How to Play Canasta: Rules of the Game, Scoring, and Terminology
Canasta is a card game for 4 players that uses 4 decks of playing cards, including the jokers. Teammates, sitting across the table from one another, work together to create the highest-scoring combination of canastas.
A canasta is a set of 7 like cards. Each person at the table plays their cards in turn, and each team works together against their opponents to create the most canastas before someone at the table plays his or her last card. Canasta, also known as Hand and Foot, has different variations and house rules.
A Partners Card Game With Fringe Benefits
Canasta is often played in a tournament setting, usually in two or three rounds, or until one of the teams reaches a set point value. My friends and I played until the first team reached 10,000 points. With each pure canasta valued at 500 points, this was really not too difficult. An entire game of canasta can be played in about 90 minutes.
Canasta comes with its own terminology and a few specialized rules, but most people easily master the rules after playing an open hand with all cards facing up on the table. Canasta is a fun game to play as a social event either for couples, families, or a girls' night out. It is an excellent game for teaching strategy, math (addition), and teamwork to kids, but it is a fun game for all ages. I recommend it for ages 10 and up.
The Object of the Game
Your team will work together to accumulate canastas using the cards dealt to both players. A canasta is a set of seven like cards and is sometimes called a book.
Each player begins a round with 26 cards in two piles, called a front hand and a back hand. Players must play through all of the cards in their front hand first, while choosing cards from a draw pile in the middle of the table and discarding cards when it is their turn.
The round ends when one player discards the last card from their back hand. Cards in the deck have point values assigned to them. Try to go out when your partner has few high-value cards left. Any cards left during play in the players' hands are deducted from the score at the end of a round. The game ends when one team ends a round with 10,000 points or a predetermined point value.
Setting Up Play
- 4 decks of canasta cards (2 red decks and 2 blue decks are standard). You can substitute standard playing cards, but the canasta cards are nice to have because the point values are printed on the cards in the corners.
- A 4-person card table.
- A card shuffler is nice to have, but not necessary.
One player from each team shuffles half of the cards.
Try for the 100 point bonus: Next, one player from each team tries to pick up exactly 52 cards. If the dealer succeeds, then that dealer's team scores 100 bonus points.
Each designated dealer counts out 4 piles of 13 cards each. One person deals the front hand, and the person from the opposing team deals the back hand. The back hand is indicated by placing a blue card at the top of each pile. Place a front hand and back hand in front of each player.
Place the remaining cards in the center of the table to create a draw pile, and turn over the top card to create a discard pile next to it.
The players may now pick up the cards in their front hand. The players' back hands remain on the table. Players must play through all of the cards in their front hand before they pick up the cards in their back hand.
- Front hand and back hands—At the beginning of each round, each player is dealt two piles of 13 cards each. The first pile is the front hand, and the second pile is called the back hand. Play begins with the front hand and progresses through the back hand, until any player at the table plays the last card in their back hand.
- Canastas—Sets of seven cards of a kind (may include cards from any suit), for example, 7 fours, or 7 kings. Canastas can be made with the numbered cards 4-10, jack, queen, king, and ace. All of the other cards have other purposes in the game. Canastas are also sometimes called "books". There are two types of canastas:
- Clean/red/pure canasta—These three terms all mean the same thing. They refer to a canasta, or seven cards of a kind, such as seven kings or seven aces, which does not include any wild cards. Clean canastas are worth 500 points.
- Dirty/black/impure canasta—A canasta that was created using wild cards, worth 300 points. Using wild cards to make canastas reduces the point value of the canasta, but helps you to create more canastas and play through your cards faster.
- Wild cards—2s and jokers. Used to create impure canastas.
- face value/point value—Each card in the deck has a point value. The point values are listed below for quick reference. Canastas also have a separate point value. See the section on scoring below for a complete explanation.
- Melding—The number of points in your hand needed to begin playing on the table. Before a team can begin building canastas, one of the individual players on the team must have cards worth a certain total point value in their hand in order to lay down cards on the table and begin play. Only one player needs to meld for the team. The number of points you need to meld is determined by your score from the previous round.
