In 1939 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Segundo Santos and Alberto Serrato invented a rummy-like card game they named after the “baskets” of cards, or canastas the players would create along the way to winning. In the next decade the rules of the game evolved, modified by players all over South America. By the 1950s the resulting version of Canasta spread like hives into North American homes.
Twenty years on, in the early 1970s, when Isobel Sanders and her family took up temporary residence in Rooms 16 and 17 at our little motel three miles east of Eunice, Louisiana, Mrs. Sanders had already been playing the game for more than a decade. She and her eldest daughter, Carlene (about fourteen) both devoted card-players, befriended my sisters Gilda and Glenda (who were around thirteen at the time) and taught them to play the game, with the four of them spread out on the floor of their kitchenette. The twins were quickly taken with Canasta, and so they in turn taught Dickie (nine) and me (eleven) to play, and we continued to do so long after the Sanders packed up their Ford station wagon and headed back home.
Once played on the table, the value of a canasta is secure even if it is incomplete. It cannot be counted against the player’s worth, reduced or otherwise diminished. A canasta is, in essence, safe in its “basket.”
Below is a description of the Ardoin house rules on Canasta (like cooking, the “recipe” for this game, and others, may vary from household to household):
Two decks of cards and four players is the ideal setup. After the cards are shuffled, the dealer asks the person to the right to cut the deck and try to get exactly eleven times the number of players, plus one. The dealer then deals until each player has eleven cards. After everyone is dealt their cards, the dealer puts the next card in the deck face-up on the table and the remaining cards face-down on a stack next to the face-up card. If the person who cut the deck is exactly right, the count should equal eleven times the number of players plus the one card needed to start the face-up pile. If that does happen, that player receives a hundred-point bonus. After each hand is played, the person who guessed (always to the right of the dealer) becomes the new dealer and picks the person to the right to do the same, and so on.
When everyone has eleven cards, each player discretely arranges them by value, so as not to reveal the hand to any other player. Anyone dealt a red Three can immediately put it down in front of his or her place at the table. Red Threes are worth 100 points. If a player forgets to play a red Three at the time it is acquired, he or she must wait until it is his or her turn again. Should the game end before a red Three is played the player holding it is penalized one hundred points. In the rare occasion that one player gets all of the available red Threes in the round the value of them is doubled.
The value of the other cards is as follows: Twos (red or black) = 20 points; Threes (black) = 5 points; Fours, Fives, Sixes, Sevens = 5 points; Eights, Nines, Tens, Jacks, Queens, Kings = 10 points; Aces = 20 points; and Jokers = 50 points. Jokers and Twos are wild, so they can be used as any card the player desires, except as a red Three.
A canasta is seven of any card: seven Fives; seven Tens; seven Queens, and so on. When a canasta is made without wild cards, it is considered a red canasta and is worth 500 points. If the player uses a wild card to make a canasta it is considered a black canasta, and is worth only 300 points because it is easier to make. Only three wild cards can be used to make a canasta.
As the game proceeds, a player who collects at least three of one card (three Jacks, for example) can meld. To meld, the value of the three (or more) cards must total at least fifty points. If the player has three Jacks, their combined value is thirty points. To get the fifty points needed to meld, he or she can play two sets of cards, say the trio of Jacks and four Nines. The four Nines would be worth a total of twenty points, so the total meld would be right at fifty. Or, if the player wants to turn the potential canasta into a black one right away, the three Jacks can be combined with a wild card (Two or Joker). Either wild card would be enough to make the meld at least fifty points in value. A red Three cannot be used to meld.
A canasta can be built and kept in one’s hand until it is played. If the player also plays all of his or her remaining cards in that same move, then goes out, it is considered a concealed canasta, and two hundred points are added to its value. This ends the round; everyone else gets deducted the value of the cards left in their hands.
A hand of Canasta progresses with the person to the left of the dealer going first, then everyone else taking a turn in that order. When it is a player’s turn he or she can either pick a card from the overturned deck, or pick up the pile of upturned discarded cards. He or she can then put down cards per the above rules, and then discard, with the person to their left taking a turn, and so on.
For a hand to end a player must play all of his or her cards on the table, and save one card to discard. Everyone counts the value of the cards they’ve played on the table, and subtracts those remaining in their hands. The first player to reach five thousand points, which usually takes several rounds of playing, wins the game. Now go find yourself two decks of cards!
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