Canasta Rules & How To Play Classic Canasta
Canasta was the most popular card game in the United States in the 1950's despite it being quite complex compared to other Rummy games. There are many versions of Canasta such as Samba, Bolivia, Burraco and it is sometimes spelled Canaster or Kanasta in european countries. The original, official Canasta rules describe a game which is known as "Classic Canasta". This is the game we cover here and we have tried to make the rules simple and easy to understand.

Canasta may be played with 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 players but is best played with four persons as a partnership game. The word "Canasta" actually means "Basket" in Spanish and probably referred to the tray that was originally used to hold the discards. It is still often referred to as "Basket Rummy". Canasta has a number of rules which are both specific to Classic Canasta and in variance with other Rummy card games.

The Deck - Canasta is played with two decks of 54 cards or a total of 108 cards including 4 jokers. All are shuffled together as one deck before the game begins. Note that in Canasta, both Jokers and Deuces (twos) are wild cards. Treys (threes) are special as you will see later.

The Deal - The dealer shuffles, cuts and deals the cards face down, clockwise beginning with the player to the dealer's left. Each player gets 11 cards in a game with 4 or more players as per the table below. The dealer then places the next card face up (the "upcard") on the table, starting the discard pile.

Next to the discard pile, the rest of the deck is placed face down to form the stock or stock pile. All subsequent discards are laid face up in one pile, on the upcard, if the first player does not take it. No previous discards are seen and only the upcard is visible at the top of the discard pile.

If the upcard is a wild card (a joker or a deuce) or a trey (three) one or more cards must be turned upon it until a natural card appears. Also each player must immediately place, face up in front of them, any red threes they were dealt and draw an equal number of cards from the stock pile to replace them. We will talk about red threes later.
Number of players Deck of Cards Number of cards dealt to each player
2 Players 2 Decks 15 cards each
3 Players 2 Decks 13 cards each
4 + Players 2 Decks 11 cards each
Object of the Game
The goal of Canasta is to obtain the most points by melding, or creating sets out of one’s cards. Going out sooner than your opponent and discarding your last card is somewhat less important in Canasta than in other Rummy games.
How The Game Is Played Turn By Turn
(1) Draw (Compulsory) - When it is your turn, you may draw the top card from the stock and put it into your hand without showing anyone. A player in turn is always entitled to draw the top card from the stock pile or, subject to certain conditions, you may take the top card from the discard pile (see "Drawing From The Discard Pile" later). You can then meld or end your turn with a discard:

(2) Melding (Optional) - Cards may then be placed in combinations of three or more of the same rank (sets) such as placing
K K K, from a hand face up on the table. A player may make as many melds as he wishes on his turn or he may keep his melds in his hand. All the melds of both partners in a partnership game are placed in front of one of them. Note that Sequences (or runs) are not valid melds in Canasta.

One side may not have more than one meld of the same rank. Also, remember that in Canasta, both jokers and deuces (twos) are wild cards. A set consisting entirely of wild cards is not valid. Also, a meld must contain at least two natural cards and not more than three wild cards. See the table below for an idea of what kind of melds are valid:
Example of a Valid Set Example of an Invalid Set
4 4 2   3 2 2
6 6 2 2 6 6 2 2 2 2
K K 2 2 2 2 2 2  
A player may add one or more cards of the same rank or wild cards to a meld previously placed by them on the table but they may not add more cards to melds placed by their opponents. Wild cards in any number may be added to a completed Canasta but no other meld may contain more than three wild cards, as per above.

Important Note About Treys - A trey is a card of rank three and all threes have a special relevance in Canasta. Firstly, threes may not be melded except that a set of three or four black threes may be melded on a turn in which that side is ready to go out. If a black three is discarded, the next player cannot draw it and must take his next card from the stock pile. This is known as the "stop card".

Red threes are bonus cards, counting either for or against the side to which they fall, but are not added to the eleven card hand and cannot be melded under any circumstances. As previously mentioned, at the first turn to play each player must withdraw from his hand any red three and put it face up on the table, then draw a card from the top of the stock pile to restore his hand to eleven cards. On drawing a red three from stock, a player must immediately place it on the table face up and draw a replacement from the stock. Finally, a player who takes the discard pile and finds a red three in it must place the red three face up in front of him but does not draw a replacement from stock.

