GRUPO 1: INTRODUCTION AND HISTORY OF
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 exciti
ng is that the players catch and throw the ball
with a basket
like device which is strapped to their right hand. This basket
) resembles the beak of a seagull
, but is actually a catapult
that enables the players to sling the rock
hard ball (called a
thick wall of solid granite at speeds reaching almost 250
Because of the blurring speed of the ball and the acrobatic skills of the
alai has been described as a blend of
"Ballet with Bullets"
In the wilds of Afghanistan, mounted horsemen play
, a brutal
itive 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
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
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 la
nguage 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.
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
It is not surprisi
ng, therefore, that the Basques invented the harpoon and
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
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
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.
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,
means "merry festival" in Euskara. The Basques usually
st 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 acui
ty of its members than their sports
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 i
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 b
est 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 t
he 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
style of play which leaves the fans as exhaust
ed, as the players.
While there is no standard court size, the normal playing area in jai
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
The arena where jai
alai is played is called a
; the playing court is
. 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,
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
be covered is immense.
As you sit in the
audience, the front wall
is to your right;
the rear wall or
to your left. The side wall
175 to 180 feet long
and 40 to 50 feet high.
The front wall is made of
lid granite; the walls
and floors are normally
of gunite, a reinforced
concrete. Between the
hard surfaced court and
the screen is an out
bounds area (the
) 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
in Cuba, the Havana court measured a whopping 225 feet!
The hard front wall is roughly square, abou
t 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 col
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
ly different from the crisp
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
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 l
have no other significance to the rules of the game.
GRUPO 3: The
The ball (
) 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
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, sinc
e the balls wear out rapidly
from the terrific pounding. Several dozen may be used during one 12
As one might expect, hand
balls are not cheap. In 1959, pelotas
cost about $25
$30. Today they are
much more expensive, costing $120
50 on average
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 wit
h 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
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 us
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 sati
Cestas cost about $2
00 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 $
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
craftsmen weave reeds from the Pyrenees Mountains. It takes
about three days to make a cesta. The frontons employ men called
who spend full time making and repai
ring 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 sp
in 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
atively 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
) 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
) 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
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.
ature 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 simpl
y 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 f
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
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
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!
GRUPO 4: HOW TO SCORE AND WIN
alai consists of a series o
f contests for individual points. How many
points depends on which scoring system is being used, as will be described
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
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.
r 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
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
. If it bounces first in back of line #7, it is
. 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 retu
the serve. Without this rule, the server would have an overwhelming
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 oth
er 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
to a good opponent's ability to volley the serve and
is trying to outfox him,
Most serves are thrown in such a way that they rebound off the side wall
hitting the front wall, but before hitting the floor. This imparts a spin to
the ball which makes it much more difficult to volley.
s 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, rat
her 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. Unle
ss 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 t
he 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. Simila
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
In catching the ball, a player may take it on the fly off the front, side, or r
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
bounds area is dead, a player may catch and throw the ball legally while
standing in the out
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
d throw must all be in one continuous flowing motion, insofar as this
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 al
lowed 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 Judge
s 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 dif
ficult shot. But he is not allowed to
"set up" to throw after he lands. When he lands, his arm must be starting to
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
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
uccessful 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 hi
ts 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
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.
GRUPO 5: ROTATIONS and
VERSIONS OF THE GAME
The classical form of the game is
, involving just two players or two
teams playing to a fixed number of points, from 20 to 40. This version
involves cunning and st
amina, 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
ament 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.
The simplest form of scoring gives one point for each win, the ga
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
will be discussed shortly. In some frontons, games involving less than eight
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
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.
rder 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.
pectacular 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 th
e 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 Spectac
In frontons where this scoring system is used, the scoreboard continually
to remind fans when play is in the 2
While this system adds some complexity to the game, it is not hard to get
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 h
ard 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
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.
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 ou
t 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 eliminatio
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
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 p
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
one point or more apiece
, regular play
continues until one team reaches seven points. If they are tied with
, play continues until one team reaches four points.
(5) If six teams are tied, a procedure similar to a four
team tie is
(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
, play continues until one team reaches
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.