In order to appreciate the game, as well as to be able to handicap and bet intelligently, it is necessary to understand something about the strategy and tactics employed. Watching how well the players do (relative to what they are trying to do) will help you to make judgments about their skill levels. Therefore, we will begin with a discussion of strategy before getting into the specifics of the different shots that are used.
Let's start with the singles game since it is the simplest to follow. In singles, the server has a significant advantage. The receiving player catches the serve deep in the backcourt. His return throw normally is retrieved by the server near the middle of the court. Since his opponent is behind him, the server is now in a perfect position to score a point. If the player who receives the serve does not charge forward, staying back to cover the rear part of the court, then he leaves himself vulnerable to a soft lob or a carom shot into the screen, giving the server the point.
On the other hand, if the receiving player rushes forward, the server will throw the ball high on the front wall, arcing it over the head of his opponent, thus making a return very difficult. The best singles players, such as Bridgeport's Ondarres and Churruca; Milford's Ereno and Uribar; and World Jai-alai's Asis, Bolivar and Remen, can consistently stand at mid-court and throw a chula (kill shot) off the front wall and into the crack at the base of the rear wall where it dies. Such accuracy on a court almost 60 yards long is incredible, but they do it regularly.
Even if the attempted chula is not perfectly thrown, the best that the other player gets to attempt is a difficult rebote return shot off the rear wall. If he makes this rebote successfully, the server usually is still in a position to retrieve it at mid-court, so the process starts over again. Against a good singles player, breaking service can be almost as difficult as in tennis. To be a top singles player, an individual must have sufficient power to catch the serve deep in the backcourt and throw it off the front wall, over the head of the server, and all the way to the back wall. This forces the server to make a rebote and gives his opponent a chance to reverse their roles of a moment earlier.
In other words, the essence of singles play is to retrieve the ball in front of your opponent and then loft the ball over his head so that it dies before he can get to it. Because the court is so large and the ball moves so quickly, the ideal is not always achieved. Furthermore, on a "fast" court, if the ball is thrown too hard the rebote may bounce back so far that the retrieving player is in position to make a two-wall putaway shot on his return. In other words, there are a number of things which can go wrong. But it should help you to know what the players are trying to accomplish.
The doubles game is much more complex since four players are on the court simultaneously, and the playing area is more well covered. Even so, the doubles version of jai-alai is also a position game. Basically, the frontcourt player is supposed to score the points. The backcourt player is supposed to set his partner up to make a putaway shot. Therefore, how well the two play together is very important.
Play begins with the frontcourt player of the serving team serving from line 11 in the backcourt and then rushing forward to cover the frontcourt. The frontcourt player on the receiving team stations himself near the side wall just behind the underserve line. He hopes to catch the serve on the fly and ideally bounce a quick shot into the screen before the server can get into position to retrieve it. If he can't throw a putaway, at least he can whip a hard backhand shot (called an arrimada) along the side wall giving the opposing backcourt man a difficult catch at best.
The object of the server, therefore, is to get the serve past the frontcourt player on the receiving team. This usually happens, and the serve is caught after one bounce by the backcourt player on the receiving team. At that point a volley commences.
The players have two simple objectives during the volley. They try to pin the opposing backcourt man as close to the side wall and as far back as possible. This limits his ability to help set up his partner to make a point-scoring shot. And, they try to maneuver their frontcourt player into a position relative to the other frontcourt man so that he can throw a shot that is impossible to reach.
For example, if you are on the right side of the frontcourt you will throw left if your opponent is also on the right side, while you will throw low and hard (cortada) if he is near the left wall. Conversely, if you are near the left side of the court and he is also near the side wall, you will throw to the right corner of the front wall. If he is on the right side, you may try a soft lob (dejada) to the left side. If your frontcourt opponent is playing too far back, you may try a carom shot (dos paredes) which will hit the front wall, bounce at a sharp angle and go into the screen before he can retrieve it. If he is playing up too close, you may try a picada shot (high bounce) which goes over his head and takes a high bounce past his partner in the backcourt as well.
The struggle then is similar to that in squash: dominate the middle and force your opponent to scramble back and forth.
People ask who is more important, the frontcourt player or the backcourt man? The answer is that they are equally important and must complement each other. In most cases, the ability of a team is the sum of the abilities of the partners. But there are many exceptions to this. Some players play better with certain partners than with others. Sometimes two Superstars will compete with rather than complement each other. They may be used to carrying more than 50% of the load with weaker partners and taking chances that are unnecessary with a strong partner. As a result they may surprise each other rather than anticipating their partner's reactions. This can be disastrous.
In jai-alai the key to effective team play is keeping the middle of the court covered. This is like the "seam" in a defensive zone pattern in football. The partners on a good team flow back and forth over the court as a unit. While bunching and spreading of partners is inevitable from time to time, it is kept to a minimum. When the opponents' throws are allowed to bounce in the middle zone of the court too often, problems are inevitable. The backcourt player will be forced to either charge in for a short-hop pickup attempt or retreat to the deepest part of the court. If he can't make the catch on the bounce, the rebote will often be a difficult one. "Protecting the bridge" is an important thing to look for in seeking out the teams where a synergism exists between the partners.
In many instances the ability of a team is greater than the sum of the skills of the partners because of this synergism. An excellent example of this is Renedo-Ecenarro of World Jai-alai. Playing together they seem to rise to heights that they don't achieve with other-partners. Sometimes this can be spotted by examining the team records in the program. The Milford team of Kirby-Andrinua is a good example. During the first four months of the 1977 season they came in first or second in over 40% of their games together. This was merely a continuation of the record they had achieved at the Dania, Florida Fronton.
Another example of an outstanding team record is that of Ondarres-Goyo in Bridgeport. While both are senior players of established stature, when they play together they win or place in a disproportionate percentage of games, more than would be expected considering the caliber of the competition they play against.
