Fulfilled living in later life
Playing your cards right

Thursday 31st August 2023

Playing your cards right

At Pilgrim Gardens, our independent living housing scheme in Leicester, a group of ladies meets regularly to play the card game canasta. Our Communications Manager Helen McKay-Ferguson joined them for a whistle-stop introduction

On a low coffee table in the corner of the lounge everything is laid out ready for this afternoon’s canasta game – two decks of cards, a booklet containing the official rules, a notebook and pen for keeping score and a handy card-shuffling machine which, at the touch of a button, will shuffle your cards in a trice. Outside, snow twirls down (I visited back in March); inside, everything is warm and cosy.

The group today is made up of Jill, Marjorie (owner of the trusty card-shuffling machine) and Stella. Canasta is usually played in partners so today the group are playing separately in a three-handed version of the game.

The ladies at Pilgrim Gardens started playing canasta in mid-2020 when the lockdown rules were slightly relaxed and meeting indoors in small groups was permitted. “We’d all been sitting in our rooms on our own for so long,” says Jill. “That was a bad time if you liked company. Even after the lockdown rules were relaxed there wasn’t really anywhere to go. Playing games was something to do inside.”

Canasta provided a good level of challenge to keep the brain engaged and break up the boredom of lockdown. As card games go, canasta is a relative newcomer, developed in 1939 in Montevideo, Uruguay by two bridge-playing friends, lawyer Segundo Santos and architect Alberto Serrato, who wanted to create a game less time-consuming than bridge and less dependent on chance than rummy. The pair often held their test games at a restaurant, borrowing a little basket – canastillo in Spanish – from the waiter to store their cards. Canastillo then became canasta, the standard word in Spanish for basket, and easier to say.

Pilgrims Friend Pilgrim Gardens Canasta2
Pilgrims Friend Pilgrim Gardens Canasta3
Pilgrims Friend Pilgrim Gardens Canasta4

There’s certainly a lot to get your head around. After the cards are shuffled (I’m given the honour of pressing the button on the special machine), each player is dealt 13 cards. The aim of the game is to get to 5,000 points over several rounds, and points are scored by making melds, made up of cards of the same suit or rank, supplemented by wild cards. Different cards are afforded different values, and your first meld must be worth at least 50 points before you can place it down.

Today, I watch over Stella’s shoulder. Stella moved to Pilgrim Gardens part-way through lockdown when the card-playing group was already in swing. Stella says, “I wasn’t really a card player before I came here, I was more into board games. But I saw this little group playing and thought, ‘that looks fun.’ I like a challenge.”

For the first three or four weeks, Stella just watched what everyone else did. “I took away the rule book and studied it in my flat between sessions,” she says, “Then I felt ready to join in.”

Stella sorts through her cards. When it’s our turn she picks up two from the deck and we make our first meld, made up of three jacks worth 10 points each and a two, which in this game is a wild card worth 20 points. A couple of turns later we strike it lucky when Stella picks up a red three, known as a red trey, and worth 100 points.

At the end of the round, when the points are totted up, Jill is in the lead. The cards are reshuffled and play begins all over again. Lockdown is, thankfully, a thing of the past. But members of this little card-playing group continue to meet most afternoons. “What’s lovely is that it’s become a bit of a magnet for other people,” says Stella, “People know we’re likely to be here and so they’ll drop in for a chat.”

Do things ever get competitive? “We all like to win and there’s quite a bit of strategy involved, but a lot of it comes down to luck. Sometimes I’ll have a little moan about my hand and joke that I’d better go off to do something else. But it’s just light-hearted fun.”

One reason Stella moved to Pilgrim Gardens was to be part of a community. She shared her experiences as part of our Getting Real about Getting Older campaign. Head to our GRGO hub to watch her video.

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