According to the latest survey, canasta remains the card game played by most people in the U.S. But canasta is no longer just one game. In fact, the jazzed-up joker-canasta versions—for which, until now, there have been only unwritten laws—are more widely played than the original.
It was at the celebrated Regency Club in New York City that this South American importation got its earliest official recognition in the U.S. back in 1948, so the original game got to be known as Regency canasta.
Ralph Michaels, with whom I wrote my first canasta book, brought the game back with him from Uruguay and the Argentine. Ottilie Reilly, of the Regency, did much of the missionary work that helped to spread canasta around this country. Another Regency member, Walter L. Richard, co-chairman of the National Laws Commission on which I also served, did most of the liaison work with this commission's South American counterpart, resulting in a single set of laws to which both continents subscribed.
But it seems that no sooner had the South American creators of the game agreed to these joint laws than they revolted against them in order to try the much more exciting innovations now being played everywhere—except among those conservatives to whom only the officially blessed is acceptable.
In any game, it is entirely fitting that the players themselves should make the rules. However, the code, whatever provisions it may include, ought to aim for general recognition and uniformity. To help clear up the welter of confusing table regulations that vary from game to game, here is my own proposal for an official version of joker canasta as it is being played today.
Most card players are familiar with the basic game of canasta, so I am going to explain the newer and more exciting version by pointing out how joker canasta differs from Regency. For comparison, a tabulation of the more important rules of each game is presented on the opposite page.
To begin with, let me state several of the basic new rules: 13 cards instead of 11 are dealt to each player; the pack is always frozen, and you can take it only with a pair that matches the top discard; even with a matching pair, you cannot take the pack if you have a meld of five or six cards of that same rank already on the board. The reason for this last provision is that no canasta may contain more than seven cards, and you can't start a second meld in the same rank until you have completed a canasta in it.
Because of high scoring bonuses, the joker game is played for 8,500 points. And because wild cards may be melded by themselves, the initial meld requirements have been shrewdly increased to 95,125 and 155 so that they cannot be met with a meld of just three wild cards as would be possible if they were 90 (2-2-joker), 120 (2-joker-joker) or 150 (three big joes).
With one exception, wild cards may never be thrown into the discard pack. The exception occurs when a player has only wild cards in his hand, for then this rule collides with the unalterable requirement that a player must discard at every turn unless he is able to meld out.
Black 3s are bonus cards and are treated exactly like red 3s. Acquiring all four 3s of the same color counts 1,000. This is not an unmixed blessing: if the opponents go out before your side has completed a canasta, all your melds on the board as well as all the cards in your hand are charged against you. When you have completed a single canasta, your melds are safe and you may score them. Before you can go out, however, you must complete two canastas.
But the big bang and the big score is the wild-card canasta! It is worth 4,000 points if it is a pure seven deuces, 3,000 if it includes all four big jokers; a "mere" 2,000 for any-other combination of seven wild cards. The very idea of a joker canasta is anathema to orthodox Regency devotees—until they try the new game and succumb to its new thrills of risk and of accomplishment.
You may start a wild-card canasta at any time, even if you've already used one or more wild cards toward a mixed canasta. But once you've started toward a wild-card canasta, you can't abandon it and use your remaining wild cards elsewhere, even if the opponents' melds demonstrate that there aren't enough jokers left in the deck to complete your canasta.
So, before you start melding toward a wild-card canasta, it is well to know how many partner has. For this purpose, you may use signals.
There are various signaling methods. These are a matter of system rather than law. You don't have to signal at all if you prefer not to, but the simple method I prefer is this:
If you are dealt three or more wild cards, discard a 10 or higher at your first turn. Partner must respond at his next turn thus:
With one or none, he discards a 7 or lower.
With two, he discards an 8 or 9.
With three or more, he puts them down immediately if he can make the minimum meld. If he is unable to make the count for the minimum, he discards a 10 or higher card.
Signals are intended to insure that you try for a wild-card canasta only when you hold six or more in your combined hands. Of course, there is no way to signal later in the play. If you acquire a good crop of wild cards later on, you must make your own decision as to whether to risk trying for the jackpot without the benefit of knowing what your partner holds. This rarely is advisable with fewer than five, unless there are strong indications that the opponents are suffering from a shortage. (For example, if you are far ahead and they aren't trying to close canastas and go out, there's a good likelihood that they haven't the wild-card wherewithal.) The state of the score, your safety because of a canasta already completed by your side, and the time the deal is still apt to run are factors that influence your decision.
There are many variations of joker canasta and many local-option fillips have been added in individual games. I am listing a few, such as the canasta of aces and 7s. By all means, play them if you like. Some players believe that they add to the excitement; certainly they add to the score. The canasta of 7s, for example, with its high bonus and high penalties, drastically alters the strategy of the entire game. But you will find that both the excitement and the score mount high enough and rapidly enough under the rules I have suggested.
One variant, however, I strongly recommend. I have always felt that, as a two-hand game, canasta left much to be desired. The new wrinkle—playing two-hand canasta by dealing out four hands—goes a long way to make it a game for two that is really exciting and calls for the exercise of considerable strategy. Try it. It goes like this:
A NEW TWO-HANDED CANASTA
Opponents sit opposite each other. Four hands are dealt around the table. The extra hands remain face down. Each plays only from his own hand until he has made the initial meld, then he may pick up the facedown hand at his right and add its cards to his own. (There is no separate draw or discard by the face-down hands, of course.)
Either Regency or joker canasta may be played in this fashion; the rules are otherwise the same as those of the four-hand game.
JOKER CANASTA VARIATIONS
CANASTA OF ACES: A natural canasta of aces pays a bonus of 1,000. In some games, one is not permitted to make a mixed canasta of aces; in others conversion to a mixed canasta is considered quite proper.
CANASTA OF 7s: Completing a natural canasta of 7s pays a bonus of 2,000. However, if you start a canasta of 7s and fail to complete it you must pay a penalty of 1,500; if you have more than three 7s in your hand when the game ends, you are penalized 500.
CONVERSION: There are some games in which by agreement one may convert a meld of three wild cards into a mixed canasta by the addition of natural cards. There may be only three wild cards in the meld, and the four natural cards to complete the canasta must be added at one turn.
There are as many variants as there are in wild poker games. Most are played on a ground rule basis.
WILD CARD MELDS ARE LEGAL
INITIAL MELDS ARE INCREASED: NEW REQUIREMENTS: 95, 125 and 155. The above melds are not quite enough.
NO MELD MAY HAVE MORE THAN SEVEN CARDS: NATURAL PAIR can't take pack if you have five or six cards of like rank on table.
WILD CARD CANASTAS SCORE BIG
THE PACK IS ALWAYS FROZEN: YOU CAN NOT TAKE it with wild card and single natural card; you need a pair.