Jai-alai is the fastest game in the world. Think of it as an exotic version of handball, played on an enormous 3-walled court by two teams at a time (each with one or two men). The object of the game is simply for the teams to alternate in catching and throwing the ball against the front wall until one player manages to throw the ball with such speed and spin that his opponent(s) cannot catch it or return it properly.
What makes jai-alai so exciting is that the players catch and throw the ball with a basket-like device which is strapped to their right hand. This basket (called a cesta) resembles the beak of a seagull, but is actually a catapult that enables the players to sling the rock-hard ball (called a pelota) against a foot-thick wall of solid granite at speeds reaching almost 250 feet per second.
Because of the blurring speed of the ball and the acrobatic skills of the players, jai-alai has been described as a blend of
"Ballet with Bullets"
In the wilds of Afghanistan, mounted horsemen play budzkashi, a brutal primitive game of polo, using the carcass of a goat. The greatest squash players in the world come from Pakistan. New Zealand breeds long distance runners, Canada hockey stars, and China great ping-pong players. The English have cricket; the Irish have Gaelic football; the Scottish love an exotic sport called curling which features long-handled brooms and a 38-pound stone. It is played on ice, but without ice skates. Every country seems to have a national sport, which its people either invented or excel at. In the U.S. we invented baseball, football, and basketball, and we love all three.
In the Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and southern France live the Basques, a proud people who fiercely guard their independence. They speak an almost incomprehensible language called Euskara which bears no relationship to any known dialect on Earth. The Basques are renowned for their bravery. While bullfighting is popular throughout the Iberian Peninsula, the Basques add a bizarre twist. Each July, during the fair of St. Fermin in the Basque city of Pamplona, the fighting bulls are turned loose in the streets. The young men of the population test their bravery by trying to outrun the bulls as they are driven to the arena. Not infrequently, the bulls win.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Basques invented the harpoon and jai-alai. Both involve great skill, balance, courage and the willingness to risk life and limb. Jai-alai is their national sport, with about two-thirds of the professional players in the U.S. listing Basque as their nationality. * As dangerous as it looks to play, it is actually more dangerous to play than it looks, with crippling injuries not uncommon. Although at least one player has lost his life, and another an eye, the crash helmets which are now mandatory in the U.S. have cut down the number of head injuries.
* Basque boys take up the game at an age when American boys are throwing their first baseball. The promising ones are given special training at young ages, comparable to our Little League. The World Jai-alai, Inc. organization, which runs five frontons in the U.S. and one in Spain, maintains an extensive training school system in Spain and in Florida. But budding American jai-alai players are hampered in their development by the scarcity of training facilities outside of Florida and their comparatively late introduction to the game. Nevertheless, there are quite a few American professionals, including one of Hartford's top players, Joey Cornblit, the U.S.'s first true superstar.
The game was invented sometime in the 15th or 16th Century, although formal frontons (jai-alai arenas) date only from the 18th Century and the modern cesta was first introduced by Melchior Curuchage in 1888. Many versions have been played in the Basque country for over 400 years, by boys against any handy wall and by men as part of annual festivals. In fact, the name jai-alai means "merry festival" in Euskara. The Basques usually just call the game "pelota," which simply means "ball." The game even has a patron saint, Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who apparently found time to play the game when he wasn't busy founding the Jesuits, a religious order more noted for the intellectual acuity of its members than their sports prowess.
Introduced into the United States at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, professional play began in the mid-1920's in Miami where betting was legalized in 1935. When the Dania Fronton opened in Florida in 1953 it was only the second fronton in the U.S. Since then more than a dozen have opened. Today, while more than half of the frontons in the U.S. are in Florida, it has spread to other states as well, with the three Connecticut frontons currently featuring the best players in the world.
In addition to Spain, France, and the U.S., jai-alai is also played in Italy, Mexico, Venezuela and parts of the Far East. In pre-Castro days, Cuba was the Mecca of professional jai-alai in the Western Hemisphere.