- The pile—the discard pile. Each player takes a turn by picking up two cards from the center stack, and ends play by discarding one card into "the pile". It is important to discard cards that your opponents cannot play.
- Black threes—Black threes are the ultimate safe discard. These cards cannot be played on any canastas. They are not wild cards, either. If you discard a black three your opponent cannot pick up the pile.
- Red threes—A red three is worth 100 points, and its main purpose is to increase the value of a clean/pure canasta from 500 to 600 points after it has been closed. It is a safe discard, because it may not be used to pick up the pile. Red three may be added to a closed clean canasta at any time during the round. Only one red three per clean canasta.
- Closing a canasta—Once you have added your seventh card to a canasta, you may close it. The canasta is only complete with seven cards. Asking your partner permission to close a canasta is an important part of team play, because you cannont see your partner's cards, and they may need to play a card on that canasta to move into their back hand.
- Picking up the pile—if a player discards a card that the next player can play, AND if the next player has two of that card in their hand, they may pick up the entire discard pile to play on their canastas. This can be devastating to the team who DIDN'T pick up the pile, but it can also slow down play and make it difficult for the player who picked up the pile to play all of their high-point cards before the end of the hand.
- Safe discard—certain cards are safe discards. If your opponent team has five cards in a canasta of 8s, then the 8 is a "safe" discard, because your opponent may not pick up the pile, even if they have two 8's in their hand.
Sample Hand Shows How to MeldClick thumbnail to view full-size
Players sit across the table from their teammate. The person to the front-hand dealer's left begins play. Players are not allowed to see the cards in their teammate's hand.
Each time it is your turn, pick up two cards from the pile. You can play these cards with the other cards in your hand.
If you are the first person on your team to play, or if your team has not begun to form any canastas, you will want to meld for your team. During the first round of play, to meld, you have to have 60 points-worth of cards to put down on the table.
You need to have three cards of a kind (for example, 3 kings or 2 kings and a wild card) to start a canasta. The face value of the cards in your beginning canastas must total 60 points or more to meld (see the melding guidelines). If you cannot meld, you can wait for your partner's turn. Your team only has to meld once. As soon as canastas are on the table, your partner may begin playing on them. Each partner does not meld separately. You can put as many cards down on your team's set of canastas as you can. The idea is to put down as many cards as you can and move through your first pile of cards (front hand) and into your second pile of cards (back hand). When your turn is over and you have played as many cards as you can, you must discard one card into the discard pile.
All of your cards have a point value. See the point values section.
These canasta playing cards have the point values printed right on the cards. Two sets are needed to play the version described in this article.
A Few Words About Melding
Canasta is often played in two to three rounds of play, until one team accumulates a set number of points, such as 10,000. Yes! 10,000! This social game can take about 90 minutes to 2 hours depending on the speed of players. To reduce play time, just limit your high score to 5,000, or if you are really pressed for time, just play one round.
Melding means the face value of the cards you need in your hand before you can place your cards on the table and begin building your canasta books as a team. In tournament play, your meld value is determined the team's score after the previous round. A team must meld at a higher point value if they have a higher score. This can make gameplay rather interesting!
Quick Guide to Melding
Score from previous round
Points to meld
Point Values for Canasta Cards
8–10, jack, king, queen
wild card makes "dirty" canastas
wild card makes "dirty" canastas
no face value
adds 100 points to clean canasta, see special scoring rule
may not be used to build canastas, "safe discard"
Discarding Ends the TurnClick thumbnail to view full-size
Teams Work Together to Accumulate Canastas
Once a team has melded (placed cards on the table), the teammate of player one plays on the cards that are already on the table. Play occurs on one side of the table only, per team, usually on the side of the melding player.
During her turn, the teammate first draws two cards, then adds any cards to the existing canastas, and begins any new canastas that she can. When her turn is over, she discards one card into the "pile".
Play continues around the table in clockwise fashion as players attempt to play or discard all of the cards in their front hand. When the cards in the front hand are played, a player may pick up her back hand and play those cards.
