Canasta Tips and Strategies

Canasta Tips and Strategies | Rules | Play Canasta Online

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Canasta for two players head to head (focused on the 2-2-2 w 3f variation)
          this article was contributed by GameColony Canasta player Iuuri aka Mzeldozt from Portugal


I. Introduction

It is my purpose to explain some tips and strategies that I have learned in about 17 years of playing canasta. I will not explain the rules in detail, except for the meaning of 2-2-2 3fw – Draw 2 cards, always frozen pile (2 naturals needed to pick-up), 2 canastas needed to go out, red 3’s can lock the pile, and finally, the wild canasta is allowed and it’s worth 1000 points.

As opposed to other innocuous and merely thrilling game variations, namely the one canasta variation, 2-2-2 3f w is a dense game where every play has to be really well planned, and in which the difficulty of going out makes every hand longer. It is more predictable, indeed, but i almost feel tempted to say that if one wants something unpredictable, he might just stick to a slot machine in a casino, with better satisfaction, funnier results, and less brain exercise. For those of you who like a dense game, with lots of thinking, and intellectual excitement, this is your version.

I must say that there are even more skillful versions of canasta for two players. 2-2-2, without 3f w, is harder to play, since you get less safe cards, and have to take more risks. 2-0-2 is even tougher, as you have to lock the pile in order that the opponent doesn’t catch the sets he has melded. And finally, 1-0-2, is the maximum one can reach in a canasta game, in terms of the game’s density and complexity.

I stick to the 2-2-2 3f w just because, with my experience, I found out that in that variant one can always win 95% of the games played, with more or less difficulties, more or less probabilities, but almost every time possible, no matter the hand you draw. Why’s this? Simple. The cards must be divided between the players. No one gets them all, so if your opponent has the wilds, you must have a strong set, and vice-versa.

Of course, there’s a difference between the possibility to win 95% of the time and actually achieving it. Speaking for myself… In this game variation, I tend to win 70% of the time. So there are 25% of the times when I lose because I just didn’t play the right cards. We’ll talk about this further on, when we discuss the game strategies in the discard pile chapter.

II. Maximizing your hand or going out fast – how can one win?

Some players, mostly the ones that are used to playing canasta 2-2-1, think that the purpose of canasta is to finish quickly and leave the opponent with the cards in his hands.

Well, I might as well quote John R. Crawford in his 1950 “Canasta-Complete instructions for beginners”. Describing his win in the great canasta challenge match of January 1950, Crawford wrote: “It proved beyond the slightest doubt that it pays to play for big scores, rather than to meld out.”;  “We played for big scores, we did not try to meld out, we kept canastas open, and we maintained pressure relentlessly.”; “Sometimes, when we had kept a canasta open instead of closing it, our opponents would meld out and «catch us». This did not worry us. There were many other hands in which we scored five or six canastas by following our tactics of keeping a wining hand alive. Had we settled for about one sure canasta each time, we would have been thousands of points worse off in the end.”.

Well, this was a revolutionary thinking in the 20-th century 50’s canasta. Regrettably, it didn’t reached most of the 21th century canasta players. In conclusion, I'd like to add these canasta tips:
  • Maximize your hand – great hands are hard to get. When you have them, take it to your maximum.
  • Make as much points as you can;
  • Always take the controlled risk – if it goes wrong, do it again, and again, and again – I assure you it will compensate.
     As for the first point, well, if you get an initial hand with 5 wilds, you certainly can go out quickly, and score 1200 against -400. But if you maximize it, you can score 3500 against 500, and it’s always worth the risk. Also if you consider the odds of getting that hand in an entire game.

    III. The discard pile

    Well, when I’m playing canasta, I’m Frodo, and the pile is the precious. I think this idea resumes the importance of controlling the discard pile. It’s almost like having ball possession in a sport and fighting for it. It’s the key to success. You have to count and memorize every card that goes to the stock pile. How can we play for the pile? Let’s see some examples:

    North’s initial hand: 22 3 44 6 88 999 QQ K A
    Pile starts with an 8.
    North draws a 5 and a 7 and gets to have - 22 3 44 5 6  7 88 999 QQ K A.
    What’s the first card to throw out?
    In my opinion, the Q. Why? 9’s and 8’s are the safest (3 9’s and 3 8’s, counting the one in the pile). Throwing a single is never an option (if your opponent has a bunch of them your hole is immediately discovered). So you have the option between the Q and the 4. As the Q is higher and abstractly less safe, that’s the first you throw. Generally we could say you should start to play the less safe of the safest cards.