One mark of a top player is his consistent ability to play well with a large variety of partners. A player who only plays well with certain types of partners is like a baseball batter who only hits right-handed pitchers or a football running back who can only run well to one side of the line. Nevertheless, you should be aware that different styles may complement or detract from certain other styles. For example, some frontcourt men like to play back farther than others. This type of player may be bothered by a backcourt player whose style is to charge in and play closer up, even though that backcourter may be a top player of the caliber of World Jai-alai's Javier (who won the 1975 "World Championship" in Spain, playing with Bridgeport's great Ondarres, a frontcourt man who tends to playa relatively shallow frontcourt).
When one of the players on a team has a particular weakness, the other team will try to exploit it. For example, it is generally more difficult to make a rebote shot off the rear wall than it is to catch and throw the ball off the front or side wall. Therefore, if one player is not strong making these shots you will find his opponents trying to force him to make one rebote after another, thus playing the averages, assuming he will miss eventually.
Every player must master a substantial number of shots as there are numerous combinations of ways to catch the ball and return it.
In catching the ball, a player must be prepared to take it off the side or back wall in addition to the front wall. When he takes it off the rear wall, the rebote shot involves catching it from behind and then turning to throw in the same motion, a difficult task at best. He also has the option of catching it directly off a wall or after one bounce on the floor. What most fans fail to appreciate is the tremendous amount of spin ("English") which professional players put on each throw. Furthermore, every time the ball hits a surface the direction of the spin changes, making the catch more difficult to judge, particularly when the ball is traveling at speeds that give it a force strong enough to shatter bullet-proof glass!
Unlike tennis, squash or ping pong, where returning a ball that is coming at you with English on it involves "simply" connecting your racquet with the ball at the proper angle, jai-alai requires the players to catch and hold on to a spinning ball in a rigid open basket that is only slightly wider than the ball itself. This is accomplished by twisting the wrist and allowing a good deal of "give" in the shoulder at the precise moment of impact. Watch a player with expressive body motions like World Jai-alai's Urquiaga and you will see what I am talking about.
The players have several options as to how they retrieve the ball. They may reach for it forehanded or backhanded, and the ball may land anywhere from the tip of the cesta to its deep "belly." Where it lands determines to a great extent the amount of control a player has in returning it. The ideal spot to catch the ball is about 6-9 inches from the tip of the cesta.
In throwing the ball, the player is faced with at least five alternatives. If he throws overhand, the ball will strike the front wall with down spin. If he throws sidearm, the ball will have horizontal spin and usually both "break" and rise as it comes off the frontis. If he lobs it underhand, the ball will typically rebound with little speed and no English. If he returns the ball backhanded in a scooping fashion, the ball will rise in a high looping arc as it returns from the front wall. Lastly, if he throws both backhand and sidearm it will usually both "break" and drop rapidly.
And, of course, the player has to decide how high on the wall he wants to aim and whether he wants to return the ball directly to the front wall or try for a riskier carom shot off the side wall first. Finally, there is the speed of the return to consider, anything from a hard smash to a lob designed to die before one's opponent can reach it.
What we wind up with then are seven basic catch-return sequences, each with an almost infinite number of variations of speed and English:
Forearm - Overhand
Forearm - Sidearm
Forearm - Underhand
Forearm - Rebote
Backhand - Underhand (Scoop)
Backhand - Sidearm
Backhand - Rebote
All of these decisions about catching and throwing must be made in the context of a situation where a two-inch wide pellet is ricocheting around an enormous playing area at the speed of a golf ball. Any minute miscalculation can result in a major embarrassment to a player and, in some cases, physical injury. *
* Sitting in the audience it simply is not possible to appreciate fully the high speeds at which most throws come off the front wall. If you were to stand on the court, you would swear you were being shot at!
Because spin is so important, all professional players play right-handed. Natural southpaws like World Jai-alai star Zulaica had to learn to play right-handed if they wanted to play professionally. A player playing left-handed would have a tremendous advantage on the serve (since the ball would naturally hug the side wall on its return from the front wall), while he would be at a disadvantage on a shot going towards the screen since he would have to reach across his body to retrieve it. But the biggest reason for banning left-handed players in professional games is that the English on all their shots would be exactly opposite to that of balls thrown by right-handed players. This would increase the danger to the players as they would tend to misjudge balls thrown by left-handers.
It is not surprising that most players excel at certain offensive and defensive plays and try to concentrate on those. Few players have no weaknesses. Some are consistent catchers and others are best at putaway shots. Some try to maximize their physical strength by catching and returning forehand as much as possible. Others prefer booming backhand shots which force their opponents to catch and return the ball off the rear wall.
It is helpful to know some of the standard shots that the players make in different tactical positions so that you can watch them try to maneuver into position to make these plays and to force their opponents to attempt the more difficult returns. The most frequently seen plays are indicated below.
1. ARRIMADA - This is simply any shot that is thrown straight down the side wall, as close to it as possible. Often you can hear it literally scraping the wall as it skims along. This shot severely limits the opponents· maneuverability and options.
2. BOTE PRONTO - This is a difficult underhand catch, on a very short hop, of a hard smash. The purpose of attempting this catch is to be able to make a quick putaway shot before an opponent can get into position to retrieve it.
3. CARAMBOLA - This is a fast shot that is aimed at the extreme left side of the front wall, almost in the crack between the front and side walls. It hits the side wall almost immediately and ricochets out towards the screen with tremendous spin, making it very difficult to catch. Thrown forearm or backhand, it is an effective placement when the opposing backcourt man is near the side wall and the opposing frontcourt man is too far forward and on the right side of· the court.
4. CHIC CHAC - This is a long backhand or sidearm shot that hits the floor close to the rear wall, bounces up to hit very low on the back wall, and immediately bounces back to the floor without giving anyone a chance to catch it. The name comes from the sound of the ball as it rapidly ricochets between floor, wall, and floor. This shot and the chula are thrown when the opponent(s) have moved to a position where it is possible to throw the ball past them or over their heads.
