3. CAN YOU REALLY WIN?

 

Can an individual bettor expect to win consistently over an extended period? Unequivocally: Yes.

Is it easy? Is there a formula or a secret? No and No.

Gambling involves risk taking. Winning requires careful assessment of risks and possible rewards, coupled with sound money management. Just as in stock market investing, oil exploration and poker, hard work is required. Luck has nothing to do with winning; playing the percentages is what is required.

How can I be so sure?

 

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD
Let's start with what facts we have to go on.

First, jai-alai is honest. Games are not fixed.

Second, it is a game of skill. As in any sport, the ball often takes a lucky (or unlucky) bounce, but over any reasonable time period the ability to catch the ball cleanly and throw it accurately determines who wins most points.

Third, there is a significant difference in the degree of skill possessed by the various players. There is also a difference in the consistency of play among the players. In other words, some players play at about the same level all the time, while others alternate between "on" nights and "off" nights.

Fourth, there is a conscious attempt to offset unequal skills by assigning the top players the worst post positions, weaker partners and tougher competition more frequently than the less skillful players. The idea is to give all players as equal a chance of winning as possible. This handicapping of the better players is analogous to the situation in horse racing, where the better class horses are made to run with extra weights in the saddle.

Fifth, the majority of bettors on any given night are relatively uninformed Many in the audience have never been to jai-alai before, or don't understand the game, or have little knowledge of the players. A significant proportion of the crowd just "bets the numbers."

Sixth, the great majority of bettors are wagering on combination bets (Quinielas, Perfectas and Trifectas) and are doing so without regard to the odds quoted on their selections.

What do these things mean?

Successful stock market investors know something about the intrinsic value of the stocks they consider for purchase. When the value of one of those securities appears to be greater than the price of the stock on the Exchange where it is traded, they have the opportunity to buy at a bargain price. It is no guarantee of success. But it makes the percentages work for them since underpriced stocks tend to provide a better investment return than overpriced ones. Not all of them work out satisfactorily, but on the average this is a sound strategy.

So, too, with jai-alai. If you take the trouble to learn something about the skill levels of the different players; their consistency of play; and the effect of handicapping on the chances of each team's winning, you can begin to evaluate (with the help of this book) the relative chances or odds of success of each team.

Comparing your estimate of your selection's chances of winning with the odds shown on the tote board will then give you an understanding of whether you are making a wise bet or a foolish one. Most people don't want to bother with all this work, don't know how to, or would rather just go along with their instincts. That is why most people lose.

Albert Gray, a successful business executive, once said that the difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the successful ones cultivate the habit of doing the things that unsuccessful people don't want to do.

Unsuccessful bettors want to get lucky and win. They don't believe that hard work and analysis will pay off. So they make foolish bets and end up losing.

At this point let me say a few words about two concepts that tend to confuse amateur gamblers: the difference between luck and playing percentages; and the difference between winning bets and smart bets.

If you are going to wager with the expectation of winning, you must understand that you will not normally win a large proportion of your wagers. You will have to get used to the idea that there will be nights when you cash no tickets, but the fat woman in the next seat with the banjo and the goose who is betting on colors (the woman, not the goose) hits four Quinielas. Over the season the fat woman's bankroll will shrink as yours expands.

You will also have to get used to the idea that the man next to you may bet an 8-7-6 Trifecta because those are the ages of his children and win more on one "lucky" bet than you will win all year betting "intelligently." This is hard to take, especially when he yells "Atta boy, Rufino" and Rufino isn't even playing. You have to keep telling yourself that someone has to win every Lottery and that, as World Jai-alai's advertising puts it: "Luck is good. Brains are better." Remember that for every person who comes out ahead on the year as the result of hitting one or more lucky Trifectas, there are hundreds and hundreds of losers. (The money has to come from somewhere.)

Your objective is not to have a "lucky night." You are not playing Bingo. Your objective is to cash a certain percentage of your tickets regularly at an average price sufficient to give you a positive return on your investment over the entire season.

