The Canasta Masta


The following essay was produced as part of my 2013 effort for the November National Novel Writing Month effort. As such, please understand that while I did give it a quick review, it has not gone through the same proofreading and editing I normally try to give all of the material posted on this site.

I always make some mistakes. There are errors to be found throughout this web site, and many exist despite dozens of attempts to correct problems. That said, ask that you approach this material in the spirit intended – a basic thought, slightly worked out and very informally researched, delivered in the hopes of writing more than 50,000 words by the end of November.

Thank you.

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A few years ago, Ellen got in touch with us. She had this idea about her, Richard, Terry and I starting to play cards occasionally. And she had just the game…


Without getting too much into it… or the history of the game… suffice to say this was a great idea. Originally played by the group of four, we grew to regularly play in larger numbers. (Mike, Louise and Kris have joined as parts of the gang whenever we can meet. And we have incorporated visits from Kerri and Nick, along with several other people into the games.)

Most times, when we schedule our assemblies, the host provides dinner and such… often creating simply fabulous meals. We even expanded our efforts to include playing versions we created or developed of three-player individual, four-player teams, and now hand and foot contests. (One such modified game is called Dirty Hand and Foot, and features the “Stinky Foot” element.)

Though some of our group members have moved across the country, there are always hopes for us to get together soon to play a few hands, share some great food, and create some fantastic memories.

Heck, we even have a mascot… the Canasta Masta. He joined us during one of our first Canasta Road Trips, and now actually travels on many journeys with us. Check out this shot of him from California…

We even have shots from New Hampshire and a customized Canasta logo (thanks Jay)…

Of course, none of this is why I’m writing to you now. Instead, I was thinking about some of the basic things I’ve learned while playing Canasta. And I’ve come to realize that most of them are really good lessons for life.

And I thought I’d share them.

(Make of them what you will.)

Things I’ve learned about cards… and life… from the Canasta Masta…

You can win clean, and you can win dirty… there’s more points in winning clean

You cannot argue the theory. Sure, I understand -- and even humorously endorse -- the motto “Win when you can, lose if you must, but always, always cheat!”

The reality is simple… when you can play your best against your opponent’s best, in a fair contest, that scenario produces the sweetest of victories.

In our card game, a dirty canasta is only worth about 60% of the points that a clean Canasta offers.

It’s always better when you have more cards in play

It Canasta, you play your cards in ranks. Ranks are a way of describing the breakdown of the cards… King is a rank, Queen is a rank, 8 is a rank, and so on. Canastas are made and points awarded by fulfilling requirements of playing a rank of cards. When you play a group in a rank, the entire group is referred to as a meld.

If you have a bunch of cards in your hands that don’t match… and you only have one or two ranks in play… and your opponent has nine or ten ranks in play… you are in trouble.

In this particular concept, I’m not completely referring to the idea that the cards have to be played and visible to your opponent. Instead I’m talking about the opportunities created by having multiple options in front of you, and also to the idea that generally during a hand the more cards you have the better off you are.

The more options you have, the better your chances.

The more cards you play, the more points you might score.

Call it skill, call it luck, you can only play the cards you’re dealt

I’m going to step away from Canasta for a moment, and into the world of Scrabble. (Simply because if you haven’t played Canasta, it will make the idea a bit more clearly by using Scrabble.)

Have you ever been playing a game of Scrabble, selected your tiles, and then looked down at your rack only to see seven vowels?

You can be awesome at playing Scrabble. But when all you have are the low value tiles… and the words aren’t lining up for parallel-tandem-double word plays… and the bonus squares aren’t close enough when you do have higher-point tiles… and your opponent keeps drawing “S” after “S” after blank tiles… well… being awesome isn’t always enough.

It’s easier to control the game when you have less opponents involved

A black three… a club or a spade… can freeze the discard pile in this game for one turn. And it just so happens that you have three or four black threes in your hand. Now…

If you’re playing one-on-one, you effectively control that discard pile for multiple turns. Unless it’s frozen… unless your opponent has some black threes… you can pass on a discard, using a three to block the pile from your opponent’s grasp, and possibly pick it up after the next round.

When you play with three or more people, that black three is cancelled out as soon as the next person discards. So sure, you can block the next player… but you have little control over the players in chairs three or four.

The fewer things you have to worry about, along with presenting the ability to narrow your focus, always allows for better control.

It can be a method to your madness -- or a madness to your method -- but you’d better understand where you put your cards

Organization matters.

It is very easy to pass up opportunities for hundreds of points because of how you use a wild card. Dirtying clean canastas… not taking advantage of using wild cards to make multiple canastas… and so on.

Pay attention… have an idea out there… think.

Common sense and risk may be the tortoise and the hare, but with limited exception it is always better to open early and go out when you first can

Nothing good EVER happens when you have a chance to go out and pass on it.

Nothing good at all.

Nothing good, never ever, happens when you can go out and don’t.

Bad things happen. An opponent realizes you could have gone out and begins dumping their cards to increase point totals… or, simply because they are drawing cards, they get opportunities to make canastas or draw red threes. In short, they are earning points.

And since you have likely played most of your playable cards, chances are good that you won’t be drawing much that you could use to significantly increase point totals for yourself.

Nothing good, never ever, happens when you can go out and don’t.

EXCEPT… when you have an unreal stranglehold on the hand. Such as might develop around cards in your hand and all possible ranks in melds on the table in front of you.

But overall, nothing good ever happens by not taking advantage of opportunity when it knocks.

It’s more frustrating, it’s slower, and it completely changes the game to play as part of a team, and it’s also a lot more fun

Look… for this one I’ll point to the dinners and amazing evenings all of us have shared. It is absolutely wonderful to do things on your own. But, time and time again, we see that it is more fun to accomplish things with others.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at