A partnership card game played by five players
Five-person Canasta was invented by a bunch of really inventive folk in IIM/Calcutta's 15th Batch. Many of those who invented the game had no knowledge of Canasta as it is played everywhere else. Those who might have known the official rules at one time have completely forgotten them now because 5-person Can is so much more fun! And, of course, almost all of us have taught the game to all our closest relatives and friends so that we are never at a loss for Canpanionship.
      Although the invention process was a collaborative effort, due recognition must be made that the main instigator of the whole thing was Lyn Nazareth who started it all and who was the only one who pretended to know the rules of the "real" Canasta.
      But the rules of original game usually called Canasta and the game we are calling 5-person Canasta or IIM/Can, the rules of which are about to be presented, are so different that it behooves us to make the following disclaimer...
      "Any resemblance of 5-person Canasta to any other card game or games is purely coincidental. If you have any pre-conceived impressions of what the rules should be or what the terms mean, please leave those prejudices at the door."

Players and cards: Seating | Dealing | Playing | Finishing | Scoring | Player Behaviour

There are five players who play in set partnerships during a game. Players sit around the playing area or table. Play is clockwise around the table. Your partner is the player seated after the player seated after you. The player seated before the player seated before you is your rentrap. In other words, a player is their partner's rentrap.

All other people in the room are either there for the Bangla or they are kibbitzing. No, they don't have anything better to do. There just isn't anything better to do than watch a bunch of people playing Canasta for the best part of an evening. And the better part of the night. And into the next morning. Other than actually playing Canasta, of course, which is a r-e-a-l-l-y cool thing to do.

Two 52-card standard packs plus their 6 jokers are shuffled together to make a 110-card pack. (Yes, yes, a card deck usually has only 2 jokers but there is an advertisement card in each pack which makes an excellent third joker.)

Cards have point values, depending on rank. Aces are 15 points each, threes to sixes have 5 points each and everything else, including jokers, are 10 points each. All 2s are also jokers; however they can be used as 2s as well.

Seating: Players and cards | Dealing | Playing | Finishing | Scoring | Player Behaviour

Someone shuffles and puts the pack on the table, face down. Each player draws one card from the face-down pile and the player with the highest card sits down in one of the seats. The player with the next highest card sits on the first player's left. The player with the next highest card sits on the second player's left. The player with the next highest card sits on the third player's left. Have you got it yet or do I have to keep going here? Oh? Okay, then... The player with the next highest card sits on the fourth player's left. The player with the highest card is now sitting on the fifth player's left.

Dealing: Players and cards | Seating | Playing | Finishing | Scoring | Player Behaviour

The 110 cards are shuffled. The top 77 cards are dealt into 7 piles, 11 cards in each pile. The cards don't have to be dealt one at a time, although they may be if the dealer is a real wuss. Cards can be dealt any number at a time as long as each of the 7 piles gets 11 cards each. Empirically, it seems that optimum results are achieved if the cards are dealt into each pile by turn --- 4 cards, 3 cards and then 4 cards.
      Then, the dealer gets to pick out any two of the piles as kitty which are kept aside, face down, away from the game, usually next to the dealer. Of the remaining 5 piles, the last one dealt is picked up by the dealer and the other players pick up theirs cards in order after that.

The 78th card is placed face up on the table to start the discard pile and the remainder is placed face down next to it to form the stock.

The players look at and sort their cards. Cards can be sorted into sets. There are two kinds of sets: sequences and groups.

A set can have only one joker (some people call jokers 'wild cards' but we don't know anybody like this whom we call friends) and a joker is mobile.
      So, if a player has a surfeit of 2s and jokers, they can make a group of two or more 2s and one joker; or two or more jokers and one 2 (in the latter case, the joker is the 'rank' while the 2 is the wild card) but cannot put two 2s and two jokers together as a group.

A set with at least 7 cards is a Canasta. A Canasta without any joker at all is a pure Canasta while one with a joker is ...er... an impure one. If a sequence has all 13 cards in the suit, it is called a Super Canasta. Again there are pure and impure SuperCans. (No, Arvind, 14-carders are not legal.)

Playing: Players and cards | Seating | Dealing | Finishing | Scoring | Player Behaviour

When it is a player's turn:

They begin by either
  • picking up the top card in the stock (face down) pile, or (unless they are pickuppers --- see later)
  • all the cards in the discard (face up) pile. Those players who pick up whatever card comes in the discard pile and don't let their LHOs get more than one discard card are called howrhas (from the Marathi, not Bengali, word) or, collectors or sometimes gallacters --- first used by someone too drunk to say "Collectors". What?! You don't know what 'LHO' means? Go get a set of bridge primers.
They play by
  • arranging the cards in their hand and doing nothing that the others can see, and then
  • placing sets, face up, on the table in front of them as melds. The first time a player melds (called opening), the melded cards must total at least 75 points. Or, they can
  • add suitably fitting cards to the melds in front of them, or
  • add suitably fitting cards to the melds in front of their partner. Adding cards means putting cards on melded sets that fit the sequence or group. If there is a joker in the sequence, they can't add another joker, of course, but the joker can move. For instance, say 4, 2, 6 have been melded. (Yes, of course, that's legal; the 2 is a joker, silly!) After some cards are added, then the sequence could become 4, 5, 6, 2, 8.
But they cannot
  • add any cards to the melds of their rentrap, (rentraps only add to you, not vice versa. Will you never learn?).
And they can certainly
  • use some choice language to rebuke their partner for not opening at all and if the partner has opened, for melding what they did and not allowing themselves to add any cards to their partner, and they can
  • use juicy linguistic constructs for their rentrap for not adding any cards during their turn (even if their turn hasn't come yet). They can certainly, while they are doing this,
  • put all the cards down from their hand, being left with nothing in their hand, in which case they can ask for and receive a kitty and continue playing with the new set of 11 cards. If both kitties are still available when the player asks for it, the choice of which one of the two they get is 'house rules' --- in other words, whether the player gets to pick one over the other depends on either the dealer's fancy or the player's. Usually, this depends on the relative physical sizes of the dealer and the player. To reduce the occurence of incidents, in my house, the player gets to ask for a kitty of their choice and the dealer must comply (especially if they are smaller than me). They might ask for the "red" kitty if the two kitties, when seen from the top, are showing red and blue cards. Or they might ask for the "left" kitty; not your left, moron, my left.
They end by
  • throwing one card on the top of the discard pile. This card can be the card that they picked up from the discard pile (but why'd anyone do that except to try and do one of those "I didn't want that card, really" attempts at obfuscation, but hey, the moment they throw the card down, their turn's over) unless there are no cards in the stock. (See later.) If discarding causes them to run out of cards in their hand,
  • they can pick up a kitty --- not the one on my left, moron, your left --- but they have to wait for their next turn to play the cards they have now acquired.
  • If they are left with only one card in the hand (not to be contrasted with two in the bush, please), they must declare themselves to be pickupper and can only pick cards from the stock. This usually results in major salivation from their LHO (okay, I'll tell you --- that's Left Hand Opponent.) (Oh! You knew that?? Right.) who can now get at least two cards in the discard pile and, if their rentrap is even slightly on the bright side, said rentrap would pass connected cards to them. Of course, becoming pickupper usually means that the player is on the verge of finishing all their cards, and will finish if they can.

Finishing a deal: Players and cards | Seating | Dealing | Playing | Scoring | Player Behaviour

A player can finish the deal if all the cards in their hand are placed somewhere face up on the table; either melded or on the discard pile. But first they need a Canasta. As said before, this title thing is when there are at least 7 cards in any of the sets that you or your partner has melded.

Now, it sometimes happens that nobody can actually finish and the stock is empty. In such a case, if there are kitties left, one is brought in as the stock and the game continues. If there are no kitties and no cards in the stock pile, the deal continues as long as no player stops playing. As long as each player can, in turn, pick up the discard and throw down another card to the discard pile, the game continues. Usually, however, each player is protecting cards from other people's canastas so this doesn't go on as long as you might think.

Scoring: Players and cards | Seating | Dealing | Playing | Finishing | Player Behaviour

When the deal is finished, you score your hands. (You are definitely going to need to write the scores down. In today's hi-tek world, I have an Excel spreadsheet do my work or me.)

Your opened sets --- the melds on the table in front of you --- count as positive points. The cards left in your hand are negative points. A recap: A: 15 points; K-7: 10; 6-3: 5; jokers: 10. In addition, picking up a kitty or finishing gives you 50 extra points. Each impure canasta is 50 points, each pure one is 100 points. If you have all 13 cards in a sequence -- a SuperCanasta -- you get 500 points but if the 13-carder is impure, you get only 300 points.

Oh, by the way, you know I said you need to have 75 points for your opening? If you also pick up kitty, then your opening melds need to have only 25 points because you get 50 points for the kitty. (Yes, Rekha, you can also open with 25 points if you are finishing. And if your partner has a canasta. Why don't you ever learn to play the game, Rekha? You always ask such brilliant questions.)

Now that everyone of the five players has figured out their own scores, each rentrap earns their partner's scores too. After all, the rentraps should have added cards to make their partner's score what they are.

Usually, before sitting to play Canasta, you need to decide when you will stop. No, not at 2am! At what cumulative score? Again empirically, 4000 points is just long enough for everyone to get sick of the partners that they have and want a brand new set of partners. So, when one of the players (usually me) reaches 4000, you shuffle the deck and each player cuts one card from the face-down pile and the player with the highest card sits down in one of the seats. The player with the next highest card sits on the first player's left... Have you got it yet or do I keep going here?

Player Behaviour: Players and cards | Seating | Dealing | Playing | Finishing | Scoring

Players are allowed --- no, they are expected to --- cuss each other out (unless you are playing with your rich great-grand-uncle in which case you do have to be polite, at least a little). But do remember that you are not still at IIMC and some circumstances might have changed --- there could be women and children about who might recognize some of the words.
      If someone takes really, really, really long to play his turn, he can be called Grease (as in Greased Lightning, of course) even though his name is really Mandy. And if you ever have the good fortune to be my rentrap, you are very likely to come in second. Because I always win. I always keep the score.


Atish sanyal asanyal@worldbank.org