The History of Canasta

The Invention

Many card games’ histories were passed down fragmentary. They developed over several centuries, going though many changes, branching into separate games. Often, little to nothing is known about the inventor. In contrast, the history of Canasta is young and well documented.

Canasta was developed only in 1939 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Back then, Segundo Santos, a lawyer, and Alberto Serrato, an architect, were Bridge partners. They wanted to develop a card game that was less time consuming than Bridge, which was popular at the time, and less dependent on chance than Rummy. They began pondering how to combine the interesting elements of the games Bridge, Rummy and Conquan (or Coo Can) in one new game.

They considered the elements teamplay, forming melds, adding to melds, and the possibility to buy the whole discard pile to be the most interesting. For weeks, they trialed different variations of these elements. The result is Canasta, a game played with alliances of two players and thus a more strategic and interesting variety of Rummy.

Following their own tests, they introduced friends to the game. Right away, they were enthusiastic and wanted to know the name of this new game. The two inventors were not at that point yet and improvised. They often held their test games at a restaurant and borrowed a basket, Canastillo in Spanish, for their cards from the waiter. After a bit of wordplay, the bulky Canastillo turned into Canasta – well sounding and easy to remember.

The rapid global Expansion

Canasta thrilled Uruguay first, then Argentina, Chile, Peru, and soon all South America. The leap to the USA, however, did not follow immediately. The cause was, presumably, World War Two as a result of which air traffic between South and North America was severely limited. With some delay, Josephine Artayeta de Viel finally brought the game from South America to New York in the USA. The initial success picked up again and soon Canasta was being played all over the Americas.

Soon after, the game came to Europe via Great Britain. In the mid-fifties, Canasta ranked among the most famous card games of the world. The broad global expansion caused the development of different variations of Canasta. The best-known variation is called Samba Canasta.

Standardization of the Rules

In the meantime, so many varying rules had developed, that beginners could never be sure, which set of rules was preferred. So, the New York Regency Whist Club determined and published the official Canasta Rules between 1949 and 1951. This set of rules was compiled in collaboration of game experts from the USA and Argentina.

After standardizing the rules, the situation improved noticeably. Today, these rules are used predominantly. Additionally, the varieties Samba Canasta and Bolivia Canasta were established and kept alive until today.

At the Canasta Palace, the rules are based on the rule set of the official New York Regency Whist Club.

Invention without commercial Success

The lawyer Segundo Santos invented Canasta as an alternative to the time-consuming Bridge. He did not have it in mind as a commercial product nor did he expect it to be a global success. He also knew it would make no sense to copyright the rules of Canasta.

In the end, this would have probably prevented the global success: Companies would have published rulebooks with slight variations to bypass the copyright. This would have done harm, especially at the beginning of the development.

So, it came about, that the two inventors could never capitalize on their brainchild. Nevertheless, some companies were able to generate capital from the Canasta hype. Card decks, Books, Coffee mugs, ashtrays and many other things were sold.