Over the years the game has changed. In the U.S., lower ceilings, a faster ball, and an American betting system which is suited to our impatience and love of sports stars who have the "killer instinct" have led to a slam-bang style of play which leaves the fans as exhausted, as the players.
While there is no standard court size, the normal playing area in jai-alai is over eight times that of a handball court, over three times the size of a tennis court, double that of a basketball court, and almost as long as an ice hockey rink.
The arena where jai-alai is played is called a fronton; the playing court is called the cancha. This court has three walls (front, side and rear). The fourth side is open. A transparent wire screen protects the fans from the danger of a stray ball or a flying player. From your seat in the audience, the cancha looks quite large. But even in the front row it is difficult to appreciate its volume. If you were to walk onto the court, the first thing that would strike you is how much bigger it appears to be than it does from the seating area. The surface area to be covered is immense.
As you sit in the audience, the front wall or frontis is to your right; the rear wall or rebote is to your left. The side wall or lateral is generally 175 to 180 feet long * and 40 to 50 feet high. The front wall is made of solid granite; the walls and floors are normally of gunite, a reinforced concrete. Between the hard surfaced court and the screen is an out-of-bounds area (the contracancha) with a wooden floor 10 to 15 feet wide, running the length of the court. The total distance from the side wall to the screen is 50 to 55 feet.
* While court sizes in the U.S. do not vary noticeably, in other parts of the world they vary from 150 to 200 feet in length. Before Castro banned jai-alai in Cuba, the Havana court measured a whopping 225 feet!
The hard front wall is roughly square, about 35 feet to a side. Above and below it, and immediately to the right, are foul areas. The in-bounds area is painted a dark green color to help highlight the ball. This includes the three walls and the floor. The foul areas bordering the front wall are colored red, as are the foul zones above the side and rear walls and to the left of the rear wall. These red foul areas and the wooden floor are of different construction from the in-bounds area so that when the ball hits any of them it makes a sound distinctly different from the crisp "CRACK" it makes when it hits any of the concrete or granite surfaces. This effectively eliminates arguments over whether or not a fast-moving ball is fair or foul, and in-bounds or out. When a ball hits a "foul" surface, it is no longer playable.
There are a number of lines painted on the walls and floors. On the walls are lines numbered 1 through 14 which are extremely important to the players as reference markers to gauge their distance to the front wall for certain shots. The players use them in the same fashion that a billiards player uses the diamond markers on a billiards table.
Three of the lines (Numbers 4, 7 and 11) are continued on the floor. These floor lines are important on the serve, as will be described. The wall lines have no other significance to the rules of the game.
The ball (pelota) used in jai-alai is hand-made, usually at the fronton, by men who spend their careers at this task. It is 2 inches in diameter and weighs approximately 4.5 ounces. Therefore, it is somewhat lighter than a baseball and only about three-fourths its size. However, it is livelier than a golf ball!
A pelota has a hard rubber core of Brazilian dePara rubber, around which is wrapped a layer of thread, followed by two layers of goatskin. The stitching is done by hand. The general impression is that the ball is covered with an ancient parchment. They might as well be, since the balls wear out rapidly from the terrific pounding. Several dozen may be used during one 12-game program.
As one might expect, hand-crafted * balls are not cheap. In 1959, pelotas cost about $25-$30. Today they are three times as expensive.
* To hold down the cost, most U.S. frontons buy uncovered balls in bulk and only add the hand stitched goatskin outer layers on the premises.
People often wonder how anyone ever learns to play such a dangerous game. After all, humans are not born with the ability to catch bullets ricocheting off walls at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. The answer is that beginners start out with a slightly larger and less dangerous rubber ball. They play on a smaller court until they have learned the basics of catch and throw, and how to judge where the ball will bounce.
