Since Canasta was first developed in 1939 and then became immensely popular in the 1950s, a newer version has seen the light. This modern American version has very much replaced the classic version in the United States, but this doesn’t mean that the classic version has ceased to exist, especially in Europe. This is why you can choose which one you prefer when playing on canasta.com.
Here are the main differences between the two versions:
The differences concern not only the play, they already start during the preparations.
In the modern version, 13 cards are dealt to every player whereas in the classic version each player gets only 11 cards.
Then, in the classic version, the first card of the draw pile is drawn and put face up on the discard pile. When dealing is finished, in the modern version, the 9th card from the bottom is turned 90 degrees to indicate that from that point on, no more talons are given for initial melds (before that, the first player to make the initial meld for their team without picking the pack gets 4 cards, the second gets 3). That way, the first player has already the choice to pick the pack or to draw from the pile.
Now let’s look at differences during play:
Looking at melds in general, initial melds and requirements to be allowed to pick the pack, there are several differences between the two versions, some of them rather large.
Necessary points for initial melds are 15 – 50 – 90 – 120 (classic version) against 125 – 155 – 180 (modern version).
In the classic version it is not necessary to have a clean triple but melds of wild cards only are not allowed. To pick the pack, in the modern version you always need a clean pair in your hand whereas in the classic version, one card and a wild card are enough and, as long as the pack is not frozen, it can be picked with already melded cards, even with finished canastas!
In the classic version, wild cards can be added to any canasta at any time up to a maximum of 3 wild cards per canasta whereas in the modern version, you may only add up to two wild cards and if you haven’t done so in the initial meld, you need to wait until there are at least five natural cards in a canasta to add one or two wild cards and no cards are to be added to finished canastas. Also, the other team may not meld cards that correspond to a finished canasta, making these cards dead cards.
Other differences concern specific cards:
In the classic version, Aces and 7s are no special cards (and therefore may be discarded at any time) and canastas of Aces or 7s don’t have to be finished for going out. 2s and jokers are still wild cards, but it is not possible to have a canasta (or meld) of only wild cards. In the classic versions, it is however allowed to discard wild cards even if other discards are possible and in so doing, the pack is frozen, which means that when a wild card is discarded (and put on the pack visibly in a rectangular angle), a pair from hand is needed to pick the back.
3s in the classic version have different meanings depending on their color: red 3s are melded and replaced like in the modern version, but black 3s are discarded like any other card but cannot be melded unless a player has a triple of black 3s when going out. As black 3s cannot be melded, they are safe discards and can be very valuable.
Diffrences at the end of the game:
Finally, when going out in the classic version, only one finished canasta (not two) is needed and a discard is allowed but not required. Also, as they are not special, it is possible to have unfinished canastas of aces or 7s.
To win a game, a team needs 5000 points in the classic version or 8500 points in the modern versions. The value of the cards is the same in both versions (4-9: 5 points, 10-K: 10 points, Aces and 2s: 20 points, Jokers :50 points), but no special penalties are given in the classic version for any amount of 7s or Aces a player still has in their hands. Finally, there is no such thing as special hands in the classic version.