You achieve this by making only smart bets. A "smart bet" is one where the odds you actually get are greater than your selection's chances of winning. Whether you actually win or lose a particular game because of luck is immaterial. What is critical is that you learn to correctly evaluate your selection's chances and that the actual odds are better than what your evaluation indicates they should be.

On the other hand, if you think that Team 5 should be 5-1 and it goes off at 4-1, but you bet it anyway, that is a "dumb bet" even if Team 5 wins. If that seems hard to understand, go back and, reread this section. You still have a loser's mentality.

 

MYTHS
Before we go further, let me take up and dispel several myths surrounding jai-alai betting.

Myth Number 1 is that you can't win because the state and the fronton management keep 18% of the money bet and only return 82% to the bettors. It is true that there is an 18% "take" in Connecticut and that this is a large handicap to overcome. If there were no take, then all that would happen would be that the total amount wagered would be shifted around, with the wiser bettors winning what the not-so-wise lost. This still happens even with the takeout, but it makes things harder on the smart bettor.

The way to think of the take is as though it is an 18% tax on winnings, because the only people who pay it are in fact the holders of winning tickets. Its effect is to reduce the odds that you are offered. The following table illustrates this:

Actual Odds Quoted

Approximate Odds Which Would Be Quoted If There Were No "Take"
2-1 2.5-1
3-1 3.5-1
4-1 5-1
5-1 6-1
6-1 7.5-1
7-1 8.5-1
8-1 10-1
9-1 11-1
10-1 12-1
25-1 30-1
50-1 60-1
100-1 120-1
500-1 600-1

The important thing to realize is that betting odds (i.e., the odds shown on the scoreboard) have little to do with any team's chances of winning. The intelligent bettor's job is to evaluate as best he can each team's chances of winning and then compare them to what is being displayed on the scoreboard. When the quoted odds are higher than what he thinks they should be, he bets. If not, he doesn't. In other words, the smart bettor must be a bargain shopper. The effect of the 18% take is only to reduce the number of bargains (smart bets) you will find. It does not eliminate them.

Myth Number 2 is that you can't win because so much luck is involved. There is a significant element of luck in jai-alai, no question about it. But there is some luck involved in all sports. If there were no luck, the best players would win most of the games, and jai-alai would be as exciting to watch as a chess match.

If there were no luck, it would be impossible to win as a bettor, since the best teams would be bet down to ridiculously low odds. The great teams and athletes in any sport are the ones who overcome back luck. It is the task of the intelligent bettor to sort out bad play from bad luck and to ascertain which players play consistently regardless of the breaks of the game. True "luck" will average out in the course of time. The elements of skill will determine which players perform best. And the bettor who understands the game, and bets with the percentages in his favor, will achieve a satisfactory return on his wagers.

Smart gamblers smile when people say that Poker is a game of luck which depends on what cards you are dealt, or that Backgammon is a game of chance because how you do depends on how the dice land. While cards and dice involve random chance, neither Poker nor Backgammon is a game of luck. They are not games of pure skill, like Chess, but the difference between winning and losing is a knowledge and proper use of the percentages, probabilities and odds. This is also the case with jai-alai.

Myth Number 3 is that you can't win betting on the players, because they all play about the same over the entire season. While it is true that there is a very narrow range in the winning percentages of the various players, this is because of the effect of handicapping. The more skilled players are handicapped in various ways to cut down on their superiority, thus giving less skilled players a more equal chance to win. These handicaps vary widely from game to game, however. Knowledge of basic skill levels, current playing form, and how the various handicaps impact on the probabilities of winning is what makes it possible to win at jai-alai. This book was written in order to help you gain that knowledge.

Myth Number 4 is that the only way to win is to watch and see which players or numbers are "due" to win, and then bet accordingly. This is pure rubbish. Every game in jai-alai is independent of every other game. While players will go on winning streaks or into slumps, the idea that they are due to win or due to lose because they have been losing (or winning) frequently is simply not true.

