from all walks of life, becoming many people’s favorite, among other classic card games such as Rummy and Gin Rummy. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating history of Canasta and explore its rules.

What is Canasta?

The main goal of Canasta is to create melds. Melds are sets of cards of the same rank. If a meld contains seven cards, that’s called a canasta. Players strive to score points by creating these melds and Canastas while keeping an eye on their opponents’ progress.

To play Canasta, you need at least two players, but it’s more enjoyable with four players divided into two teams. The game is typically played with two standard decks of cards, including Jokers, making a total of 108 cards.

Game Setup

The versatility of Canasta allows for various strategies and approaches, keeping players engaged and entertained throughout each exhilarating round. Here is how the game starts.

  • Pair into partners. Canasta is typically played with four players, but the rules can be adjusted to accommodate 2 to 6 players. It’s possible to play with an odd number of players by forming teams of 2 and rotating the team member who sits out each round.
  • Shuffle the decks. A standard Canasta deck consists of two 52-card decks, including the jokers, giving a total deck size of 108 cards. The 6-player Canasta variation requires an additional deck, bringing the total to 162 cards.
  • Deal the cards clockwise. Choose a dealer and let them shuffle the cards before dealing them one by one, starting from the player on their left. In a standard 4-player Canasta game, distribute the cards face down, giving each player 11 cards. For a 2-player game, deal 15 cards per player, and for 3 players, begin with 13 cards. When drawing from the pile, take 2 cards each time.
  • Stack the remaining cards into a draw pile. The remaining cards become the draw pile, and each player takes turns picking a card at the start of their turn. When the draw pile is depleted, the round ends if the next player can’t make a move.
  • Set up a discard pile. Put the discard pile beside the draw pile and flip a card face-up. Ensure it is a “natural” card, not a wild card like jokers, 2s, or red 3s. If it’s a wild card, keep turning cards until you get a natural one.

What is Melding?

Three cards of similar rank are needed to start a meld. Wild cards can be used in any meld, but a meld can never have more wild than natural cards.

Each card has a value:

  • Jokers are 50 points;
  • Aces & 2s are 20 points;
  • Kings to 8s are 10 points;
  • 7s to 4s are 5 points;
  • Black 3s are 5 points.

At the start, a team’s initial melds must have a combined card value of 50 points. When the team reaches 1500 game points, the first melds require a combined value of 90 points. Upon reaching 3000 game points, the first melds must have a combined value of 120 points. The points can come from multiple melds in the same turn.

How to play Canasta

Players must strategize how to meld their cards and draw from the stock or the discard pile to improve their hands. Here are the general Canasta rules:

  • Pick from the draw pile. Pick up a card at the beginning of your turn unless you’re taking it from the discard pile. If the discard pile doesn’t interest you, start your turn by drawing the top card from the draw pile. Add it to your hand. If you draw a red 3, play it and pick another card before continuing your turn.
  • Make a match with the top card. If the top card on the discard pile interests you and you can immediately score points with it, take it. But if you do, you must take the entire discard pile along with it. While taking the discard pile may result in many extra cards to manage, it also presents numerous potential scoring opportunities.
  • Meld cards. After playing your first meld of at least 50 points, you can create various combinations during the round. When you accumulate 1,500 points, your meld must be worth at least 90 points. At 3,000 points, it should be worth 120 points. If you start a round with negative points, your initial meld only needs to be worth 15 points.
  • Discard a card face up. Always conclude your turn by discarding one of your cards face up. Strategically get rid of less valuable and non-scoring cards. Stay attentive to the cards on the table, as it requires some strategic thinking.
  • Go out. You have two options towards the end of the game. You can either meld your remaining cards or meld and discard to “go out.” Be cautious when choosing to go out since you won’t play until the next round starts. Extending the game might lead to more matches and avoid wasting high-value cards your partner holds. If you manage to go out in one hand, you earn a 200-point bonus instead of 100, but achieving this feat is challenging and not commonly seen.

Canasta scoring

The values of the cards don’t change throughout the game. Playing the cards in a meld during your turn nets you points, but holding onto the cards at the end of the round costs you points.


  • Jokers are 50 points;
  • Aces & 2s are 20 points;
  • Kings to 8s are 10 points;
  • 7s to 4s are 5 points;
  • Black 3s are 5 points.

Red 3s serve as wild cards, each worth 100 points. Collect them by laying them face up in front of you. If you get all 4 during a round, they’re worth 200 points each, totaling 800 points. Playing a red 3 is crucial to avoid a 500-point penalty.

Black 3s can block opponents from taking the discard pile, giving your partner a chance to pick it up. Meld black 3s for points only when they are your last cards.

Score points by making different melds, with canastas being the most valuable. A natural canasta is worth 500 bonus points, while a mixed one is worth 300. The game’s goal is to make as many canastas as possible before it ends, with most rules requiring at least 1 canasta before you can stop playing a round.

Canasta variations

Two player Canasta

Two players can enjoy Canasta by making a few rule adjustments. In this version, each player receives 15 cards during the deal, and when it’s their turn, they draw two cards but discard only one. To go out in this variant, players need to form two canastas.


Samba, a well-liked variant, uses three 52-card decks and six jokers. It permits melding suit sequences of three or more cards. A seven-card sequence called a samba, counts as a canasta when going out and earns a 1,500-point bonus. Melds cannot have more than two wild cards, and wild cards cannot be melded with a sequence.


In the Bolivia variant, wild cards can be used in sequences. Players take turns drawing either two cards from the stock or one card from the deck and then make one discard. The top discard can only be taken with a natural matching pair. The game is played to 10,000 points, and for sides with 7,000 or more points, the initial meld requirement is 150.

Canasta stands as a timeless gem among card games, captivating generations with its classic nature and enduring appeal. If you haven’t already explored the world of the Canasta card game, get a seat at the table and try your hand at this engrossing card game.

Now read our article on The Rummy Family of Games!

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