Rules for the Game of Canasta

By Carlos Mano
Canasta, two decks, cards
playing cards image by Warren Millar from

Canasta is a card game from South America that became a rage in North America in the 1950s. The double decks used to play canasta were sold in plastic trays and wrapped in cellophane--the backs featured fanciful tropical designs or advertising. In the advertising decks the jokers also displayed a similar advertisements. Despite being more complicated than most card games, canasta was played in almost every home in America in the 1950s. Now sealed canasta double decks fetch high prices among collectors.

Getting Started

Two decks (with jokers) are shuffled together to make a deck of 108 cards. Eleven cards are dealt to each player and the remainder of the cards are placed face down in the center of the table--or in one slot of the plastic tray. The top card is turned face up. If it is a red three or a wild card (jokers and twos) another card is turned over on top of it. The pile of face down cards is the "stack" and the pile of face up cards is the "discards." Any player who has been dealt a red three places it face up on the table in front of him and draws another card from the stack.

During Play

Play starts from the player to the right of the dealer. A player starts his turn by drawing a card from the stack or (under certain conditions) picking up the entire discard pile. A player then may (optionally) lay down points called "melds." The player's turn ends with a discard. If the player melds his entire hand, the discard is optional. The discard pile may be picked up if and only if the top card is used in a meld. The discard pile cannot be picked up if the top card is a wild card or a black three. If the player drew a red three from the stack it is laid down face up in front of him and another card is drawn.


Melds consist of at least two natural (not wild) cards and no more than three wild cards (jokers and twos). Suits do not matter for melds. Sequences are not allowed in canasta, only melds of all one value. Valid melds must contain at least three cards with at least two natural cards and no more than three wild cards. Valid melds include 4-4-4-2-2, and 4-4-2-2-2. Invalid sequences include 4-3-3-3 and 4-4-3-3-3-3. A meld of seven (or eight) cards is called a canasta. If none of the cards is wild it is called a natural canasta.

Ending the Game

The hand ends when the stack is exhausted or when a player goes out by emptying his hand. A player cannot go out unless he has made a canasta during the hand. Cards may be added to existing melds whenever it is the player's turn. At the end of each hand, the meld scores are accumulated. The game is over when one player reaches (or exceeds) 5,000 points.


Each joker counts 50 points; each ace counts 20 points; each duce (two) counts 20 points; each K, Q, J, 10, 9, or 8 counts 10 points; each 7, 6, 5, 4, or black 3 counts 5 points. In addition to the meld scores, each red three is worth 100 points, each mixed canasta is worth 300 points, each natural canasta is worth 500 points. If a player goes out he gets 100 points.