5. CHULA - This is a long overhand shot that hits high on the front wall and carries all the way to the back wall in a looping arc that deposits it extremely low on that wall (almost in the crack). The spin is such that it rebounds almost straight out from the back wall, ankle-high, a near impossible return.
6. CORTADA - This shot is made when a player catches the ball in the front third of the court, usually on the wooden part of the floor. The ball is thrown sidearm/forehand, hitting low on the front wall, bouncing near the side wall and skipping past the opposing team due to the whistling speed with which it is thrown and the great spin possible at this angle.
7. COSTADO - This is any backhand/sidearm shot where the thrower has the ability, by virtue of his stance, to observe where his opponents are positioned on the court, thus facilitating placement of the ball to an unprotected area. One of its most classic uses is when the backcourt is relatively uncovered. A costado thrown high on the front wall can be made to angle off the side wall near midcourt, ricochet to the extreme outside of the court, and then either bounce on the floor and go out or hit the rear wall, floor, and go out. (This popular backcourt placement may also be thrown forehand with a sidearm, almost underhand, motion, but it is not then called a costado.)
8. DEJADA - This is a soft lob shot, made to catch one's opponent by surprise. Ideally, it hits softly on the front wall just above the foul line, then drops to the floor with little or no bounce. In practice, however, it is sometimes more difficult to control a soft shot than a hard one, particularly when it is attempted sidearm/backhand.
9. DOS PAREDES - As the name implies, it is a two-wall shot that is aimed to hit the side wall, then the front wall, rebounding at a sharp angle so that it hits the floor and goes into the screen before an opponent can retrieve it. If an opponent does retrieve it, however, he is in excellent position to make a cortada shot. When thrown sidearm/backhand by a really top player, it is called a remate and is generally unreturnable. Some backcourt players occasionally throw a long dos paredes, caroming it off the side wall at about the 8 line. This is a very difficult shot, as the slightest error in angle or speed will cause the ball to go out of bounds.
10. INSIDE PLACEMENT - This is a frontcourt shot, used when the opposing frontcourt player has moved to the right side of the court and is fairly close to the front wall. The inside placement is normally just "dumped" softly into the left-hand corner, bouncing twice before anyone can reach it.
11. OUTSIDE PLACEMENT - This is a hard overhand shot that hits the front wall near the right side, bouncing once at a sharp angle, and then going into the screen. It takes considerable accuracy since, due to the extreme angle at which it is thrown, the ball tends to rebound off the front wall and hit the wooden floor on the fly.
12. PICADA - This is an overhand shot, thrown with great wrist snap, that bounces down from the front wall at a very acute angle and then takes a high bounce over an onrushing opponent. It may be thrown fast or slow, and high or mid-wall, depending on the speed at which one's opponent is running and the spot on the floor where the ball must strike in order to bounce as intended. An outside placement is often thrown as a picada.
13. REBOTE - Any shot caught and returned after it has hit the back wall is called a rebote. It may be attempted forehand or backhand, on the fly or on a bounce. The catch and throw must be made simultaneously, and the player usually is not able to look where he is throwing, since the ball is coming from the opposite direction. When the ball is caught near the floor, the player may fall down in the act of catching and throwing it. This is legal. Probably the most difficult shot in jai-alai is the forehand rebote when the ball is close to the side wall. The player often has insufficient room to make the twisting catch and throw required.
The reader will note the frequent use of qualifying words like "generally," "usually," "normally', etc. This is because it is very difficult to make definitive statements concerning any jai-alai catch or throw. This is a game in which "the impossible" is not uncommon.
There are many players who can catch the ball between their legs, throw it behind their backs, climb high up the side wall or onto the screen to make a catch, and do all sorts of things which bring the audience to their feet roaring. The most nearly comparable thing in another sport would be in basketball when the great Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics used to leap in the air, switch the ball from one hand to another behind his back and toss it in the basket before coming down. Cousy used to do it perhaps once a week in his prime. You see comparable plays every night in jai-alai---and not just once.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR
Once you understand the basics of strategy and know how the various shots are used tactically, you should be in a better position to evaluate the skills of individual players. Wha,t then, are the things to look for? What are the distinguishing characteristics between the better players and the less able ones?
Interestingly, neither size nor age is too important. Jai-alai players come in all sizes and shapes, from 5'3" to 6'5", and with over 100 pounds separating the lightest from the heaviest. As you might expect, the smaller players tend to be faster and trickier and the larger players less mobile but more powerful. But there are many little guys with great strength and many paunchy players who hustle, so don't make the mistake of trying to judge on looks. The fans love to ridicule certain players as "El Gordo" (Fatso), but some of the players who sport a gut are Superstars. (Remember Bobby Layne and Sonny Jurgensen?)
The younger players tend to be more exciting and electric when they are hot, but they are also erratic, lacking the experience of the older players. Jai-alai has teen-age professionals who are outstanding, as well as a bevy of "George Blandas." The older players tend to be more consistent at whatever level of skills they possess. Never discount someone who has a bit of gray hair. The great Erdoza Menor played professionally into his 50's, dropping dead of a heart attack while playing in a game.
With those thoughts as background, here are some of the things to look for.
(l) Position - The best players always seem to be right where the ball is. They may be forced out of position in order to retrieve a well-placed shot, but you rarely see them having to scramble in order to make a routine play. On the other hand, the less experienced players will often be found running frantically to make a basic rebote shot. Given the speed of the ball and the amount of English, it should not be surprising that only the most experienced players can consistently judge the exact spot to locate themselves in order to make the return.
One of the reasons why all-time jai-alai great Churruca can still play with the very best, though he is past age 40, is his uncanny sense of position. He is always in perfect position to make even the most difficult shot.