The most interesting piece of equipment, and the thing that makes jai-alai the game it is, is the cesta. Basically it is just a woven basket which is strapped to the player's throwing hand. In action, it is a catapult, and this is the reason why the ball can be thrown so fast.
Cestas are hand-made to players' specifications, and each man will own 10 to 15 of them. A typical one is about 2 to 3 feet long and 6 inches wide. Front court players prefer smaller, narrower ones which give them better control, while backcourt players usually choose larger, wider cestas to enable them to catch balls over a wider range. It is somewhat like the difference between a shortstop's glove and a first baseman's mitt in baseball. Like baseball gloves, they must be broken in before they perform satisfactorily.
Cestas cost about $100 and don't last long. With constant pounding they become rickety, resulting in less zip on the ball when it leaves the cesta. If the players try to compensate by throwing harder, arm or shoulder strain can result. To avoid this, cestas are well treated and constantly examined by the players. A favorite cesta will be repaired over and over to restore it to ideal playing condition. When they are beyond repair for use in professional play, some players sell them (for $25-$50, depending on condition) to boys hoping to learn the game. Others give them to the youngsters, remembering the problems of securing equipment when they were starting out.
The cesta is made of a frame of thin Spanish chestnut. Between the ribs of the frame, craftsmen weave reeds from the Pyrenees Mountains. It takes about three days to make a cesta. The frontons employ men called cesteros who spend full time making and repairing cestas. They are highly respected professionals. Repair work is especially difficult, as the exact weave of the original must be duplicated as closely as possible. The players are extremely fussy about this.
The irregular surface is what causes the spin or "English" on the ball. A smartly thrown pelota will "break" as much as six feet due to the spin imparted by the cesta, a facet of the game which is not generally noticed by the fans unless they are sitting in the front rows. A hard thrown ball is relatively easy to hold on to (assuming you catch it); it is the spin on the ball which causes most of the dropped catches. A soft shot with a great deal of spin on it is harder to keep in the cesta than a straight "bullet," a point overlooked by fans who boo a player who drops what appears to be an easy catch of a slowly moving ball.
At one end of the cesta a leather glove (called a guante) is stitched. The player inserts his hand into the glove with his palm flat against the frame of the cesta. He then wraps a long cloth tape (called a cinta) around the glove and the ends of the frame, securing his hand firmly. When this is done he has effectively extended his reach by nearly a yard and turned his arm into a throwing machine which can hurl the pelota at speeds faster than any baseball pitcher or football quarterback who ever lived. Yet jai-alai basically is a "wrist game," like squash, as the ball is thrown with a snap of the wrist.
Heat and humidity greatly affect the performance of both the pelota and the cesta. When the ball is cold, it does not move as smartly as when it is warm. Either temperature or a crisp series of volleys between the frontcourt men will step up the pace of the ball. Conversely, on a cold day, the ball may often seem relatively dead, even though the players are throwing hard. *
* On the other hand, a "dead" ball may simply be an old ball. Balls are repaired and reused, just like cestas. Older balls have less bounce. Some players prefer a ball with a lot of zip; others like to play with a less lively ball. On each point the server has his choice of balls and will choose a fast or slow one depending on his preferences and what will give his team an edge on their opponents.
A dry atmosphere enables the players to throw the ball farther, since it leaves the cesta with less spin, moving faster. Dampness imparts great spin to the ball. For this reason, the server is not allowed to serve a wet ball.
A dry cesta will crack more easily. To prevent this, the players often rub a wet towel on the outside of the cesta before going on the court. Also a damp cesta makes holding onto the ball easier since it is more pliable. Thus, the ball doesn't slip or bounce out as readily. A player is not allowed to wet the inner surface of his cesta, however, as the moisture would result in his throwing what would be jai-alai's version of the spitball. The game is dangerous enough without that added feature!
PLAY OF THE POINT
Jai-alai consists of a series of contests for individual points. How many points depends on which scoring system is being used, as will be described later.
