Canasta Unmasked: Putting a New Face on an Old Game

Canasta, like many of the old-fashioned card games, is often daunting at first glance, lost among our memories from childhood of grandmothers and their friends sitting around playing cards over tea. Despite how it might look, Canasta is a deceptively simple game to learn to play; the challenge of it doesn’t lie in remembering or following the rules, but in applying a foolproof strategy that will turn this simple game in your favor. Since you can’t play without the rules, though, here they are:

Canasta is a game that’s all about melding (a meld is three or more of the same card), so basically, that’s what you should be striving for-getting lots of the same card. To be technical, you’re going to want to get 7 of the same card (called a Canasta); that’s what it’ll take before you can meld out (lay down all of your cards) and score big. I promise, it sounds more complicated than it is.

Each turn consists of three parts: drawing, melding, and the discard. The drawing phase always happens on every turn, thought the other two phases may or may not. At the beginning of your turn, you can choose to pick up two cards from the face-down pile or the cards in the face-up discard pile (however many that may be). If you haven’t yet made your initial meld, then you can only pick up the cards from the discard pile if you can make a meld with the card and you have enough points to make your initial meld (dependent on how many hands you’ve won so far); you can always draw two from the pile as long as there are some left; if there aren’t, the game is over, so you wouldn’t have to worry about drawing at all. If you’ve made your meld, you can pick up the discard pile as long as you can meld the top card.

If you draw a red 3 from the face-down pile, immediately lay it down and draw a card to replace it. Red 3s are worth 100 points, and you cannot hold them in your hand (and therefore can never discard them; nor would you want to). If you get all four of them, you get an extra 800 point bonus, so that the red 3s alone are worth 1200 points if you have them all. This is a very good reason to draw the game out if your opponent doesn’t have any red 3s, but we’ll get to drawing out the game later.

The deck can be frozen when a player discards a 2 or a Joker (the game’s wild cards), and the discard pile can then only be picked up if you have two of the top card in your hand and can meld them. Freezing the deck is a good way to keep your opponent from picking up the discard pile, but we’ll cover it in more depth a little further on.

The second phase of a turn is the melding phase. You may lay down melds on any turn as long as you’ve met your initial meld requirement (50 points at first, and then it increases later in the game), but it is often in your best interest not to lay down the cards in your hand as soon as you can. When you’re first starting out, this can be a good way to get some experience into how the game works, but if you lay out all your melds at your first opportunity, expect to lose almost every time. Don’t look at losing as a bad thing in a card game (unless there’s money on the game), but rather as a way to learn something new that you didn’t know before. Card games are largely about learning the different strategies and types of opponents, so there should almost always be something new to learn.

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Finally, you’re ready to discard. If you’ve melded all your cards, the hand is over. If you’ve melded all but one of your cards, but you haven’t made a Canasta yet, then you don’t get to discard, and your turn is over. If you have several cards left, you can discard anything you’d like. A black 3 will keep your opponent from taking the discard pile for one turn (players cannot pick up black 3s), and playing a 2 or Joker (wild cards, which can be melded as any other card, as long as the number of natural cards outnumbers the number of wild cards in a meld) will “freeze” the deck. Once the deck is frozen, the discard cannot be picked up until a player has 2 of the top card in their hand and is prepared to meld it.

That summarizes Canasta gameplay; the only other thing you would need to worry about is scoring, but that’s a lesson for another day. Meld to the best of your ability and you should do fine.

With all your newfound knowledge, you’re ready to start playing some cards now. Don’t be afraid to be dealt in if the only people around you who know how to play have decades of experience under their belts; there are a few simple strategies to becoming a successful Canasta competitor, and they don’t require induction into the secret society of Canasta players or have an experience requirement.

1. Do your very best not to give away what you have in your hand.

The trick to Canasta lies in faking out your opponent, plain and simple. Once the cards have been melded and are out on the table, the game’s more than halfway over, and any advantage that you might have had is now gone. Your opponent now knows what cards you want and which you don’t, and that can make the difference in any card game, but it’s a particularly delicate matter when it comes to Canasta, because your opponent then also knows the score: exactly how many points up (or down) you are in this hand, and can drag the hand out until he has the point advantage, either through numerous melds and canastas or by digging through the deck until he finds any remaining red threes (and at 100 points each, the presence of the red threes can turn the tide of a hand rather quickly). Laying down too early also allows your opponent to freeze the deck, leaving you rather helpless unless you’ve had the good fortune and insight to keep two of almost every card in your hand.