The great position players are referred to as artistas. Watch players like Bolivar in Hartford, Bengoa in Bridgeport and Urquidi in Milford. As soon as the ball is thrown they move to where they must be to make the most effective return. Their judgment as to where the ball will go is uncanny. It is the number one mark of a top class player.
(2) Catching Ability - In basketball, the Superstars can consistently make baskets without the ball hitting the rim. In jai-alai, the Superstars are generally silent catchers. When the ball goes into their cestas, there is very little sound. This is in marked contrast to the majority of players who catch the ball with a loud "THOK" as it hits the stiff frame going into the cesta. The ability to catch the ball cleanly is highly correlated with a low percentage of dropped balls. The most consistently silent catcher among frontcourt players is Bridgeport's Ondarres. Among backcourt players, the most consistent silent catchers are World Jai-alai's Javier and Enrique and Bridgeport's Chimela and Churruca.
There are many sure-handed catchers who are not silent catchers. But you need to see many games and observe players over many plays to determine who is sure handed and who is a fumbler. Consistent catching ability is as important as the ability to throw well. Players such as Hartford's Ispa, Milford's Luis, and Bridgeport's Ibarreche are not powerful throwers, but they are very difficult to score on because they are rarely out of position and are very consistent catchers.
(3) Power - While craftiness is important, it is hard to find a top-notch professional who cannot throw with power. The simple fact is that the harder the ball is thrown, the more difficult it is to get in position to catch it. Not all shots are best thrown with power. Observe which players throw softly because they are placing the ball in a particular spot, and which players throw softly because they have no power.
A powerful player can consistently reach the back wall with either a forehand or backhand shot. He won't do it every time, but he has the ability to do so when he wants to. The most powerful overhand thrower in the game is probably Bridgeport's backcourt star, Chasio. * A baseball pitcher who threw that hard would set strikeout records that would never be broken.
* Chasio won the 1976 World Championship series in France, playing with Ondarres.
But the most powerful player in the game is Chimela, the Bridgeport sensation who was voted the 1976 Player of the Year by the Spanish Jai-alai Federation. Chimela is always a threat to throw the "Home Run." This is where the ball hits the front wall, back wall and front wall (for the second time) before anyone can retrieve it. He is reputed to have done this on occasion with the ball never touching the floor, but I think that a violation of one of the laws of Physics might have to be involved. In any event, Chimela's extraordinary power and wall-climbing ability make him a terror on the court.
Probably the most powerful players on the 1976-77 Hartford roster are Remen and Arratibel. Remen, a frontcourt player, has enormous strength for a person who is not physically awesome: Arratibel is said to have a chronically weak ankle, but he literally flies around the court, often catching the ball with both feet off the ground and hammering booming backhand shots with great power.
At Milford, the teenager Elorza was able to play almost immediately with the senior players due in part to his great power. As in most sports, raw strength is a great asset.
(4) Killing Ability - A good player must be able to kill the ball when he gets in position to do so. It is disappointing to see someone catch the ball in perfect position to make a point, but fail to capitalize on it. On the other hand, some great shot makers will attempt to put their opponents away on every play. This costs them points. Many times you will see a player try an unbelievably difficult shot, only to have it go out of bounds by an inch or so. You may marvel at the technical difficulty of the shot, but it is still a point for the other team.
The more mature players know that just catching and returning the ball safely is hard enough. They go for the kill when there is a good chance of success. If not, they are content to just return the ball down the side wall, as close to it as possible.
The frontcourt player should be able to score on over 80% of his cortadas and 75%-80% of his dos paredes remate shots. For the backcourt man, look for the willingness to attempt and ability to make the long outside placement throw. It is the mark of a top backcourt player, as is the ability to charge a line drive and spear it on the fly, smashing it back to the rear wall before the opposition can react.
(5) Hustle - Many of the players with lesser talent or experience compensate by hustling, and this nets them many extra points. Young players like World Jai-alai's Danny and Bridgeport's Hernandez are good examples. Be careful not to confuse "showboating" with hustle. Hustling is trying extra hard, running and scrambling for every ball. Showboating is leaping into the screen after the ball has gone by, climbing the wall when it is not necessary, making a routine shot look hard, etc. Sometimes the Superstars will "stunt," bringing the fans to their feet with flashy play. But this is not the same as leaping up the wall or into the screen to cover a poor play, or risking a missed catch by playing to the grandstand.
Among the more experienced players, don't confuse good position play with seeming lack of hustle. If you know where you want to be early on, you can move there in a relaxed fashion. You don't always have to run. On the other hand, players such as Bridgeport's Guisasola and Hartford's Joey are blessed with such exceptional speed and reflexes that they will often take chances on the court, counting on their speed afoot to enable them to recover.
(6) Style - There are many differences in style among the several hundred professional players. Learn the particular strengths of as many players as possible. When they are having trouble with their favorite plays on a given evening, they may be a bad bet. When they are "on" they may be worth an extra look in any game.
A good example is World Jai-alai's exciting young frontcourt player, Eusebio. He is a hustling player who excels in the bote pronto. When he is having a good night he will score with cortadas and backhand dos paredes shots. But if you see him throwing them too low, or putting his rebote shots into the red foul area at the bottom of the front wall, you can be fairly certain that he is going to be having problems all evening. Repeated observation will turn up similar characteristics in other players. It is work, but it pays off and it is fun. When you spot something that everyone else has missed, and it wins a bet for you, it gives you a real lift.
(7) Repertoire - The better the player, the more different shots he can make in a given situation. The more options he has in any position, the more difficult it is for his opponents to know what to anticipate. The best players are also adept at head fakes, thus compounding the problem. Bridgeport's Lecube has an exceptional repertoire, and Orbea has virtually no technical weaknesses. The same is true of players like Uribar in Milford and both Joey and Bolivar in Hartford. Some players have a complete portfolio of catches and throws, but have difficulty with plays close to the side wall. A mark of superior ability is an apparent disregard of one's proximity to the side wall.
