Playing Canasta: Making the First Meld for Your Partnership

By Barry Rigal, Omar Sharif

The first meld for each partnership must be worth a certain number of points before you can put it down. Here’s the bad news first: Not only does this requirement apply for the first hand, but also for all subsequent hands, and the task gets more arduous as the game goes on. The good news: When you make the first meld, you lift the load from your partner’s back simultaneously.

You must meet the following requirements to put down your first meld of the hand:

  • You must use the top card from the discard pile in your initial meld. If you make your first meld entirely from your hand, you do not get to pick up the discard pile.

  • The first meld can contain only the top card from the discard pile. After you meet that initial requirement, however, you can pick up the discard pile and add to the meld or make new melds by using cards from the discard pile.

  • You must make the initial meld on your own — your partner can’t help you out.

  • You can put down more than one meld to make up the required numeric total (see the following table), but all the cards that make up the additional melds must be from holdings already in your hand (not from the discard pile).

  • The first meld must be worth a certain number of points, and the point totals increase as the game progresses. The value of the melds you put down depends on your team’s cumulative total at the start of the hand, as you see in the table.

    Your Side’s Total Score Points to Put Down a Meld
    Negative 0 (any meld will do)
    0 to 1,495 50
    1,500 to 2,995 90
    3,000 or more 120

If you put down an initial meld that doesn’t meet the minimum point requirement, you can put down additional melds on that same turn to make up the required total without penalty. You can also take back your attempt, but the minimum total you have to meet the next time you try goes up by 10 points — quite a severe penalty.

Bear in mind that you can pick up the top card from the discard pile in the process of making your first meld of the hand. It’s better to make your first meld by using that card rather than to make melds purely from cards already in your hand. Even if you can make the initial meld by using only cards within your original 11 cards, doing so is poor strategy; wait to put down melds until you can pick up the discard pile in doing so.

If you put down three queens and three kings from your own hand, for example, you know that the player who discards before you won’t throw a king or queen to enable you to pick up the pile, but he may do so if you haven’t shown him the melds in your hand. Don’t let your opponents know what you’re collecting — until it’s too late!

Also, the bonus for a Canasta, 3 of Diamonds, or 3 of Hearts can’t be taken into account in the initial meld. That comes at the end of the game, not when you put the meld down.

One additional exception: If after having drawn from the stock you can meld your entire hand (including a Canasta) with or without a final discard, then you may go out at once, even if the values of the cards you put down are less than your side’s current, initial, minimum point requirements.

When the initial meld requirement is 50, do not waste wild cards to make your initial set. If you do, you often find picking up the discard pile very hard. If you wait a go or two, you may be able to use your wild card more effectively. With a high, initial meld requirement, make your first set as fast as possible (using the smallest number of cards to do so).