It is true that the more successful a player is, the more heavily he will be handicapped, while players on a losing streak will be less handicapped gradually, until they start winning again. But taking this into account in your wagering is by no means the same as betting on a certain player because "he hasn't won yet tonight, so he's due," or avoiding a player because "he's already won his quota for the night." There are no quotas in jai-alai.

Betting the numbers "because they are due" is even worse, as is the avoidance of a post position which has hit "because it has already come in." Any post may win any number of games in an evening or it may not come in at all. Yet a large percentage of the audience bets as though all of the winning numbers are predetermined, with the trick being to figure out which of those pre-ordained numbers is due to come up. Their methods are based on false assumptions, just like those of the people who sit at a Roulette table waiting for a certain number which is "due." You can go bankrupt waiting.

Once you realize that each game is independent of the ones that have gone before, you can analyze things with simple mathematics. For an example, if you are flipping a coin, the odds against throwing 10 consecutive heads are over 1,000-1. However, once 9 straight heads have been thrown, the odds against the tenth head now being tossed are 1-1 (even money). The previous nine heads have no significance whatsoever on the tenth toss. This is a mathematical fact, not just my opinion. Yet most people would be inclined to bet on tails coming up after nine heads have just been thrown, on the theory that "tails is overdue." They would be wrong. Heads is just as likely on the tenth throw as on the first. *


* For a fuller discussion of this subject, the reader is referred to any introductory textbook on the mathematical theory of probability.

Myth Number 5 is that you can't win because the games are fixed. Some people think that the games are fixed by gamblers; others think that the games are fixed by the Management to ensure a good show, just as in professional wrestling. Either belief is false. Professional jai-alai players are outstanding athletes. They are paid very well, in line with professional athletes everywhere. The incomes of top stars are in the six-figure range.

Years ago, players swore before a crucifix at the start of each game, promising to do their best. When pay was low, it may have been possible for gamblers to bribe players to throw partido games. Today it is not possible. First of all, the risk to the players would not make accepting a bribe worthwhile unless the amount was very large. The amount of the bribe would be a "cost" which the gambler would have to recover from his betting on the contest being fixed. Also, more than one player or team would have to be involved since the American version of the game has eight separate betting interests.

Bookmakers will not take bets on jai-alai, and it is not possible to bet large amounts at the fronton without seriously affecting the odds. The betting pools in jai-alai are very small. * For example, the legal betting volume on the Kentucky Derby is larger than the total handle on every game played for an entire week at most frontons. In order to cover the cost of his bribes the gambler would have to make very large bets.


* This is the reason by bookmakers cannot accept jai-alai action. A smart gambler would be able to rig the odds in his favor by betting modest amounts at the fronton on everyone except his real choice, whom he would bet only with the bookmaker and in a much larger amount. He isn't assured of a win, but when he does, the payoff is a bonanza because the small betting pool at the fronton allows him to artificially inflate the odds on his choice at a modest cost which is more than recovered from his profits on the bet with the bookmaker.

Not only would this cut his return substantially, but it would also be a signal to Management to investigate. Betting patterns in jai-alai games are amazingly regular. Computers scan the activity and report any irregularities to both the Fronton Management and the State Gaming authorities. If unusually heavy betting showed up, an investigation would be made. What player would risk his career, with today's high rates of pay, for a modest bribe?

If a gambler tried to fix a big payoff pool such as the Trifecta, every player would have to be involved since rigging the exact order of the first three teams would be virtually impossible unless all the players agreed to play according to a script. The total size of these bribes would be enormous, and the Trifecta pool would not be large enough to cover the "fixer's" expenses.

The other type of "fix" that fans worry about is that Management may be rigging the games with the intention of putting on an exciting show. This concern is based on the assumption that jai-alai is inherently boring, which is patently false. The best way to guarantee an exciting event is to pit players of equal skills and offer prizes for winning. This is precisely what the Fronton Management does. Players are divided into different skill groups so that they generally play with players of comparable abilities. Cash bonuses are awarded based on how well players do in each game, * and regular salaries are based on each player's total record over an entire season.


* Typically $100-$200 per game will be divided among the players finishing first, second, and third, with the winner(s) getting half. Other bonuses are awarded based on performance over an entire season.

