Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Published October 29th 2010
Popular culture tells us that poker nights are something men host in order to get away from their wives and get a little peace and quiet - but women can be equal to men at poker and a mixed guest list adds a bit of sexual frisson to a games night. The problem with hosting a poker night is that a lot of people now play poker online, so while they might pretend they're not great players that will just be their poker faces talking. And it's no fun hosting a poker night at your house if one of your friends ends up cleaning you and the rest of your mates out. So for a games night with a twist that no one will be expecting why not spring canasta on your guests.
Canasta doesn't quite have the sultry, smoky aura of poker, it's thought of more as a game over which older ladies natter, but it comes from South America, so there's an opportunity to give your whole evening a bit of heat by having the game's heritage as a theme. And when you casually introduce it as being based on Rummy - which many people will have played as children - your more competitive games night guests may still think they have an advantage and warm to the idea. Because everyone's learning together it's both more fun and more fair, but canasta is still an absorbing game of skill and calculated risk, so your evening should retain its edge.
A traditional game of canasta, and like poker there are variations, is played by between two and six players using two decks of cards, Jokers included. If there are four or more players, the game can be played in teams of two, in which case pairs face each other.
The aim of the game is to score 5,000 points first, which is done over a course of rounds by creating 'melds' of cards: a meld being a set of cards containing a minimum of three of a kind, which are laid out on the playing space. Different suits or colours are irrelevant, all you need is 4-4-4 for example. A canasta is a meld made using seven cards and two different numbers: 9-9-9, 4-4-4-4.
In canasta red threes are high cards, worth 100 points, Jokers are wild cards worth 50 points, and aces and deuces are wild cards worth 20 points. Black threes and number cards up to seven are worth five points and eights through kings are worth 10 points.
Wild cards can be used to make up melds or canastas, and can be used as whatever card you want them to be, for example 9-9-2 is a valid meld, and 9-9-9, K-K-K-2 is a valid canasta. You can use more than one wild card in a meld or a canasta, but there can't be more wild cards than ordinary or 'natural' cards in the set.
Once a meld or a canasta has been placed in the playing space it can be added to by the player who placed it there, or by their partner if you're playing in pairs.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves, first, each player must be dealt 11 cards and the remaining cards left in the centre of the playing space with the top card turned over and sat beside the deck in what's to become the 'discard pile'. If a black three or a wild cards is used to start the discard pile then cards from the deck must continue to be added to the pile until there's a natural card on top. Additionally if anyone has a red three in the hand they're initially dealt they have to discard it and take another.
Once everyone has their hand play starts clockwise from the dealer. In a turn a player can pick up either the top card in the face down deck, called 'the stock', or pick up the entire discard pile. If you want to pick up the entire discard pile you have to be able to play the top card in the pile into a meld right away, either accompanying it with other cards from your hand, or including into one of your own melds or canastas. If you pick up a card from the stock you also have the opportunity to place any melds or canastas in your hand down on the playing space.
The round ends when a player 'goes out', meaning they're able to lay down all their cards, with the exception of one card, which they add to the discard pile. If you can play all the cards in your hand you're not out and you have to pick up another card.
There are a few additionally complexities to the game like:
- the first cards you lay on the table have to add up to a certain amount which is dependant on your over all score.
- the different values of dirty canastas vs. clean canastas.
- the different tactical ways you can use the threes to thwart other players by freezing and unfreezing the discard pile.
- that you have to ask your partner permission to go out.
- the additional points you can earn for using wild cards and threes in clever ways.
It sounds a bit complicated when you read it, but when you're sitting down together with your hands all dealt out then it starts to look quite simple. If you need proof of that here's a 'how to play canasta' video from youtube. That doesn't mean that it's not going to provide an evening of fierce competition. And if you pair your game of canasta with the right Latin sounds, snacks with a bit of bite and drinks mixed with lime, then you've got yourself the makings of a very memorable games night. And hopefully one where no one goes home bankrupt, or even worse: richer but friendless!