The play for any point is simple to follow and understand. Although the game has a set of rules like any other sport, and these appear complex when committed to print, jai-alai is such a basic game that a novice fan can follow the play right from the start, filling in his knowledge of the rules covering special situations as he goes along.
In the singles game, play consists of one player serving the ball off the front wall to his opponent. The opponent must catch the ball in his cesta and throw it back to the front wall before it bounces twice. They alternate at this until someone misses. That is all there is to it.
In doubles play, the rules are identical except that there are four players on the court instead of two, and the two teams alternate returns. Each team consists of a frontcourt man and a backcourt man. Either player on a team may make the return for his team. They are not required to alternate, and it is not at all uncommon to see one of the players on a team making the majority of shots for his team.
Having said how simple the game is, I will now describe in detail the more complicated rules of play.
The server must bounce the ball behind the floor line extending from wall line #11, catch the ball on the tip of his cesta, and throw it directly to the front wall. He may not:
Carom it off the side wall before it hits the front wall,
Throw it to the red area above the front wall,
Throw it to the red area to the right of the front wall, or
Throw it to the red area below the front wall.
If the server makes any of these illegal serves, he loses the point.
The receiving player may catch the serve on the fly, or he may decide to catch it after it bounces once. If he lets it bounce, it must bounce between the floor lines extending from wall lines #4 and #7. If it bounces first in front of line #4, it is an underserve. If it bounces first in back of line #7, it is an overserve. The server loses the point on an underserve or overserve. Unlike tennis and squash, there is no "fault" allowed on the serve, at least not in the U.S. version of the game.
The purpose of this rule is to give the receiving player a fair chance to return the serve. Without this rule, the server would have an overwhelming advantage.
If the receiving player can catch the serve on the fly, he has an excellent chance to make a putaway shot before his opponent can get into position to retrieve it. On the other hand, if he lets it bounce first, he may win the point on an underserve or overserve. About 4% of the serves in professional games are misserved. Often this occurs because the server is over-reacting to a good opponent's ability to volley the serve and is trying to outfox him, but misses.
Most serves are thrown in such a way that they rebound off the side wall after hitting the front wall, but before hitting the floor. This imparts a spin to the ball which makes it much more difficult to volley.
Many fans view the serve as "just a way to get things started." Actually, it is a critical play. In the doubles game the server has about a 10% disadvantage. That is, between equally skilled teams, the serving team will lose 55% and only win 45% of the points, rather than the 50-50 split you would expect between equally matched teams.
In the singles game, on the other hand, the reverse is true. The server has a significant advantage. This is because the receiving player catches the serve deep in the backcourt. Unless he is an exceptionally powerful player, he will have difficulty getting his return past the server who usually is in excellent position to make a putaway shot. This will be discussed at greater length in the section on strategy and tactics.
After the serve, the underserve and overserve lines play no part in the game. Play continues until one team or the other misses.
The basic rule is that you must catch and return the ball to the front wall before it hits the floor twice. In throwing the ball after the serve, a player may carom it off the side wall on its way to the front wall, and this is an important element of tactics. If a thrown ball hits any of the red foul areas or the ceiling on the fly, the throwing team loses the point. Similarly, the throwing team loses the point if their return hits the front wall properly, but goes out of bounds on the fly, without hitting the concrete in-bounds floor area first.
In catching the ball, a player may take it on the fly off the front, side, or rear wall; or after one bounce on the floor, no matter how many walls it has caromed off. While a ball which strikes the wooden floor in the out-of-bounds area is dead, a player may catch and throw the ball legally while standing in the out-of-bounds area.
The rule which causes jai-alai to be played with such rhythm and grace is the one that forbids a player to hold or juggle the ball. In other words, you cannot catch the ball and hold onto it or run with it before you throw. The catch and throw must all be in one continuous flowing motion, insofar as this is possible.