There are certain shots that separate the stars from the journeymen players. When you see someone consistently make (or have trouble with) these, it is a tip-off as to where he belongs.
I have said that the forearm rebote is very difficult, particularly near the side wall. Watch for players who can score points with it. I once saw Hartford's great Bolivar throw a chula with a forearm rebote from the 11-line! I would have sworn it was impossible if I hadn't seen if personally.
A chula is most frequently thrown from about the middle of the court. From close in it is difficult to get enough power to make it reach the back wall without hitting the ceiling. From the backcourt the ball loses force as it travels to the front wall, meaning that you need tremendous power to propel it the almost 60 yards to the rear wall on the ricochet. When you see someone throw a chula from close up or far back, you should know that it is not just another chula. It is doubly difficult.
Another shot that increases in difficulty the further back you get is the remate (sidearm/backhand two-wall shot). It takes exceptional strength to keep the ball from sinking and great accuracy to keep the ball from ricocheting out of bounds on the fly. Players like Guisasola and Joey can make it from the backcourt, but this is rare.
The remate from the frontcourt is a popular shot. The better the competition, the quicker you have to set up and the faster you have to throw. Fast release and great speed decrease the chances of the ball bouncing in bounds (particularly on the narrower courts), so when you see someone throw it quickly and hard, you know you are watching a very difficult shot.
The more a player "telegraphs" his shot by winding up in slow motion (legal, as long as he doesn't break his swing), the more time he gives his opponent to get in position to retrieve the ball before it hits the screen. Quick release is critical.
From the defensive point of view, catching any ball breaking at a sharp angle is difficult. When it is also angling towards the screen at great speed it is almost impossible to retrieve. So when you see an Egurbi rifle a 150-mile-an-hour dos paredes shot to the screen without a moment's hesitation, and suddenly the public address announcer screams "Ondarres is there!" whereupon Ondarres comes flying off the screen with the ball, heaving it in the air-Sammy Baugh style-right back at Egurbi who fields it as calmly as if they were tossing Frisbees, you know that you are watching play at its best.
The slower the two wall putaway shots are thrown; the more they go out of bounds; the less frequently they are caught, the lower the caliber of play. This is true at any fronton in the world.
The putaway shot off the serve is another mark of excellence. The weaker frontcourt players will always let the serve go by. It is hard to catch a ball angling down sharply off the side wall.
The stronger players will snag the serve on the fly and go for the kill immediately. If they throw quickly and properly the element of surprise will usually suffice to gain the point. Hartford's Joey is outstanding at this, using a remate shot. Bridgeport's Elu and Hartford's Rufino score off the serve with deadly outside placements, an extremely difficult shot to keep inbounds. And Bridgeport's Chirtu is adept at whipping a very difficult-to-retrieve arrimada with great speed when he grabs a serve. Players who are good at scoring on the serve often score points indirectly via overserves by opponents trying to get the ball past them.
Earlier I talked about "protecting the bridge." Watch for players who consistently throw the soft picada (high bounce shot) high off the front wall, rolling down the sidewall, forcing their frontcourt opponents further and further back to prevent a high bounce which will go over the backcourt man, hit the rear wall, and bounce down at a sharp angle. Many times the fans will boo the player for not throwing hard. He isn't trying to! But there is a reason. By forcing the opposing frontcourt player back, he is gaining control of the frontcourt. If he can grab a quick volley or a bote pronto (short hop), a point for his team is virtually assured. Orbea (Bridgeport) uses this strategy more consistently than just about anyone I have seen.
(8) Consistency - This is the single most important thing to look for. The average player has hot nights and cold nights, and you should observe and bet accordingly. A player like Hartford's Ispa is a good example. He is not a graceful player, and he's one of the few backcourt men who has trouble reaching the rear wall with his shots. But somehow he usually manages to catch anything that comes in the backcourt, no matter how difficult the play. If he could do this every night, he'd be a feature game player. I watch Ispa closely in his first game. If he misses one ball, I get wary. If he misses two, I stay off him all night. When he's "on" he rarely misses anything. When he's "off" he'll often misjudge quite a few balls during the program.
But the top players can never be counted out. They have the ability to make a great play, any time, anywhere. A "hot night" for them means an unusual number of great plays. On other nights they may be having one problem or another but suddenly flashback to brilliance, just when you thought you could count them out.
Also under the heading of "consistency" I consider the ability to return difficult shots with power consistently. Getting the ball back to the front wall is not all there is to jai-alai. If a player can only make a difficult rebote shot by "blooping" it up to the front wall, the opposition will frequently be in a position to kill the point. The best players consistently throw even extremely difficult shots like the forearm rebote with great force. This limits the options of the opposition. On a blooper shot the other team's player who retrieves the ball usually has plenty of time to decide where and in what position he will make the catch. His decision will most likely give him an excellent chance to kill the point.
Learn the proper way each shot should be made by watching the masters. Here are some of the best shot makers for each of the various shots I have mentioned. I have listed one at each of the Connecticut frontons (two at Hartford since World Jai-alai switches its personnel between Connecticut and Florida during the season).
Bridgeport Milford World Jai-alai Arrimada Chirtu Uribar Mendi/Zulaica Bote Pronto Ondarres Urquidi Eusebio/Joey Carambola Egurbi Urquidi Randy/Zulaica Chic Chac Churruca Zaran Arratibel/Zoqui Chula Ondarres Uribar Asis/Bolivar Cortada Ondarres Bereicua Jesus/Rufino Costado Bengoa Bereicua Bolivar/Rufino Dejada Aramayo I Gorosti Aramayo II/Solaun Dos Paredes Guisasola Juan Joey/Zulaica Dos Paredes-Rebote Lecube Gorosti Bolivar/Jesus Inside Placement Egurbi Ulacia Bolivar/Joey Outside Placement Frontcourt Elu Tomas Echeva/Javy Backcourt Chasio Uria Gorrono/Javier Picada Orbea Ereno Jesus/Rufino Rebote-Backhand Frontcourt Ondarres Arrieta Joey/Mendi Backcourt Churruca Azpizu Alberto/Enrique Rebote-Forehand Orbea Arrieta Almorza/Bolivar
So far, what I have been telling you is fine, but only applicable if you have gone to a particular fronton often enough to learn the players and how they play. But is there any faster way to begin to evaluate the players? Where does one start?
