Tips and Tricks for Canasta

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2015


Canasta is a card game, and a fun one.

What follows are some techniques that I have found work well in playing Canasta. This isn't about the rules, this is about tactics that help you win.

Note that there are two basic styles of Canasta play: three player, in which you are playing solo; and four player, in which you are playing with a teammate. There are different tactics for solo and team play.

Something that applies to both styles is the goal of the game: The goal is to get a lot of points before your opponents do, typically ten thousand to win a session. So these tactics are about how to acquire points quickly.

The common keys to doing that in both versions are:

o getting a lot of cards, as in, picking up the discard pile when it gets thick (but with some qualifications, discussed below)

o getting your backup hand picked up

o getting your backup hand picked up, plus putting down three "red" canastas, two "black" canastas, and your hand emptied so you can "go out" and end this round of the game

o if you can't be the one who goes out, getting as many cards out of your hand and on the table before someone else goes out

Doing these well are what the following tactics are about. I will start with three player (solo) tactics.

The Beginning Game

When you look at what you have been dealt, keep two goals in mind: picking up the discard pile and getting all the cards in your hand on the table so you can pick up your backup hand.

To pick up the discard pile keep lots of pairs in your hand. When you discard after your draw, discard solos, not parts of a pair.

To get all the cards in your hand on the table you need either triples or pairs plus a wild card. So hang on to you wild cards.

What to discard

First discard black threes, then singles, as your first choices. To refine the singles choice even more, check what the player following you has put down on the table. What they have put down they are unlikely to have more of in their hand, so putting one of those down lessens the chance of their picking up the discard pile. Also, if they have just a few cards in their hand, they aren't going to have many pairs, so picking up anything you discard is unlikely. Conversely, if they have a fistful of cards in their hand, watch out! They are trying to pick up just like you are. In particular watch out just after they have picked up their backup hand -- they have a whole new hand now, with an unknown mix of pairs. In such cases, discarding a wild card may be a prudent choice.


In general, hold on to your cards, don't put them on the table. Put them on the table in two cases: you are picking up the discard pile, or you are putting them all down so you can pick up your backup hand. (Note this tactic is the biggest difference between playing solo and playing on a team. See team play for more details.)

If the discard pile gets "toxic" -- filled with lots of black threes -- you don't want to pick it up while you are in the first half of the game. It will take too long to discard all the black threes, which means you can't pick up your backup, and someone else could go out while you're still discarding them. (Deciding when it has become toxic is your call, typically four or more.) When the discard pile gets toxic, it is fine to unload your hand and put as much on the table as you can.

The 2nd Half

The second half of the game begins when you pick up your backup. The big difference this makes is that you can now go out, and lots of black three's in the discard pile is no longer a problem. You can put them down on the table when you are ready to go out. So pick up whenever you can.

End Game

The end game comes when you have three red and two black canastas on the table and you can put down or discard your entire hand. The limiter here is often getting the three reds. This is harder if you have your wild cards spread widely through what you have been putting down. For this reason keep your wild cards as concentrated as you can in your put downs. Given a choice between adding a wild card to a "clean" triple and a foursome that already has a wild card, add it to the foursome.

After someone goes out, count away.

Team Play

When playing with a teammate, you want to help them get their backup picked up fast as well as getting your own backup picked up. For that reason you want to lay down your triples as fast as you get them. If you have a fivesome in the early game, lay down three and keep two so you have a pair for picking up the discard pile.

If your partner is having trouble getting his backup picked up, then lay down your pairs plus a wild card -- this will give them more opportunities to lay down their cards.

These are the big changes between solo and team play.


The big goal is to go out first. If you are the one going out, your opponents will have to count what is in their hands against their score. The second big goal is to pick up the discard pile often. That puts lots of cards in your hand which will put lots of cards on the table and rack up your score.

Have fun!


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