(3) Discarding (Compulsory) - Unless you melded all the cards in your hand, you must then end your turn by placing a card from your hand face up on top of the discard pile. A discard must be made from the hand and never from a meld. Once the player has discarded, his turn is over and he may not play any cards until it is his turn again. If a player goes out, a discard is not required.
How The Discard Pile Works In Canasta
Drawing From Discard Pile - On your turn you may draw from the discard pile but you can only do this if you are able to meld the top card and in doing so, you must also:
(1) Place the cards from your hand required to form that meld face up on the table.
(2) Add the top card of the discard pile to these in order to form a valid meld or melds.
(3) Take all the cards remaining in the discard pile and add them to your hand.
(4) If you wish, make further melds from the cards you now have in your hand.
(5) Discard one card face up on the discard pile to end your turn.
As regards point (2), you must show that you can form a valid meld or melds with the upcard before you are permitted to take the discard pile, after which point you may make further melds. For clarification on how this works if, for example, you have two cards 5 and 5 in your hand and the top card of the discard pile is 5 then you place both your fives on the table face up and add the top card of the discard pile to form 5 5 5 which is a valid set of three. You may then take the discard pile into your hand and you may form other melds before finally discarding to end your turn. You can never take the top card of the discard pile if it is a wild card or a black three.

Frozen Discard Pile - There are three main ways that the discard pile can be frozen against your partnership:
(1) The discard pile is frozen against all players when it contains a wild card.
(2) If your side has not yet formed a meld, the discard pile is frozen against you.
(3) If a red three is the card to start the discard pile after the deal, the discard pile is frozen against all players. The red three is placed at a right angle to show this.
When the discard pile is frozen against you, you may only take it if you hold in your hands two natural cards of the same rank as the card at the top of the discard pile (the "upcard") and you use these to make a meld. When it is not frozen, a player may draw the top card of the discard pile to match with two cards in the hand - either two natural cards or one natural and one wild or to add the top card to a meld of his own side.

This meld can be a new one or the same rank as an existing meld in which case they can be merged. For example, in a situation where the discard pile is frozen and my side has a meld of 6 6 6 6 already on the table. If the player before me discards a 6, I can pick it up if I have 6 6 in my hand. In which case, I can add the set of three to the set of four, thereby forming a Canasta, and take the pile.
How to Go Out In Canasta
The hand ends as soon as a player goes out. You can only go out if your side has melded at least one Canasta. You can go out by melding all your cards or by melding all your cards but one and discarding the last card on your turn. You can complete your Canasta and go out on the same turn.

If you do not have a Canasta, you cannot discard all your cards and be left with one as this could lead to a situation where you can go out illegally, having not formed a Canasta. Also it is not always advantageous to go out when you are able to. Since a partners cards left in hand will count against that team, in this situation a side may score more by continuing play.

Therefore in a partnership situation, you may ask the other partner "May I go out?". If the partner answers "no" then this is binding and you may not go out and if the partner answers "yes" then you may. However, it is important to note that consulting your partner is not compulsory and you may go out without asking your partner. In any event, a partnership must have a Canasta to go out.
Stock Pile Runs Out of Cards
The game also ends if the stock pile runs out of cards. As soon as a player who is entitled to draw from stock, chooses to do so and there are no cards left in stock then play ends at this point. Also if a player draws a red three from stock, the red three is put face up on the table but as there is no card that can be drawn as a replacement from stock, play ends there.

Forcing - After the last card of stock is drawn, play continues provided that each player in turn can legally take and meld the card discarded by his opponent. In this situation where the stock is exhausted, it is compulsory to take the discard if it can be legally added to a meld. In this way, making a discard that must be taken up by an opponent is known as "forcing". Play ends when a player in turn does not take this discard, either because he cannot legally meld it, or because he does not choose to do so.
Scoring: Card Values In Canasta
Each card in Canasta has a different value as appropriate according to the following table and applicable in terms of the addition of each card value in a meld:
Cards Value Example 1 Example 2
Jokers 50 points     is worth 50 points     is worth 50 points
Aces 20 points A is worth 20 points A is worth 20 points
Deuces (Twos) 20 points 2 is worth 20 points 2 is worth 20 points
K,Q,J,10,9,8 10 points J is worth 10 points 8 is worth 10 points
7,6,5,4 & black 3 5 points 4 is worth 5 points 3 is worth 5 points
The Initial Meld Requirement In Canasta - The first meld made by one side is called the "initial meld". The initial meld must have a minimum count (see point scores in above table) that depends on the total score that side has accumulated at the beginning of the current deal, as follows (below table):
Total Score Minimum Count
Negative Score 0 points
0 to 1495 50 points
1500 to 2995 90 points
3000 or more 120 points
A player may make two or more different melds in the same turn to achieve the minimum count, which is calculated by adding up the point values of all the component cards. Not even a Canasta may be melded at first unless the count of its cards achieves the minimum count as per the above table. Remember, that the discard pile is frozen against you until you have made your initial meld. Therefore, in order to reach this minimum, you must either meld entirely from your hand by drawing from stock, or you must use two natural cards from the hand to match the top card of the discard pile.