When the ball hits the cesta it naturally exerts a force on the player's arm due to its momentum. If caught properly, the ball will remain in the cesta until hurtled forward by the player's throw. The player must get rid of the ball immediately, or as soon as the momentum of the ball has carried his arm as far as it will go. He may cock his arm to throw, but he may not "pump fake" like a football quarterback, and he is not allowed to run with the ball while he's winding up to throw.
This rule is confusing theoretically, but easy to police in actual games. While it is a judgment call on the part of the Judges, a holding violation is only seen perhaps once per program. The Judges are the three men in striped shirts who stand along the side of the court. *
* The nets they carry are for protection only.
A player is allowed to land on his feet if he catches the ball in the air or while "climbing" the side wall to retrieve a difficult shot. But he is not allowed to "set up" to throw after he lands. When he lands, his arm must be starting to throw.
Similarly, you will occasionally see a player leap into the screen to retrieve a shot. If it actually hits the screen, the ball is dead. But if the player catches the ball and then hits the screen himself, he can bounce off and still make a legal throw. Again, he must start his throw as soon as he lands.
Interference is another rarity. When it occurs, the closest Judge determines whether the player interfered with had a chance to catch the ball. If he did, the point is played over.
HITTING THE BALL
Although almost all shots in jai-alai are made by catching and throwing the ball in the classical and graceful continuous motion, it is permissible to return the ball to the front wall by batting it with the cesta like a baseball bat. This is rarely seen, however, being attempted only as a desperation measure. Naturally such a shot is difficult to control and is not usually successful unless the player is very close to the front wall.
While a player may hit the ball, the ball may not hit a player. If it does, the ball is dead. If the ball hits a player on its way to the front wall, the throwing player loses the point. If it hits a player on the throwing team after it hits the front wall, the throwing team also loses the point.
But if it hits a player on the team attempting to catch the ball after it has hit the front wall, the retrieving team loses the point. Furthermore, once one of the players on a team has touched the ball with his cesta, however slightly, his partner may not then make the play. When this occurs, one of the Judges will whistle the ball dead.
VERSIONS OF THE GAME
The classical form of the game is partido, involving just two players or two teams playing to a fixed number of points, from 20 to 40. This version involves cunning and stamina, as the players stay on the court without rest. Some games will last for several hours without a break. Betting is done by varying the odds as the score changes. * This version is rarely seen in the U.S., being reserved for a few inter-fronton "Tournament of Champions" matches each year. However, some jai-alai traditionalists still rank players based on their skill in partido games. Until a promising new player has "proven himself" in partido games in the Basque country, they will not consider him to be an established star. This is similar to bullfighting, where a torero is not considered to have his professional credentials confirmed until he has fought in the Plaza de Toros in Madrid.
* This is quite colorful to observe. Instead of betting through computerized machines, as in the U.S., bookmakers stand in the audience and shout the changing odds on one team and then the other as the game progresses. They confirm bets made by stuffing a slip into a tennis ball with a slit cut out of it, and tossing the ball to the bettor in the crowd!
The American version of the game is called quiniela; it demands somewhat different skills of the players than partido. Partido requires stamina; quiniela rewards risk-taking.
In the quiniela game there are usually eight teams, numbered one through eight. The teams are identified by colored jerseys. The colors are the same at all frontons.
Team 1 Red Team 5 Black Team 2 Blue Team 6 Gold Team 3 White Team 7 Brown Team 4 Green Team 8 Orchid
In addition, the team numbers are shown in large numerals on the front of the players' jerseys. The numbers on the back of the jerseys and/or the helmets usually identify the specific players. Details vary from one fronton to the next.
The American version is played on a "king of the hill" basis. The teams play each other in rotation, going from Team 1 through Team 8, with two on the court at a time. The game starts with Team 1 serving to Team 2. The winners stay on the court, serving next to Team 3, while the losers go to the end of the line. The winners then play Team 4; the losers go to the rear. The game continues this way until every team has played at least once. Then another round begins with the losers of round one coming up in the order in which they lost. The winning team always stays up and serves to the next team to take its turn.
