How the card game canasta helped my kids grasp arithmetic

How it started

Canasta is my favourite card game, and it had a surprising side benefit in that it helped my children grasp arithmetic when we taught them to play it when they were still very young. In fact, my older daughter was just about five when she learned to play the game, having a special board to put her cards on because her hands were too small to hold them.

Canasta was invented as a game in 1939 when an attorney in Montevideo, Uruguay, called Segundo Santos, who was a fanatical bridge player, found himself worn out after a day at the office and an evening at the bridge table and wanted to find an alternative game which would not take him all night to play, as bridge tended to do.

He tried rummy and a variant of rummy called “cooncan” but found these too dependent on chance, lacking the skill dimension he was looking for. So he got his friend and bridge partner, architect Alberto Serrato, to help him explore ways of combining the best elements of bridge, rummy and “cooncan” and they came up with a game they initially simply referred to as “the game.”

How it spread from South America to the world

When Segundo and Serrato felt the game was ready they invited two other friends to play a trial game. When these friends wanted to know the name of the game, Santos saw a small wicker basket on the table where they were playing and said “Canastillo”, the Spanish for little basket. Later a suggestion was made to shorten the name to “Canasta” which was also easier for non-Spanish speakers to say.

The game meanwhile was spreading rapidly through the Jockey Club in Montevideo and more and more people were starting to play it. It started to spread throughout the city and up the coast of Uruguay.

It soon in fact spread to the whole of South America and was regarded as a Latin American thing.

After the Second World War it spread to the United States, thanks to a woman called Josephine Artayate de Viel who on a visit to New York from her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, introduced her New York friends to the game and it then spread rapidly to the Regency Club in Manhattan.

She was asked to write down the rules of the game and did so. By 1953 the game was so popular that more than 30 books on it were published. From the United States the game spread over the world, even penetrating the Soviet Union.

Santos was quoted as being somewhat bemused by the popularity and spread of his game, saying, “I was just trying to get my mind off bridge.”

I was taught the game by my parents and passed it on to my children. My son in particular still plays regularly. I still maintain that having to learn how to score helped my children grasp arithmetic at very early ages.

It's a wonderful game with just the right balance between skill and chance, exactly what Segundo Santos had in mind 70 years ago.

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Comments 11 comments

brownlickie 7 years ago

I am sure that was the game that foghorn played with the dog and he always won.


Jaspal profile image

Jaspal 7 years ago from New Delhi, India

Oh yes, it's a popular enough card game here in India too, though mainly with the ladies. However the most popular would probably be Rummy (and its variants) and Bridge.


judydianne profile image

judydianne 7 years ago from Palm Harbor, FL

It was popular here in the U.S. back in the 60s and 70s. (At least that's when I played it.)My parents taught it to me. We also played a card game called Euchre.(I think that's how you spell it.)


ocbill profile image

ocbill 7 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

Anything that helps then learn has gotta be good. xlnt info.


ocbill profile image

ocbill 7 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

Anything that helps then learn has gotta be good. xlnt info.


Carmen Borthwick profile image

Carmen Borthwick 7 years ago from Maple Ridge, B.C.

It is amazing how simple things can be used to teach our children. My husband and I used to play canasta early in our relationship until we realized it could end in divorce if we continued the battle. I taught my kids cribbage for arithmetic. Good hub.


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Not a card game I have ever tried. Sounds good though


Peter Kirstein 7 years ago

I'm not one for card games but remember my parents teaching us to play Canasta as kids and having great fun playing with them.


bingskee profile image

bingskee 7 years ago from Quezon City, Philippines

i do not have any idea about this card game but i think card games can truly contribute to develop one's math skills. i find it funny to learn that your kids learned math through this card game.

there are many card games, too, in the Philippines. some can be played simply but the others require talent or skill.


loveofnight profile image

loveofnight 6 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

interesting game.....thx 4 share, i may have 2 check this out


Things Considered profile image

Things Considered 6 years ago from North Georgia Foothills

My parents used to play Canasta with us. Add a deck for every player. I remember being fascinated watching my dad shuffle the cards. He'd shuffle two or three decks at a time, split them into the others, shuffle again, several times before combining them all back together. I loved watching the bridge collapse as he shuffled.

My parents had ongoing games between just the two of them as well. Every once in a while after my dad had gotten way too far ahead of her, my mom would insist they start a new score-sheet.

Thanks for bringing back those memories! I am certain that playing canasta with my folks did help improve my early math skills.

Great game, and great hub.

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