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Mexican Samba (Canasta)
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Mexican Samba (Canasta)

We call it 'Canasta', but the original name was 'Mexican Samba'. It's a game for four people, although it can be expanded to six with a few changes. We've played it in our family for years. My mother still has the original piece of cardboard, probably the backing that a pair of nylons were wrapped around, that she wrote the rules down on. I know we played the game before we were married, so it is probably a forty to fifty year tradition in our family.

The rules are fairly simple. First we need three decks of cards, complete with two jokers each. The cards are shuffled together (the hardest part of the game) and then two players each deal out four sets of 11 cards. The first hands to be dealt out are considered to be the "missy" hands. The other set is the playing hand. Each person's missy is set to one side. For now, each player works with his playing hand or "hand". The remaining cards are stacked (the 'deck' from which the missy was dealt on the bottom) and the top card is turned over and placed beside the stack. We are now ready to play.

The object of the game is to acquire "canastas" and amass a total of 10,000 points. The immediate objective, however, is to "meld". One melds by acquiring sets of three or more cards of the same value: three fours, three queens, four aces, etc. Each card has a value as follows:

Card ValuePoint Value
4 - 85 points each
9 - King10 points each
Ace20 points each
220 points each
Joker50 points each
Red 3100 points each
Black 3-100 points each

Red threes can not be used to meld. When it is your turn, if you have a red three in your "hand" or you pick one up, you play the card to your team's table area, and you draw a replacement card from the stack. You do not replace any red threes found in your missy, but they are still played to your table and count 100 points for you. The 100 points is only totalled at the end of a round. The black three counts 100 points against you if you have it in your hand at the end of the round. If it is discarded , it will "freeze" the discard pile and prevent anyone from picking up the discard pile (while it is the top card in the pile)(more in a moment).

The twos and jokers are considered wild cards.

To "meld" you must accumulate, in sets of three or more of the same card value, the points required for melding in the current round. At the start of the game, you must have 50 points before you can meld. Here are some examples of possible melds:

Your setsPoints
three Kings, four 5's50 points
three Aces60 points
two Jokers and one 2120 points
three 4's, four 5's, three 6's50 points

It is also possible to make a set of three by using a wild card, although this is usually a bad idea. (Sometimes, if the stack of cards is running low and you have still not melded, it is the only way to get any points for the round.)

The two players sitting across from each other work as a team. Only one has to meld, but the other must be able to either add to the cards already on the table or put down his own set of three or more cards before he can pick up his missy.

The play starts with the person to the left of the person who dealt the hand. (On subsequent rounds, the next player to the left starts the new round) On any turn, the player has a choice of picking up two cards from the stack (more if he holds or encounters a red 3) or picking up the discard pile instead. A player may only pick up the discard pile if 1) he holds two or more cards of the same value as the top discard card and 2)he has either already melded or he can meld using only the top card from the discard pile and the cards in his hand.

A player may not pick up the discard pile is he cannot meld or does not have at least two of the same value in his hand, as stated above, or if the pile is "frozen" because the top card is a black 3, a seven, or a wild card. (When the first card is turned over at the start of the round to create the discard pile, that card can not be one of the cards that "freeze" the pile, or a red 3. If it is, it is placed back in the stack and another card turned over.)

Once the player has either picked up his two cards or the discard pile, he has the opportunity to meld, or, if his team has already melded, to add cards to the cards on his team's table. Once at least three cards of the same value have been placed on the table, additional cards of that value may be added as desired. During the player's turn, he can lay down new sets of three, add to existing sets, complete a canasta or lay down a red three. He completes his turn by placing a card (face up) to the discard pile.

The points needed to meld depend upon the team's current score. The following chart determines the meld value:

Current ScorePoints required to Meld
0 - 2,99550
3,000 - 4,99590
5,000 - 7,445120
7,500 - 8,995150
9,000 9,995190

Once a player has melded or added to his partner's meld and ended his turn, he may pick up his "missy" and add those cards to his hand. He may not play them to his team's table until his next turn.

Aside from the need to play to the table the sets required to meld (and, for the partner, to add to the cards on the table) there is no requirement to play cards until you wish to do so. By holding a lot of cards in your hand, you have a better chance to pick up the discard pile. However, if the other team "goes out", the value of the cards in your hand will count against you. In addition, your partner may discard cards you could use to make a canasta if you hold the cards in your hand.

To make the most points, you need to complete canastas. Each canasta consists of seven (or more) cards of the same value or five or more cards plus one or two wild cards (to make a total of at least seven). You also need to build a canasta of wild cards. It is highly advisable to try and create a canasta of sevens. However, you can not use a wild card to build your canasta of sevens. There is a bonus if you create seven or more canastas in a round. Here is the point value for canastas:

Type of CanastaPoint Value of Canasta
Red Canasta (no wild cards)500 points
Black Canasta (one or two wild cards)300 points
Wild Card Canasta2,000 points
Canasta of Sevens1,500 points
Seven or more Canastas (Bonus)2,000 points

At any time after a team has completed their wild canasta and at least three other canastas (of any type), they may decide to "go out" (There is not supposed to be any "table talk" about "going out" or other aspects of the play, although, in our family at least, this rule is not enforced.) A player can "go out" when he is able to play all the cards in his hand, the last card played to the discard pile. A player can not "go out" if the team does not have the minimum canastas (1 wild, three others) or if the player cannot discard the final card.

Once a player has "gone out" the round is over. Any cards still held in the hand are counted against the team. All cards and canastas on the table count towards each team. In rare instances, if a player holds a great number of cards in his hand (or several black threes), it may be necessary to dismantle one or more canastas to cover the negative count. First, count the value of cards held in the hand. Cancel this amount with cards on the table, using unfinished canastas and red 3's first. During the play, someone may have played extra cards to a canasta. Any cards over seven (but not any wild cards) may be used to discharge the "debt". If this is still insufficient, a canasta (or more) must be dismantled. Any dismantled canastas do not count for the score.

Next, any red 3's are counted, then the canastas. Finally, all of the cards on a team's table are counted for their individual value. Thus, a canasta of seven 7's, for instance is worth 1,500 points as a canasta and the individual cards are worth a further 35 points (7 x 5 points each).

The score is then totaled. If one or both teams have reached or exceeded 10,000 points then the team with the highest score wins the game. If not, then the cards are well mixed, dealt out again, and a new round begins. The total score from the previous rounds dictates the points required to meld.

It usually takes us just under an hour to play a game which, usually, consists of two rounds. We tend not to "go out" until the stack has been nearly depleted. However, strategy sometimes demands that a player "go out" sooner.

It is possible to play with six players: three sets of partners. Just add an extra deck (four decks in all). The rest of the rules remain the same.

Copyright © 1999 - 2017 by Frederick D. Oldfield

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