The simplest form of scoring gives one point for each win, the game ending when one team reaches seven points. If there is a tie for second and/or third place at that point, special tie-breaking points are played. Tie-breaking rules will be discussed shortly. In some frontons, games involving less than eight teams have been tried. In those games, the number of points needed to win was one less than the number of teams, the idea being that if you beat everyone once you have completed a perfect game.
It should be obvious that the first teams to play have a large advantage over the last teams to come up. They have had a chance to score several points before the teams in the bottom "post positions" have had even one chance to play. This forms a basis for handicapping the better players, as will be seen in later chapters.
In order to give the higher numbered teams in the later post positions a more equal chance (and also to speed up the game so that more betting can be squeezed into a fixed amount of time) a system of scoring called "Spectacular Seven" has been devised and is used in almost all games in the U.S. Although there are other systems which have been tried, this book will confine its discussions to the Spectacular Seven System, unless otherwise noted.
Under Spectacular Seven scoring, two points are awarded for each win after the first round of play. This causes subtle shifts in the value of the various post positions since, for example, Team 8 has the first chance at the two-point contests, assuming it wins the last point in round one. Furthermore, it can win the game with only four victories since a 1-point win in round one, plus three 2-point wins in round two, will add up to seven points. We will be evaluating the strength of each post position under Spectacular Seven scoring shortly.
In frontons where this scoring system is used, the scoreboard continually flashes "Points Double" to remind fans when play is in the 2-point rounds. While this system adds some complexity to the game, it is not hard to get used to. However, purists deplore its use as it increases the luck factor in handicapping since the fewer number of wins needed to get to seven points tends to benefit the weaker teams. The weaker the team, the less their chances of reaching seven points "the hard way" (i.e., at the rate of one point per winning score).
Spectacular Seven scoring is popular with the majority of fans because it more easily enables any team to come from behind to win. The knowledge that no matter how far behind your team has fallen, they still have a reasonable chance if they can just get up again, is one of the features of the game which gives it such great appeal to those who enjoy this form of gambling.
There is no difference in scoring or in the rules of play between singles and doubles contests in either the partido or quiniela versions of the game. As we will see, however, there is a big difference in the strategy of singles versus doubles play.
The regular game ends when one team reaches seven points. Whichever team has the next highest total number of points at the time is awarded second place, and the next highest comes in third. Frequently, however, there are ties. Since there is betting involving second and third place, some way of breaking ties is needed. This depends on the number of players involved in the tie(s). All players not involved in the tie(s) drop out of play. The remaining players continue to play in the same rotation order they were in after the last point was made.
(1) If two teams are tied, they play one point to break the tie.
(2) If three teams are tied, the tie is broken, on a simple elimination basis, by the first team to win twice, unless one team reaches a score of seven on the first elimination point. In that case the playoff is won by the first of the tied teams to reach seven points. If the three teams are tied for place, then third place is awarded to the team with the highest total when the place position is decided, or played off if still tied.
(3) If four teams are tied, the first two teams in the rotation order play a point. Then the other two teams play a point. The two winners then play one additional point to decide the place and/or show position. Again, however, it as a result of winning any such playoff point, a team's score reaches seven, the playoff ends and that team is awarded the position being contested.
(4) If five teams are tied with one point or more apiece, regular play continues until one team reaches seven points. If they are tied with zero points each, play continues until one team reaches four points.
(5) If six teams are tied, a procedure similar to a four-team tie is followed.
(6) If seven teams are tied with one point or more apiece, regular play continues until one team reaches seven points. If they are tied with zero points each, play continues until one team reaches six points.
If all that seems complicated, it is. The underlying principle is to get the tie broken as quickly as possible. It is not necessary to have all of these rules at one's fingertips in order to wager intelligently and enjoy the game.