Bayou City Canasta Stirs Up a Storm of Card Players!


The 36 players in the Bayou City Canastha Torunament held on Sunday, January 17 at Bhojan Restaurant.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: These guys have been playing against each other for years. They know each other’s moves, each other’s strategies, their opponent’s signs of nervousness by the way they flick the cards on the table. But they’ve never played before to see who’s the best of the lot because there aren’t a lot of people who play Canasta in this City by the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s what got Gopal Rana talking out loud and wondering what would happen if they all got together to find out who were the best players. A retired business executive who has been playing Canasta for over 30 years, Rana put together the concept for a day-long tournament between many of the players he knew, with an entry fee of $60 and prize money for first and second place. “It had never been done before in Houston,” Rana said of the Bayou City Canasta Tournament that he organized, “so it was a lot of work getting the teams together and the rules of engagement.”

Canasta, a Spanish word for “basket”, is a card game of the rummy family and a variant of 500 Rum. It is the only partnership rummy game to have achieved the status of a Classic. Although there are many variations for two, three, five or six players, it is most commonly played by four in two partnerships with two standard decks of cards. Players attempt to make melds of seven cards of the same rank and “go out” by playing all cards in their hand.

The game of Canasta was devised by Segundo Santos and Alberto Serrato in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1939 and quickly spread in many variations to Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina where its rules were further refined. It was introduced to the United States in 1948, where it was then referred to as the Argentine Rummy game by Ottilie H. Reilly in 1949 and Michael Scully of Coronet magazine in 1953 and quickly created a card-craze boom.


First prize winners Dr. Sunita Moonat and Sudhir Daga on the right with organizer Gopal Rana (middle) and second prize winners Chitra and Pradeep Pandya on the left.

According to local Canasta enthusiast Virendra K. Sethi, a variant of the game was introduced to the Indian city of Indore in the early 50’s by his cousin who had travelled to Brazil. Pretty soon it spread to Sethi’s family in Jaipur where his mother, known to all as Ma Saheb, took up the game. She taught other family and friends in Bombay and then Sethi and his friends when she first visited Houston in 1982. Pretty soon, there was a regular group playing Canasta every weekend for a round that lasted 3 to 4 hours. Since then, others have joined in and now there must be 70 players in the Bayou City Canasta group.

Rana got the idea of tournament after he took part in a similar one in New York where Sethi’s younger brother Dilip is a diehard player. “There were 110 players in that tournament and winners got one-ounce gold bars!” Rana recalled. The prizes in Houston were more modest: $250 for first place team and $150 for second.

So, this past Saturday, January 16, 36 people were busy playing in 18 teams at 9 tables in the party room of Bhojan restaurant. They started at 8:30 am with some chai and nastha (breakfast), topped off with jalebis and played throughout the day till the final round at 8:30 pm, pausing inbetween for lunch, tea and drinks and dinner afterwards.

Each team got a chance to play a minimum of 5 rounds or “rubbers”, and a maximum of 7, with each rubber taking upto 75 minutes to play. The winning team tallied up the points and submitted them to Rana for approval before moving forward in the marathon match.

At the end, Dr. Sunita Moonat and Sudhir Daga won the First prize and Chitra and Pradeep Pandya won second place. Tired and exhausted, but delighted by the streamlined way the tournament went, the players already talked about a follow up tournament, “and this could have upto to twice as many players,” said Rana.