GRADING THE PLAYERS
A typical roster at any fronton contains 42 players. Some have a few more or less, but 42 is the average. Normally half will be frontcourt men and half backcourters. Most Matchmakers * divide them into three groups according to their assessment of the players' skills in doubles play. Players who also play in the singles games are separately ranked on singles ability. All players on the roster do not play singles. Many backcourt players are not used to serving and do not do well in singles play. Also, many of the larger backs are not mobile enough to play singles on par with the quicker frontcourt players. Note, however, that some of the best singles players in the world are backcourt players.
* The Matchmaker and Player Manager is a key figure in any fronton. He is the one who decides what games the players will play in, how often they play, their partners, and post positions.
Generally speaking the three groups may be considered to be the "early games," "middle games," and "late games" players. At all frontons the program starts with the weaker players playing first and the best players playing in the later games. But there are important differences in the middle games (5 through 8) that you should be aware of. They are subject to change, depending on the preferences of the Matchmaker. Each Matchmaker has different ideas about how to structure a program. To be a successful handicapper it is important to study the program to gain an understanding of how the Matchmaker at your fronton sets up the games and how he evaluates the players on his roster.
In Hartford, the 12-game card is divided as follows:
Games 1, 2 and 3 are for the early game players
Game 4 (Singles) is for the weaker singles players
Games 5, 6 and 8 are for the middle game players *
Game 7 (Singles) is for the average singles players
Game 9, 11 and 12 are for the late game players
Game 10 (Singles) is for the best singles players.
* This was true in 1976 when Enrique Beitia was the Matchmaker for most of the season. In 1977, Jose Blenner is the Matchmaker. He has experimented with the use of Game 5 or 6 as the first game for the best players. Since the Matchmakers at World Jai-alai's frontons tend to change with the players, the average class of any given game is subject to some fluctuation. What I do to overcome this is calculate what percentage of each player's doubles games are in Games 1, 2 and 3 and what percentage are in 9, 11 and 12. The "early games" players tend to play at least half the time in the first three games, while the "late games" players play at least half of their games in the last three. The rest belong in the middle group.
Hartford's Matchmakers are the most casual about mixing players from different groups. In other words, at the Hartford Fronton players play with a wider range of competition than do the players at Bridgeport or Milford. This makes it absolutely essential that you know what group a player at Hartford belongs in. An individual may have a good record playing with weaker players but be in with a much stronger group in a particular game. Knowing this is as important as knowing the "class" of the horses at the race track. A $5,000 horse that consistently beats other $5,000 horses will have a much much harder time defeating $7,000 horses. This concept also applies at jai-alai.
In Milford, Matchmaker Pedro Bari divides his program quite differently. While he has three classes of players. the early and late groups are disproportionately large.
Games 1, 2, 3 and 5 are for the early game players
Game 4 (Singles) is for the weaker singles players
Game 6 mixes players from the early and middle groups (Sometimes Game 5 is also used for this purpose)
Game 7 (Singles) is for the intermediate singles players
Game 8, 9 and 11 mix middle and late players
Game 10 (Singles) is for the stronger singles players
Game 12 is for the late group of players.
In Bridgeport. the division of the card is more complex:
Games 1, 2 and 3 are for the early game players
Game 6 (Singles) is for the weaker singles players
Games 7, 9 and 12 are for the late game players
Game 10 (Singles) is for the stronger singles players
Games 4, 5, 8 and 11 are for the middle game players. However, they do not play exclusively with other middle game players. Rather, Matchmaker Ricardo Sotil uses these four games to try some creative combinations.
For example, he might couple early game frontcourt players with middle game backs, or middle game forwards with late game backs, or anyone of a number of variations, all of which make interesting games to attempt to handicap.
The 12th Game on the evening programs (but not the matinees) at Bridgeport is unique in Connecticut jai-alai. It is the only game where Spectacular Seven scoring is not used. Only one point is awarded per win in all rounds. This lengthens the typical game from about 14 individual point contests to determine a winner to around 20.
The final game at Bridgeport (and at all frontons) pits the sixteen best players on the roster in an exciting struggle. Bridgeport bills their feature game as having the "sixteen best players in the world." While this may be a bit hyperbolic, the pyrotechnics displayed in this game result in some of the most exciting athletic events to be seen in the world. At all frontons the final game seems to bring out the best in the players. It is important to appreciate the amount of pride involved. Not only is more money at stake, * but the right to be called the best of the best. The senior players at each fronton want to be recognized as tops in the world. The twelfth game is where reputations are made. Play is often on par with the spirit of the Army-Navy game.
* Prize money doubles for the 12th Game. This is also true for the feature singles match (Game 10).
In order to sort out the class differences between players. I use a system of "skill indices" which enables me to rank the players by their ability in doubles. (A similar system can be used for singles games.)
The system I use assigns each player an index number from 1-20, although in practice the range is somewhat narrower (7-17). I won't go into how I decided to use numbers of this magnitude, except to say that I used trial and error until I found something that worked when it was run through the computer. (See the next chapter for a discussion of computer simulations.)
Now Bereicua is an exceptional player in any company. Yet he was relatively ineffective during the opening weeks in Milford, and his frustration was written all over his face. Once he adjusted to the different characteristics at Milford, however, he quickly moved up into the top ten in wins.