In other words, jai-alai is not a "performance," but a contest with money at stake; the players are not "entertainers," but competitive athletes playing a very dangerous game for gold and glory. Pelotaris are professionals; the pride they take in their play is on par with that of other professional sports stars. They are human and sometimes make mistakes. Some are better than others, and others aren't. But no quarter is given, and none expected. Players have been blinded, maimed and killed at jai-alai. No player should ever be considered a good bet because he is "due." In jai-alai you win the points you earn and generally lose the ones where you are outplayed. A few points are won or lost on luck, but no one gives points away, least of all the Management.

Now that we have talked about misconceptions and, hopefully, put them to rest, we are almost ready to start discussing how to properly approach betting on jai-alai. This will involve evaluating players and teams, plus an assessment of the effect of post position handicaps on the chances of winning. Before we get to that, however, there are two more preliminary concepts to touch upon.

 

DIG YOUR OWN GRAVE
If you want to be successful as a jai-alai speculator, you are going to have to work at it. There are no short cuts.

Newer fans are often tempted to rely on the selections of the public handicappers whose choices are listed in the program. This is a waste of time. Their selections do only marginally better than random guessing. Furthermore, their picks necessarily must be made before any late scratches or substitutions and without observing the players on the day the games are being played. The program handicappers have no real "inside information," and their advice is worth what you pay for it.

A number of tip sheets are usually sold near the program stand. They have colorful names like "Benny the Basque's Pelota Picks." These sheets make three or four selections per game. With that many picks out of eight entries in each game they naturally have a large number of winners. If you pick four entries in each game, you should win an average of about one out of two games, or six per program. It sounds pretty impressive when they tell you that they are getting six winners per program.

But their average payoff per victory on a straight win bet is roughly $13. For an entire program they require a minimum bet of $8 per game (to cover all four of their selections) or $96 for the total of 12 games. The six winners return 6 x $13.00 = $78 which produces a net loss of $18 or over 18%, the same percentage loss you'd sustain if you picked your selections with a hatpin!

It doesn't matter whether they offer three selections per game or four, or whether they recommend straight bets, Quinielas or Perfectas, the result is the same. You bet a lot, but don't get enough back to cover your costs.

The only benefit of multiple betting is that by buying a lot of tickets you are more likely to cash a few, thus reducing your chances of being shut out without anything on the day. In other words, by spreading the risk this way you minimize the cost of the evening's entertainment. But you also minimize your chances of coming out ahead. If you want to go to jai-alai for entertainment, this is fine. It is an exciting game to watch. But if you are coming to win, you have to minimize the number of bets you make. You don't do this by following the tip sheets.

Another reason for not playing the tip sheet selections is that too many people do it. When one of their selections wins, the payoffs are diluted by virtue of the fact that they are heavily followed. I could probably build a satisfactory system around plays which go contrary to the tip sheet selections.

The one exception I would make to my dislike of the tip sheets sold at the frontons is the Bridgeport Jai-alai Record ($1.00). In addition to tips, it provides useful statistical information not available elsewhere. Unlike Hartford and Milford, the Bridgeport Fronton's regular program does not give team records. However, these are shown in the Record. Also, in fairness, I have found their top pick in each game to have a higher than random winning percentage. But their average payoff is low due to the large following of this publication. Unfortunately, the Management announces it over the public address system when the Record is having a hot day. In my opinion this creates unsustainable expectations in the fans.

The bottom line on tips is: You've got to do it for yourself. The tipsters will break you in the long run. They all shout about their individual successes, but are silent on the net profits they will achieve for you.

At this point, the more astute readers of this book will be wondering if I am playing just another version of the tipsters' game. Put another way, if I so smart, how come I'm not rich? Or, if I'm getting rich betting, why am I willing to tell my "secrets"?

These are fair questions, so I'll answer them. I am not a professional gambler. Jai-alai is my hobby. I have a full-time job that has nothing to do with the sports or entertainment industry. Winning at jai-alai is fun. I win on some days and lose on others. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to find and play the percentages that will enable me to beat the odds. While I win more than I lose, I make no claims that I support myself from jai-alai winnings. Very, very few people can say that they go regularly AND win more times than they lose.