    So now the pile is 8Q.
    South discards a 4. Pile becomes 8Q4.
    Do you pick up the 4? Never in this phase…
    You draw a 6 and a 9, and you get to have 22 3 44 5 66  7 88 9999 QQ K A.
    What are your safe cards now? Probably 4’s are safe. It’s hard that there are 5 in the beginning, divided between North and South, with so many cards to draw. But you must try the 9 first. Why? Your opponent may be tricking you with the 4’s and there’s one in the pile already, so he would keep a stock in case of a frozen pile. This is very important in the initial equilibrium of the pile. You should avoid having 2 of a kind in the pile during the first plays. That way, if you lose the pile, it won’t be unbalanced, and if you give it with cards you have most, you’ll have safer ones in the next pile war. Also, you should avoid getting the pile, for example with the 2 4’s. Why? Because that way you won’t keep stock. Playing canasta is almost like farming. Seed your fields, but always keep stock in case the weather conditions become adverse and crops don’t grow.

    So now pile becomes 8Q49.
    South plays an A. You have just one, he probably got rid of one of his 3 aces, and you start reading his hand. Why do you get to this conclusion: Well, it’s the game phase, he should be doing what you’re doing, and you have an ace in your hand.

    Pile becomes 8Q49A
    You draw a 4 and a 2. You get to have 222 3 444 5 66  7 88 999 QQ K A. With an additional 4 drawn in this initial phase, you’re almost certain that South has no 4’s left, and threw a single in the first play (and most certainly played badly – a mistake made by the majority of players, even the experienced ones). Your decision should be between the last 9 and the first four. My advice: Take the risk, play the second nine. If South get’s it, you play a four in the first play you have. If not (what will happen in 80% of the times), it’s his turn to play.

    Pile is now 8Q49A9
    South plays a 6. Oh god!... In this phase it indicates that he has some sixes. Should you pick it? Well, I don’t think so. You have now 3 wilds, one black 3 and one or 2 4’s safe. I would definitely go for the pile in this case!

    Pile is 8Q49A96
    Now North draws a red3, a 5, and a 7. One more safe card (the red 3), and the hand becomes: R3 222 3 444 55 66  77 88 99 QQ K A. Pile has now six cards. Still early to play absolute safe cards, like the 3’s or the wilds. But if you lose 6 cards, what’s the problem? So I’d play a 4.

    Pile becomes 8Q49A964.
    As I expected, South doesn’t picks it. I am now sure he doesn’t have fours. If he picked this pile he would have an advantage, but you always need to take risks in the beginning, never in the middle. So hold the pressure, feel it, and let it go.
    South discards a J. Conclusions: He’s not playing as bad as we thought… He found North’s hole. But has he got that many jacks? Advice: Don’t even think about that, just stick to your game and keep cool!

    Pile is now 8Q49A964J
    You draw a 7 and a Q. What a lousy draw… Your hand becomes R3 222 3 44 55 66  777 88 99  QQQ K A. What to play? Well, keeping the 4’s would be a good option to plan a pick. But you know your opponent will stick with jacks, so just risk the last 4. Why the last? Because usually you still get another one, and getting rid of too many fours makes the opponent think you got no more if he draws one or two.

    So now the pile becomes 8Q49A964J4
    South doesn’t pick, and we have a pile war. He plays a jack. Damn the jacks you think. Don’t even think, just draw. Usually luck protects the brave ones, in games as in life!