Here is an example. There is a K on top of the discard pile and a K and a J hidden in the pile. You have K K
J and 2 in your hand. If your initial meld requirement is 50 points, you can meld K K K using the K from the top of the discard pile and J J 2 with the cards in your hand for a total of 70 points. You can then add the K from the discard pile to the first meld and J from the discard pile to the second meld both in the same turn. However, you cannot include these towards your initial meld score even though K and J are worth a further 20 points.

After a side has made its initial meld, either partner may make any valid melds without reference to any minimum count. And of course, the discard pile is unfrozen for that side. However, note that the discard pile is still frozen for a side, whether or not that side has made an initial meld, if it contains a red trey or a wild card (both as an upcard or a later discard).
Scoring a Deal, Canastas & Bonuses
The side that goes out calculates the net score for the deal as follows:
(a) Point values of the cards in its melds are added up.
(b) Points of the bonuses as per schedule in below table added up.
(c) Point values of the cards left in the hand of other partner added up.
(d) Subtract item (c) from the sum of items (a) and (b).
Opponents of the side that went out, use the same schedule as per (b) above, to calculate their scores with the difference that they cannot score for a concealed hand or for going out if they have made no meld. In this case, the value of the red treys is deducted from their score and not added. Also point values of cards left in both hands of the opposing side are deducted. The applicable bonus schedule is as follows:
Bonus Type Point Value Example 1 Example 2
Natural Canasta 500 points 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 4 4 4 4 4 4 4
Mixed Canasta 300 points 9 9 9 9 2 2 2 K K K K K 2  
Each Red Trey 100 or 200 points 3 = 100 points 3 3 3 3 = 800 points
Going Out 100 points Discarding the last card = 100 points Discarding the last card = 100 points
Concealed Hand 100 points Melding entire hand in a single turn Melding entire hand in a single turn
Concealed Hand - Note that when a player uses or discards his last card, that hand is over and is considered “Going out Unconcealed”. Whereas a "Concealed Hand” is when a player melds his entire hand in one turn where that hand contains at least one Canasta, without having made an earlier meld and without previously having added any cards to melds that his partner has built. If his partner has not made an initial meld, the player must meet the minimum count (without the Canasta bonus) if he has taken the discard pile but need not if he has drawn from the stock pile. A player going out in this way scores 100 points for "going out" in addition to 100 points for "Concealed Hand".

Red Trey - A red three has a bonus value of 100 points but if one side has all four red threes they score 200 points for each (a total of 800 points). At the end of a hand, the value of the red threes is credited to a side that has made at least one meld or deducted from a side that has made no meld. They count for or against a side.

Canasta Value - When a meld achieves 7 (seven) or more cards including at least four natural cards (called a "base"), it is a Canasta. If it contains no wild cards, it is a "Natural Canasta" (aka "Pure Canasta") and is worth 500 points. If it contains between 1 and 3 wild cards, it is a "Mixed Canasta" and is worth 300 points. Additional cards may be added to a Canasta to gain the point value of the cards added, but this does not affect the amount of bonus earned. The only exception is that adding a wild card to a Canasta, reduces it from a Natural Canasta to a Mixed Canasta and therefore reduces the amount of bonus earned for it from 500 points to 300 points.

This is no "Game Bonus" as in the rules of other Rummy games such as Gin Rummy. The first team to score 5000 points wins the game. If both sides reach 5000 points in the same deal then the side with the higher total wins. In this case, the final deal is played out, even though it is known that one side will reach 5000 after play ends.
Some Extra Rules to Keep in Mind:

(1) Should the stock be used before anyone has gone out, a player can take upcards if they can be melded. Game ends until a player cannot make a play.

(2) If the last card in the stock is a red three, game ends immediately. The person who has drawn this card may not discard.

(3) A player who has accidentally drawn an extra card must discard it in a future turn without drawing a new one.

(4) Should anyone forget to draw a card but discards one, he or she must select from the top stock card before the next player’s turn.

(5) A player must show all others a card that may be accidentally exposed when drawing from the stock, and then replace in the stock.

(6) Any cards accidentally exposed must be left face up on the table until they can be melded or discarded.

(7) An accidental 4th wild card to a meld must be removed and added to another meld or discarded. Should the player choose to return it to his hand, there is a 100 point penalty.

(8) A player can take the card on top of the discard pile except for a black three or wild card.

(9) A sole card in the discard pile cannot be chosen if the player is only holding 1 card.
If you have feedback on these Classic Canasta rules or consider yourself an expert, please get in touch. We are looking for a Canasta expert to answer questions - do contact us.
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