I have done a lot of statistical research which I find useful. It is worth something to me as a bettor. It may be worth something to you, if you use it. That's why I wrote this book. I like to do research and I like to write. I'm willing to write about what I've learned, for a price-the price of this book.

Your next question should be whether what I tell you in this book won't become valueless if everyone knows and uses it. The answer is: Yes and No.

I will tell you how to bet, not what to bet. Successful betting requires work. Most people in the crowd on any night will not have read this book. Of those who have, few will remember what was said. Of those who do, only a handful will apply what they learned. Most people simply don't want to work or think too hard. They want success served on a platter. They want someone to tell them "Bet the Seven."

So I am not concerned that I will "put myself out of business." Those of you who enjoy trying to outthink the crowd will enjoy the rest of this book. For the others, I hope that I have included enough facts and figures to make the book worth the price you paid.

 

MONEY MANAGEMENT
I have left the most important subject in this chapter until last. You can be the world's greatest jai-alai handicapper and still lose, unless you know how to manage your money properly.

More money is lost (in all forms of gambling) through mismanagement of funds than through poor selection of winners. Surprisingly, most people literally throw their money away at frontons, racetracks, and casinos around the country. To avoid this, all you have to remember is that it is easier to lose than to win, so hang onto your money and don't fritter it away.

That is only a platitude, so let me be specific and give you one rule to remember. Always bet the same amount on each game you bet. Some good gamblers follow this rule rigidly, but I use it more as a guideline. For example, I bet an average of $10 per game. I may bet a little more or a little less on any one game, but over a 12-game program I know when I walk in that I'm only going to bet $120 (plus or minus $20) on the day. That sounds like an easy rule to follow, but believe me, it isn't.There are four mistakes almost everyone makes. They will illustrate why I have this rule.

Boxing several entries is fine, if boxing is your way of wagering. But if your regular play is a 3-team box, don't play a 4-team box because you are undecided. If you try to "bet everything," you guarantee losing. Winning involves concentration on high probability-high payoff wagers relative to alternatives. The successful bettor cannot afford insurance bets to protect his ego. The cold truth is that you will lose a great many more bets than you win. Get used to losing bets, and don't let them bother you. Over a season the difference between coming out ahead and coming out behind is often a matter of avoiding too many losing bets. Not wasting money on bad bets is as important as selecting winners.

For example, I said earlier that I bet about $120 per program. I bet most of my money on Perfectas which have an average payoff (for me) of $120. If I cash one Perfecta ticket in an evening, I generally break even. To win, therefore, I need more than one winning Perfecta per program, no easy trick. If I can eliminate some bad bets, however, I can buy more than one ticket on some of my selections. Then just one winning Perfecta combination on a program may bring me $240, a 100% return on my investment!

There is a good deal of disagreement among serious gamblers over whether it is a good policy to bet every game or "spot bet" only those games where your selection appears unusually attractive. Another controversy concerns whether there are better betting opportunities among the less-skilled players or the Superstars.

On the first point, I would be a spot bettor if I were trying to make a living as a gambler. Since I only go to the Fronton about once a week, I am not interested in sitting out games that are hard to handicap. I make a minimum bet of $6 per game. Where I am unusually confident or the odds seem to offer a real opportunity, I will bet up to $25 on one game. Of course, I never lose sight of my overall control on the total wagered per program.

On the second point, I find I do better on the games involving the best players since they play as expected more consistently. The counter argument, in favor of betting the less skilled players, is based on the concept that their games have a greater spread of skills displayed, particularly when the younger players get hot and you are able to spot them (or, conversely, the players who are having a bad night) in advance of the rest of the audience. No matter which group you prefer, the secret of picking winners is to select players who are well placed and in good form, paired with partners who are complementary, and opposed by teams which lack one or more of the vital ingredients of winning.

In the next chapter we will begin to examine how to go about making those judgments about which players and teams are likely to be winners.