The classic game is for four players in two partnerships. Variations exist for two and three player games wherein each plays alone, and also for a six player game in two partnerships of three.
If partners are chosen they must sit opposite each other. Canasta uses two complete decks of 52 playing cards (French Deck) plus the four Jokers. All the Jokers and deuces (twos) are wild cards.
Point values for cards in Canasta
Card = Value
3 (black) = 100 (200 each if all four held)
3 (red), 4, 5, 6, 7 = 5
8, 9, 10, J, Q, K = 10
2 (Wild), A = 20
Joker (Wild) = 50
The initial dealer is chosen by any common method, although it should be remembered that in Canasta there is no privilege or advantage to being the dealer. Rather the true privilege is of first play and access by that player to any chance bonus card which might have been turned up, and subsequently covered, at the conclusion of the deal; i.e., if a red three or wild card had been turned up at the end of the deal, it must and would have been covered by a legitimate play card which itself could then be used by that first player in making the initial meld and taking the discard pile and thus giving that first player those bonus cards. The deal then rotates clockwise after every hand. The dealer shuffles the pack, the player to the dealer's right cuts, and the dealer deals out 11 cards to each player.
The remaining cards are left in a stock in the center of the table. The top card from the stock is turned over to form the discard pile. If this first turned card is a red or black three, or a wild card, additional cards from the stock are turned over to the top of the discard pile until the top card of the discard pile is neither a three nor a wild card. If one of these bonus cards was a wild card, it does also freeze the discard pile until that discard pile containing the wild card has been legitimately taken into a player's hand. A bonus red three taken in this manner is not replaced by another card from the stock, as it would if it had been drawn from the stock during a player's regular turn.
Any player who receives a red three in their initial hand must immediately play it to the table team and draw a new card from the stock to their hand.
The player to the dealer's left has the first turn, and play then proceeds clockwise. A turn begins either by drawing the first card from the stock into the player's hand or by picking up the entire discard pile. However, there are restrictions on when one can pick up the discard pile. (See Picking up the discard pile, below.) If the card drawn from the stock is a red three, the player must play it immediately and draw another card.
The player may then make as many legal melds as they wish from the cards in their hand. A turn ends when the player discards one card from their hand to the top of the discard pile. No player may "undo" a meld or laid card, or change their mind after drawing a card from the deck if they decide that they could have taken the discard pile.
Each player/team keeps separate melds of the various ranks of cards. A player may never play to an opponent's meld. A legal meld consists of at least three cards of the same rank. Suits are irrelevant except that black threes are treated differently from red threes. Wild cards can be used as any rank except for threes. Threes may never be melded in ordinary play, although 3 or 4 black threes may be melded last in the process of a player going out.
A meld must consist of at least two natural cards, and can never have more wild cards than natural cards (and therefore more than three wild cards). Examples: 5-5-2 and 9-9-9-2-2-Joker are legal melds. 5-2-2 is not a legal meld as it contains only one natural card. 9-9-2-2-2-Joker is not legal as it contains more wild cards than natural cards.
A canasta is a meld of at least seven cards, whether natural or mixed. A natural canasta is one that comprises only cards of the same rank. A mixed canasta (or dirty canasta) is one that comprises both natural and wild cards.
A "concealed" canasta is a canasta assembled in the player's hand and is played to the table completely, or requiring only the top card from the discard pile (the discard pile being picked up in the usual way). A concealed canasta may be natural or mixed and carries a bonus score of 100 points (so 400 for a concealed mixed canasta and 600 for a concealed natural canasta).