From the audience, one court looks pretty much like another. But from the players' perspective they are not. Some canchas are extremely fast like the one at West Palm Beach; others are relatively slow (although "slow" is a word that hardly applies to this game!) The walls and floors may be relatively rough surfaced or slick as glass. Hartford has "slow" walls while Milford's are fast and Bridgeport's are "rough." Milford's floors are also fast. Notice how many points are scored on service aces, a relative rarity at Hartford.
With changing temperatures, the speed of the court changes. The surfaces may "sweat," causing the ball to skip. As in other sports, different players do better under some conditions than others. The great Tampa star, Bolivar, had a great deal of difficulty with the slower Hartford court until he learned to play the Connecticut walls. But, once he learned, ...!
The wider the court, the more the players have to run, putting a premium on speed. The longer the court, the greater the advantage of the stronger players, etc. And don't forget the ceiling. A low ceiling handicaps the powerful backcourt players with booming backhands which rise in an arc after hitting the front wall. If the arc is too high and the ceiling too low, a strong return becomes a point for the opposition. Generally speaking the lower the ceiling the better the players have to be in order to do well. On the long, high courts overseas a player can do well by consistently throwing "deep" shots. In the U.S., he risks hitting the ceiling or having the ball rebound far enough back to set up the opposing frontcourt player for a putaway shot. Thus a player on a U.S. court needs an extensive repertoire of shots.
Lighting too is a variable. As baseball players know, fielding a white ball against glaring lights is a problem in optics rather than athletics. Whether the overhead lighting is direct or indirect can be a factor.
In rating players, therefore, you should be aware that where a player plays may affect his rating. This is a game of split-second timing, and these things do make a difference. Nevertheless, as World Jai-alai's Joey told me, "The best players can win anywhere." Since not all players are Superstars, however, your ratings should be based primarily on play not only against the players on the present roster, but against them at the fronton where they are currently playing. *
* At the very start of the season, of course, you have no records to go on. Therefore, you have three choices: (1) fly blind (not recommended); (2) wait (difficult if you are impatient like me); or (3) send to Florida for the programs at the frontons there, recognizing the limitations in this data mentioned above. Most of the top Hartford players play at either the Miami or Tampa frontons when Hartford is closed. The Milford players go to the Dania Fronton. Most of the Bridgeport players go to Spain to play, so the only thing you can do there is use the records of the previous season.
Within each of the skill groups you can further spread the player ratings around the average in several ways. One way is to see who more frequently gets the less favorable post positions (i.e., posts 5, 6 and 7). These will be the more skilled players in that group. This is particularly true for singles games. But, in order to do this, you need to collect a number of programs or cut the lineups out of the newspaper and keep records for a week or two.
An easier way is to see which of the early game players get to play above their class, and grade them on this basis. The better the players, the more they will play above their regular class. Similarly for the late game players, the lower their ability, the more they will play below their regular class.
Within a class, I initially grade the players between 8-12 for the early games, 10-14 for the middle group, and 12-16 for the stars. As the season goes on, I then adjust these based on actual observation, plus additional statistical analysis during the year. Ratings are not static. Some players will improve; others gain experience and mature; a few decline.
You probably will be surprised to learn that I pay little attention to the individual players' winning and "in-the-money" (i.e., first, second and third place) statistics shown in the program. How many games a player wins (or his winning percentage) is of little significance in evaluating his skill because of the player handicapping system. The better a player is, the more heavily he is handicapped with tougher competition, weaker partners and unfavorable post positions. Very few players win less than 10% or more than 15% of their games over a season. * This is because the more he wins the more a player is handicapped, while the players who can't win otherwise are helped by being given the early post positions and stronger partners.
* Similarly, very few players come in the money in less than one-third or more than half of their games.
There is nothing wrong with this. It makes the games more even and the betting more interesting if everyone has a chance. Exactly the same principle is involved in handicap races for horses. The better horses must carry more weight.
There are two very important points to be made here.
(1) You should not pay too much attention to individual player percentages (wins or in-the-money) unless you know whether the percentages were achieved because of or in spite of the average handicaps.
(2) Any system of handicaps involves judgments about skill. To the extent that you understand what the Matchmaker's judgments about the players are, and have formed valid judgments of your own, you are in a better position to bet intelligently than the vast majority of the people in attendance.
Another note of caution: The fact that a player makes a great play and thus wins a bet for you does not make him a great player. The most common error fans make is to "fall in love" with a player because they have won with him or seen him make a few memorable shots.
In order to correctly evaluate a player, you have to know what he can do (and what he can't), against what class of players, and how consistently with all types of partners. ABILITY--CLASS--CONSISTENCY. These are the things you need to look for.
To repeat myself, the best way to evaluate players is by repeated observation. Observation yields at least two things for me. First, I can assign players to skill groups according to the qualifications in the chart below.
OFFENSE DEFENSE CONSISTENCY 16 Full repertoire of shots
Rarely drops ball
Can return anything sharply
Very high 14 Full repertoire of shots
Can return anything
Returns are crisp
High 12 Full repertoire of shots
Some returns difficult
Good 10 Can make most shots
Sometimes out of position
Drops some easy ones
Some returns difficult or weak
Fair 8 Some shots ineffective
Throws lack sizzle
Lacks effective putaway
Frequently out of position
Often misjudges catch
Has trouble near wall
Often returns "bloopers"
These are guidelines, not absolute rules. For example, some low-rated players have excellent shots and good power, but they are such unreliable catchers that an otherwise high rating must be lowered. Conversely, an otherwise low rating based on pure ability may be raised if a player compensates through extraordinary hustle.
If I am observing correctly, these ratings should correlate well with those derived from the program (which reflect the judgments of the Matchmaker). If they don't then my second approach is useful.
During each game I note in my program whenever a player makes an unusually good catch or throw, or when he exhibits exceptional desire or hustle. For each incident I give him a "+". Similarly, when a player drops a ball, doesn't hustle, is out of position to make a routine shot, makes a weak return, or fails to capitalize on a putaway opportunity, I give him a "-".