No, the best thing that you can do to maintain an edge in Canasta is to keep the contents of your hand as concealed as possible. Of course, you can’t discard a black 3 or wild card on every turn, so how do you lay off cards without giving away to your opponent what cards you do and don’t want? Well, that’s the tricky part.

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2. Don’t be afraid to freeze the deck.

Freeze the deck and freeze it often. This can always work on your advantage, but only if you follow the previously stated strategy and you keep your cards in your hand where you can actually do something with them. A match between two strong Canasta players will almost always involve the deck being frozen at least once, often several times. Freezing the deck can be daunting to a Canasta newcomer, but it keeps your opponent from picking up the discard, and can lead to a discard containing dozens of cards, which are worth huge amounts when you finally pick it up and meld it! Once the deck is froze, you just need to remember a couple things: try not to discard single cards, as they offer your opponent knowledge to the voids in your hand. The best thing to do, after playing your black 3s and wild cards is to play cards of which you already have more than 2. This is not to say that you shouldn’t watch your opponent’s hand while you play; just make sure that you’re making the best move that you can every time.

3. Wait until you have the point advantage to meld out.

In playing a game of Canasta, there’s one thing that confuses me far beyond any other. It stops me dead in my tracks, I tilt my head to the side, and I just stare in complete bewilderment, and then I shrug and go back to playing because my opponent has just made a move completely and totally in my favor. Never, ever, ever meld out unless you have the point advantage in the hand (unless you’ve already made the points that you need to win the game and your opponent has not. In case you missed it the first time, let me say it one more time: never, ever meld out if your opponent currently has more points melded than you do. It does you absolutely no good to give your opponent a point advantage, and there is never, ever a good reason for it. Why would you help someone else win? You wouldn’t, so once more: never, ever meld out before you have the point advantage in a hand.

4. Don’t get caught with your hand in the Canasta cookie jar.

Nothing can mess up a strong lead in Canasta like getting caught with a handful of cards when your opponent melds out. So how do you keep your hand to yourself and make your opponent wonder at your every move, all the while ensuring that you’re not caught with cards when your opponent melds out, you ask? It’s not as hard as it seems.

First off, the vast majority of Canasta players will not meld out the first time they lay cards down; it’s generally somewhat tricky to do, unless you’ve been drawing cards for a good while in the hand, harder still to do when you’re only getting two cards at a time. Therefore, the first trick you should keep firmly lodged up your sleeve is preventing your opponent from picking up the discard pile once it has several cards in it; a big discard pile makes a quick meld-out very easy. This is where freezing the deck can come in handy. Just keep in mind that if you’re discarding something other than a black 3, a 2 or a Joker, you’re taking a chance that they might pick up the whole stack, and that every turn that passes, such a play is a little riskier. Card games are all about risk, though, so don’t be too afraid to take those chances to win; it’s what separates the good card players from the mediocre ones.

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Once your opponent has laid cards down, you simply need to quickly analyze the situation. Do they have a Canasta already? If they do, you should be concerned that they might meld out on the next hand; this is a player who either has a couple cards that can’t be melded, is waiting for a point advantage over you (if you’re currently ahead in this hand), or is searching for that extra couple points to allow him to win the game. The more melds of different values your opponent has laid out, the safer you generally are. This means that it’s going to take more work for him to get the Canasta he needs to meld out, and that typically works out in your favor. Opponent still 3 cards away from a Canasta, and down to just a couple cards in his hand? Go ahead and take the chance that he won’t meld out on the next hand, but make all the preparations to get your cards in order and be ready to meld (and meld quickly). If your opponent is down to just a couple of cards, this is generally a safe time to make the melds that you have, as doing so doesn’t give him any kind of real knowledge advantage.

5. Play to your opponent’s hand.

Just because you have a great hand doesn’t mean that you can ever forget that you’re not the only one in the game. Your opponent likely has a hand equally as good, if not better, and if you’re not careful, you’ll play right into it, leaving yourself high and dry. Watch your opponent; see what he discards, carefully study the number of cards in his hand and the melds that he’s laid down. Be especially careful when the deck is frozen and keep in mind that what he discards then may not be what he’s lacking (read: it could be a trap). Now, you don’t have to watch your opponent like a hawk… that’s far more likely to make him nervous, angry and uncomfortable, and you could find yourself without anyone who’s willing to play cards with you at all. Just make sure that you always have a good idea of what’s going on in his hand, and, more importantly, his head.

Good luck!