    Pile becomes 8Q49A964J4J
    You draw a B3 and a 9. Here we have the dilemma that usually makes some coward players lose games. Your hand becomes  R3 222 33 4 55 66  777 88 999 QQQ K A. Well, you have 6 absolute safe cards. But there are 2 nines in the pile and you have 3 in your hand. Usually, the first player that puts the absolute safe cards in the pile loses (70% of the cases from my experience). So you have to try what I call “the rotation”. A risked play with 10 or more cards in the pile from a set that you have many. Suppose you had no more than the two 9’s, but for example you had five k’s. I would start with the kings. But as this is not our example, South plays a 9.

    Pile becomes 8Q49A964J4J9
    If South picks the pile, well, you just have to defend and save the day the best you can. Take care of the living and bury the dead, as an 18th century Portuguese minister would say. If not, well, you are now ready for the pile war.
    South doesn’t pick it and plays another jack.

    Pile becomes  8Q49A964J4J9J.
    North draws a J and a 2. Now North’s hand is R3 2222 33 4 55 66  777 88 99 J QQQ K A.
    As South didn’t started the use of absolute safe cards, I would risk the last nine, and keep one in my hand. North plays that nine and South still doesn’t pick the pile. Wonderfull! With seven absolute safe cards, and more or less 50 cards in the deck, it’s almost certain you’ll hold on till the end.
    Now it all will depend on South’s play. If he starts locking, put the red 3 ahead and then start with a 2 and then jokers  (if you have them – to make him feel you have no more 2’s or black 3’s and give him some false confidence). If South plays another jack? Well, you have to start locking the pile yourself, to force him do the same (but in this case, you’re in a disadvantage).

    The rest of the pile war, will always be casuistic and intuitive. But one thing is for certain, once you start with absolute safe cards, you must stick to them till the end. There’s no turning back. If you turn back, in 70% of the cases you’ll lose the pile and the game in one hand.

    IV. Some tips

    • ·         Never meld 3 aces just to make 60 points. When you meld something, meld it with a purpose. There are some players that start to meld immediately. Probably in their heads they think they are putting pressure on the opponent. But they’re not. They are just giving the opponent extra cards to make counts and study probabilities… If the opponent is a good player, he’ll forget about that “pressure” and will stick to his game.
    • ·         When you pick a large pile, for example with still 20 cards in the deck, force the game till the end. You’ll usually have some sets with six cards and your opponent will get frozen with the respective pairs of those sets, making it impossible for him to go out. In 90% of the cases, when one loses a pile where he put absolute safe cards, he will never go out. And the difference for you is between making a score of 3500 against 500 or 2000 against -300. Just make the counts…
    • ·         If you have 7 wilds and haven’t picked a large pile with opponent’s wilds, never make the wild canasta. The opponent will have you in his hand till the end, because in 90% of the cases you won’t be able to go out with loosen pairs, and the opponent will probably make 2 to 4 red canastas, surpassing your wild canasta in score. With those wilds, what are you waiting for? Stick them in the pile!
    • ·         Never make a canasta early in the game with 4 naturals and 3 wilds. What are you trying to save?!? When an opponent does that to me, in 90% of the cases I take the game till the end and almost win in one hand.
    • ·         Never defend playing singles with less than 3500 points of advantage. In most cases, you’ll lose. Defend with equilibrium, trying to assemble the most sets possible, in order to meld them.
    • ·         Consented piles are a myth of “quickie players”. You throw 2 black 3’s to the pile and keep the others, or you have a mixed canasta with 6 naturals and throw the 7th natural to the pile so that the opponent will pick that pile and can’t go out, being stuck with the tricky cards of the consented pile. Well, I use this rarely and casuistically. Using this tactic by system is defending. And you know something? Who are the better teams? The ones that play in continuous attack, or the ones that play in counter-attack? Well, I guess you know the answer: Only the poor teams play in counter-attack.
    • ·         When you have a really (and when I say “really” I mean it) bad hand, and no light at the end of the tunnel, you have no option then to loose less and have the patience to wait for a better hand. It usually comes. Really bad hands happen only in 5 to 10% of the draws. Some really bad hands are just apparent. Take a while, pick 2 or 3 cards, and lights usually appear. Make the equilibrium between those 2 or three discards. Don’t discard two of a kind, even if it means breaking 3 pairs, and I assure you that the 10% is quickly reduced to 5%. The spirit is about always taking the chance (not any chance but a planned one), and have the nerve to hold.
    • ·         Although this is just a reference, usually a player can’t go out with more than 40 cards in the deck. This gives me some certains that only fail 5 to 10% of the times. Beyond 40 cards, well, you must read the game and take your odds.
    • ·         Making bluff is a terrible error, and against great players can be deadly… I use it sometimes, against players that I feel are truly inconfident, but only with those.
    • ·         When you don’t feel confident, when your mind’s not good, well, either you take a break or you were really born to play cards. In the second case, you need some breaks too, but only in really extreme situations. Also, never try to regain losses being nervous, just stop.
    • ·         As all in life, persistence and faith are needed to play canasta. No game is lost till it’s lost. It’s your will and it must be strong. If it doesn’t happen, try again. The great players win impossible games!


