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The Basics of Canasta

One reason for Canasta’s widespread popularity is its use of wild cards, which make the game high scoring and unpredictable. Canasta is also one of the few partnership games (other than Bridge and Euchre) where the players can work in unison, although it also functions perfectly well as a two- or three-handed game.

The rules to Canasta may seem a little cockeyed, but after you acquaint yourself with a couple of unique ideas, you’ll have a great way to pass the time with a few competitive friends.

To play Canasta, you need the following:

  • Four players: You can also play Canasta with five players (two against three, with one player sitting out each hand) or with six players (three against three, with one of each trio sitting out in rotation).

  • Two decks of 52 cards, including the jokers in each deck (108 cards total): The backs of the cards don’t have to be the same, but identical backs do look better.

  • Paper and pencil for scoring: Unless you have a math whiz in the bunch.

Picking partners

You can pick partners however you want, but serious players will draw cards, with the two highest cards playing together against the two lowest cards. If two players draw cards of the same rank (two kings, for example), the rank of the suits decides which card is higher — the spade is the highest-ranking suit, followed by hearts, diamonds, and clubs. Partners sit opposite each other.

Dealing and creating a discard pile

After forming your partnerships, each player draws again. The person who draws the highest card plays first, and the dealer is the player to his right.

The dealer shuffles, offers a cut to an opponent, and then doles out 11 cards to each player, one by one, in a clockwise rotation. At the end of each hand, the deal moves clockwise one place.

Then, the dealer turns up one card to the side of the stock (the remaining cards) to start the discard pile. If the card he turns is a red 3 or a wild card (a joker or a 2), the dealer turns up another card, placing them on top of the discard pile, until he comes to one that is neither a red 3 nor a wild card.

Moving around the table

Next, the game starts. The player to the dealer’s left (who drew the highest card at the start) picks up a card from the stock or the whole of the discard pile (you can’t pick up from the discard pile at all until the move on which you make your first meld). She can either put down a meld (combinations of three or more cards of the same rank) or hold on to her cards. She finishes her turn by placing a card face-up on the discard pile, covering all the other cards so that her discard is the only card visible.

The play moves in a clockwise rotation, with each player picking up a card, making a meld or holding on to his or her cards, and then discarding, until a player goes out by getting rid of all his cards but one, and then discarding the last card, which finishes the hand.

Drawing more than one card from the stock carries no penalty. However, you must show the card to all other players, and the next player has the option of taking the returned card or shuffling it into the stock.

Discarding is a critical part of Canasta; if the discard pile grows to a significant size, one false discard can be disastrous. Err on the side of caution by throwing out what you’re sure your opponents don’t want. And make the dangerous discards early — the cost of an error is much cheaper then. How do you know what discards are dangerous? You can discover what your opponents don’t want by what they throw away and by what they don’t pick up from the discard pile.

Building a Canasta

A Canasta is a meld of seven or more cards. Your partnership must make a Canasta before either of you can go out; only one Canasta per team is necessary. A Canasta can start as a meld of three cards that either you or your partner can build up to the required seven.

A Canasta can include wild cards. A natural or clean Canasta has no wild cards, and is worth more than a mixed or dirty Canasta, which includes wild cards.

When you make a Canasta, square up the pile so that only the top card is visible — a red card if it’s a natural Canasta, a black card if it’s mixed. Set the pile off to the side. You can still add more cards to it, of course, but it helps your team’s strategy to know whether the Canasta is already mixed.

When you start a meld with natural cards only, try not to let it get dirty by adding wild cards, even if so doing can make a Canasta. You have two reasons for doing this; it scores more points, and it prevents your opponents from discarding this card — for fear of letting you make a clean Canasta.

On your turn, you can add cards at any point to your team’s melds, but not to your opponents’ melds, after drawing your card, but before discarding.

The partnership’s assets are joint; you add to your partner’s meld. The player who makes the first meld gets to herd the partnership’s stable of melds.

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