Players and their teammates must build complete canastas (7 cards in a canasta) to earn points for their canastas. The player who didn't meld cards for the team holds onto that team's canastas until the end of the round.
The following cards are not canasta suits: 3s, 2s, and jokers. Jokers and 2s are wild cards. They may be played with other cards to make low-point canastas. Threes have a different function in the game.
The red three may be added to each clean canasta for a bonus of 100 points. Only one red three per clean canasta may be played.
Black threes are "junk cards" because they serve no purpose in the game, except as a safe discard. However, they are useful to have, and an important part of a team's strategy. More about safe discards in the next section.
Clean/pure canastas are worth 500 points, dirty canastas are worth 300 points. When you add the 7th card to a canasta, you can close it, by stacking the cards together, and giving to the teammate who is not managing the melded canastas. To easily keep track of which canastas are clean and which are dirty, put a red card on top of each clean canasta, and a black card on top of the dirty canastas. Once you have closed a clean canasta, either teammate may add one red three per clean canasta, for a bonus of 100 points. Any red threes that are not played on clean canastas and found in a player's hand at the end of the round will count 100 points per red three against that team's score.
Safe Discards and Picking Up the Pile
Picking up the pile is an exciting and strategic way to score significantly higher points than the opposing team. Picking up the pile is an alternative to drawing two cards at the beginning of a player's turn, and may occur anytime during the round, though picking up the pile may be strategically advantageous when players are in their back hands.
Players have to meet the following conditions to pick up the pile:
A player may pick up all of the cards in the discard pile only if they are holding two of that card in their hands, and that card has not been deemed a 'safe discard'.
If the opposing team is building a canasta with 5 or more cards in it, then the number of that canasta is a safe discard.
Example: If your team is building a canasta of kings, and 5 kings have already been laid on the table, then a king is a safe discard for the opponent team until the canasta is closed.
Red threes and black threes are also safe discards because they cannot be used to build canastas. In fact, the only function of a black three is as a safe discard.
If you discard a card that is not a safe discard, and the next player has two of those cards in their hand, they may pick up the entire discard pile and play all of the cards there.
Going Out and Ending Play
Once you and your teammate has gotten into your back hands, you want to get rid of your cards, build lots of canastas, and go out before the other team. Part of the strategy of the game is going out before the other team with as few cards in your team's collective hands as possible. So if one player has only one or two cards left in her back hand, and the other player on the team hasn't even picked up her back hand, the first player will want to stay in play for as long as possible. The next section on scoring explains why.
A few requirements must be met before a team goes out: the team must have at least one clean and one dirty canasta each, and the player going out must ask her teammate's permission to do so.
Totalling Up the Points
- Subtract the point value of the cards remaining in your hand. (Example: your teammate plays their last card and goes out, but you have three cards left: a red 3, a black 3, and a joker. In this example, deduct 155 points from your total score. If your team doesn't go out during the round, both players will have cards left to deduct.)
- Add up the value of your canastas, including bonus points from red threes. Pure canastas (no wild cards) 500 points. Canastas containing wild cards 300 points. Each pure canasta with a red three is worth 600 instead of 500.
- Tally the points of the face cards still sitting on the table, and add up the face card values from all of your canastas. Do not count red threes in this calculation.
Canasta Point Values at a Glance
How to count the points
Canastas in play but not closed
Tally face card values only
canasta, no wild cards, closed.
500 points, plus the face value of each card
Played on closed canasta
100 points, do not tally as a face card value. 100 point bonus may only be counted once.
canasta contains wild cards, closed
300 points, plus the face value on each card
A Quick-and-Easy Way to Tally Your Score
- Take all of the cards remaining in your team's hand and count out the points. Remove cards from the table (where you are building canastas) with the same point value. These cards cancel each other out. Place both sets of cards on the discard pile.
- Count up your canasta points. Arrange your finished canastas in stacks while you are playing so you can quickly score your points at the end of play. Count your red three bonus points only once.
- Now take all of your cards, including the ones in the canastas, and arrange them into 100-point piles by face value. Add all of your scores together on a sheet of paper.
© 2008 Carolyn Augustine