    V. Online play vs Land-based play

    Some think that computer play, which is based in sequences thrown by an algorithm, differs from real card play. In my opinion, they’re right and wrong at the same time. Some say, for example, that computer play always favors the underdog.
    What they forget is that the temptation to defend, when one’s ahead, is a psychological barrier that only the really great players can overcome.

    If you are not trained to think logically, you can’t be a good player, that’s for certain. Players who can withstand the pressure and keep their 'cool' are difficult to find. Psychological characteristics are important in a player’s profile. But confidence, as in most aspects of life, only comes with practice and experience.

    I got through very different phases in my canasta play all over the years. I think I have stabilized my play. Whenever I make changes in my game strategy, it always gets worse. But aren’t we continuously learning?
    Do you believe that some months ago I played 6 hands (3 games till 5000), with a real deck, against a real partner, on a real table, with 2 or less wilds in each hand, taking the deck till the end? Has this ever happened to you in computer play? Six hands in a row? With 2 or less wilds? I guess not… So if there’s a difference in both, it’s about the fairness of computer play against the lousy shuffles in land-based play.

    Online play is just more strictly rational and abstract. And for the one’s that think that the others always get the wilds, you might consider that you can have only 2 wilds, while the opponent “has a lot of them” (1 for example, or even none). Think about this. It’s always hard to admit that we have the good hand. It’s part of human nature, I guess…

    VI. The beauty of canasta

    Canasta is not the most complex of all card games. Contract bridge, for example, certainly surpasses canasta in complexity. But I have never seen a card game as complete as this one, and still complex enough to exercise your mind and getting pleasure out of it. Canasta is abstraction, logical thinking, mathematics, psychology, memory, and above all, suspense. When you feel your heart trembling in between a pile war, you just know you love that game. And don’t even tell me about the excitement of taking chances as in poker or roulette, because I like to depend on myself above luck. Good canasta players make their luck, they don’t expect it to fall from heaven.

    As in all games, and I obviously speak for myself, there can be the joy of playing, or the fun associated with it. For those that really like to play cards, fairness is indispensable. Cheating, trying to make your opponent nervous, trying to win outside the scope of the game itself, is killing all the joy that a real card game fan can have. Is it possible for canasta to be fun? Yes it is, but it will not be a real game, it will be, above all, a way of spending time with people that we know and love…

    During Christmas and weekends, I usually play with my family. We sit around a table, we eat and we drink, we tell jokes to each other, we laugh, we have fun! Who doesn’t remember the college days, with whisky bottles over a green felt, and all the excitement in the air? But this is not playing cards, it’s getting engaged in human relationships. And, in my view, it's quite a bit different in competitive online play.

    One can cultivate sportsmanship, be polite, love a game to the point of wanting to play it compulsively, and get intellectual excitement from it. But “hey, let’s just have fun”, or “I’m here only for the fun”, and some quotes of this kind, in my view, is just a way to spread mediocrity and hide low skill. If you love a game, play it for the game itself, and the game only.

    Don’t ruin it for the one’s that really appreciate it, and always do your best! Real card afficionados never get upset about not having luck, this feeling lasts 5 seconds, they only get upset about not having done their best, and that’s the only thing that can destroy a real player’s confidence. There are good games and mediocre games. Winning and losing is always a part of the game.

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