Over the season, I keep these plusses and minuses on a cumulative basis. Very roughly, skill ratings may be assigned based on the ratio of plusses to minuses as indicated below:
Skill Index Front Court Back Court 16 3.0 + 2.5 + 14 2.0 to 2.9 1.5 to 2.4 12 1.5 to 1.9 1.0 to 1.4 10 1.0 to 1.4 0.8 to 0.9 8 Under 1.0 Under 0.8
However, it takes quite a large number of observations before these ratios begin to be statistically reliable. Until then, I use them primarily as back-up data. In case you are wondering, the reason why the requirements for the backcourt players are less severe than for the frontcourt players is that the frontcourters get more opportunities to make spectacular plays. (Remember whose function it is to score the points.)
One final comment on ratings. You should not hesitate to raise or lower a player's rating temporarily on any given night if he is playing above or below his normal skill level. Like any athletes, jai-alai players have hot nights and cold nights. They fight with their wives, get headaches, indigestion, etc. Their play on any night may be affected (either way) by many things. Your job is to observe and adjust your ratings accordingly.
Sometimes you will be fooled. A player may play well one game, poorly the next, then come back with another good game, etc. This will drive you crazy. Learn which players tend to do this and which ones tend to be either hot all night or cold all night.
But be careful when doing this with the Superstars. They rarely put bad games back to back. Also, outstanding play on their part is demanded if their regular ratings are high. Avoid the temptation to raise a 14 to a 16 because a player makes one or two sensational catches or throws. A 16 rating requires that he be consistently spectacular. Before raising any player's rating for the day, I want to see him doing something he doesn't usually do.
HANDICAPPING SINGLES PLAYERS
The foregoing discussion has centered mainly around handicapping players for doubles games. A similar method could be used for singles games. However, I use a simpler method for handicapping singles.
Within any of the singles game groups there are usually only a limited number of players. The typical game has four players who are the best of that group and four guys who are not the stars of that class of singles players. Which is which can be determined by examining a dozen or so games to see who is handicapped in what post positions.
The least skilled players almost always get the early post positions, while the best singles players get post positions four through eight. Simply calculate the percentage of games in which each individual is in the bottom four positions in his regular class. "The higher the percentage, the better the player" is the general rule, although singles players will go through hot and cold streaks during the year. Pay no attention to winning percentages unless you are comparing two players who have been similarly handicapped during the year.
For 1976-7 among players in the 10th Game (the feature singles game) the top handicapped stars at the three Connecticut frontons are:
Bridgeport....Ondarres, Churruca, Egurbi and Aramayo I
Milford.........Bereicua, Uribar, Urquidi and Ereno
Hartford.......Bolivar, Asis, Juaristi, * Javier, Uriarte, Joey and Remen (depending on the roster).
* No longer playing in U.S., although he won the 1977 world championship in St. Jean de Luz (France), teamed with Bridgeport's Goyo.
While Gonzales won more singles games than anyone else in Hartford in 1976, he is a 7th Game singles player, not a 10th Game player. When he plays in the 10th game he is playing above his class, even though he is an excellent singles player and will win occasionally in the feature singles game. As in doubles, players often get to play above or below their regular singles class. The table below gives a rough indication of singles games class levels in Hartford among the regular singles players during the first three months of 1977. Note how the relative ratings of the players change from game to game.
% of Starts
in Posts 5-8
Game 4 Game 7 Game 10 80%-100% Renedo Jesus Bolivar Zabala Camy Javier Eusebio Elorrio Joey 30%-79% Oregui Gorrono Zulaica Durango Guernica Mendi Urquiaga Gonzalez Rufino Romo Soroa Javy Echeva Bascaran Pierre Arri Guerrica Randy Alberto 0% - 29% Geno Renedo Camy Onaindia Zabala Elorrio Leonet Eusebio Jesus Oregui Gorrono Durango Soroa Romo Echeva Lecue
In a singles game the first thing I look for is a good player who is playing in one of the earlier singles games than usual. The public often overlooks this in the betting. Next, I look for a "high post percentage" player who is in a low post position (i.e., numbers 1, 2, 3 or 4), but not playing in a higher class game than normal. If there is no one, then I look for one of two conditions:
(1) A "high post percentage" player in post 5 or 6 who knows how to use the server's advantage in singles. He should be a strong threat to throw a chula anytime he gets the ball. If he has more power than the players behind him in the post position order, so much the better.
(2) A "high post percentage" player in post 7 or 8 who is strong enough to overcome the serve from a good singles player (since it is probable that his first opponent will be one of the good singles players ahead of him). If he can be the first to get into the double-point second round, then the combination of weaker opponents and the advantage of having the serve will make him a strong threat to throw a perfect game.
Because of the advantage of the serve, a larger proportion of singles games are won on runs of points. Therefore, the bettor needs to be on the lookout for situations where there is a higher than usual probability of a string of wins by one player. This is particularly true when betting Quinielas or Perfectas. For example, you may decide that Players 5 and 8 have a good chance to "string points." What often happens is that 5 will win his first 3 points, then lose to 8. If 8 can put several wins back-to-back, he may be able to throw a perfect game. Alternatively he may get enough to come in second, with 5 going on to win his second time up. Either way you would win if you coupled them in a combination bet.
The most important thing to remember in singles games, however, is that each player is out there on his own. He can't depend on a strong partner nor can he use a "weak partner" excuse for losing. Knowing the players relative abilities is absolutely essential in singles game handicapping. Fewer games are won on luck than in doubles and, because a good player can run out the game any time he comes up, a poor post position is not as great as handicap as in doubles. For this reason, singles games offer the serious student of jai-alai some of the best betting opportunities on the entire card.
USING THE RATINGS
Once you have developed an effective scale of graded player ratings at your fronton, the next question is how to use them to make smart wagers. This will be the subject of the rest of this book.