Jai alai (pronounced Hi-Lie) is a little known sport among the mainstream sports fans.  It is widely popular in Florida; especially among gamblers.  This centuries old game is fast-pace; billed as the fastest game in the world. It was included in several Olympics as display sports; in 1924, again in 1968 and the most recent in the 1992 Barcelona games. In 1900 it was an official sport in the Olympic Games with Spain taking the gold medal.

History of the Sport

The American version of the sport of jai alai comes from the Basque region in the Pyrenees Mountains of Northern Spain.  In the Basque language jai alai means “merry festival” and the name was used for the game because it was often played at festive events; usually against the sides of churches.   There are several theories concerning the origins of the sport of jai alai:Jai Alai Basque Court; Photo by Gorkaazk CCA-by-SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Gorkaazk CCA-by-SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia Commons

  • It originated in ancient Greece and Egypt.
  • It originated in pre-Columbian Central America and was brought to Spain by the Conquistadors.
  • It originated as a game that grew from the ball and court games of France which evolved into tennis.

Various versions of the game were popular in 18th century Spain, but eventually the enthusiasm for the sport blew out; that is, except in the Basque regions where the sport continued to be quite popular.   This is where the modern version was developed and thus where many cite it originated.

Toward the end of the 19th century playing jai alai spread to other countries, predominately the Philippines, Latin America and Indonesia.  In particular, the sport was extremely popular in Cuba and when immigrants made their way to Florida in the United States, they introduced the  sport to that region.  When it made its first public appearance in St. Louis in 1904, there was little fanfare for the game.  It wasn’t until 1924 when the first court (called fronton) was opened in Miami.[4]  This was largely due to one man—Pedro Mir.   Mir was born in Cuba and had a Basque grandfather who ran a fronton there.  Mir became a professional player as a young teenager and when he arrived in Florida at the age of 23; he heavily promoted the sport.   The Miami fronton was built with the purpose to showcase Mir’s talents.[4]  Mir served as the chief judge and match-maker at the Miami fronton until he retired in 1975.  He is credited with developing the rules for the game in the United States.[4]

Gambling on Jai Alai

In 1934 Florida legalized parimutuel betting (bets pooled together before an event and then distributed amongst those who bet correctly once the outcome has been determined) on jai alai.  It is patterned after horse race betting; win, place or show.  In addition, perfecta and quiniela bets are allowed. In a perfecta bet, the first two players or teams must finish in the chosen order.  In a quinela bet, two players or teams must finish first or second in any order.[4]

Betting for win, place or show has the singles players and doubles teams assigned post positions, 1 through 8 as in horse racing.  The players are paired for round-robin competition.  Once the players have been eliminated down to three finalists, those three play until one player or team reaches seven points.

Jai Alai Center in Florida; Photo by Gaines, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/243559Credit: Photo by Gaines, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/243559Betting on jai alai increased the popularity of the sport.  In the 1920s frontons were built in Chicago and New Orleans, but later closed when betting was not legalized in Illinois or Louisiana.  Connecticut opened three frontons and betting was legalized in 1971; however, competition from other gambling venues forced them out of business.  Likewise, the fronton in Newport, Rhode Island (where betting on the sport was legalized in 1976) sees much competition from other gambling venues and while the fronton is still open, much of its revenue comes from slot machines on site.[4]  In Florida five frontons are open as of this date. (At one time there were ten frontons open in Florida.)

Equipment for Jai Alai

Players of jai alai wear uniforms consisting of a tee shirt with their post number on the front and their unique number on the back; white pants with a red sash (belt); tennis shoes; elbow pads and since 1968 a helmet.  Three pieces of equipment are needed for the game:

  • The ball (called the pelota)
  • The wicker basket glove (called the cesta-punta in Spainish and xistera in Basque)
  • The court (called the fronton)

Pelota Maker; Photo by Stokes, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/57888Credit: Photo by Stokes, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/57888The ball, or pelota, used for this sport is similar to the ball used for hand-ball or racquet ball.  It is about three quarters the size of a baseball and considered the hardest ball of any sport.[1]  The core is made of virgin rubber from Brazil.  Layers of nylon are added and then it is covered with two layers of goat skin covers.  The pelotas hit the walls of the court with such force, (up to 180 miles per hour [1]) their play life is only about 15-20 minutes before the cover splits and needs replacing.

The catching glove, or cesta, is made from woven reeds and a frame work of chestnut wood.Cesta Weaver; Photo by Stokes, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/57891Credit: Photo by Stokes, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/57891  Top players usually have custom made cestas.  It is between 30-70 centimeters (about 11-27.3 inches) long and is held by a leather glove and strapped onto the forearm.  The cesta cannot be longer than 60 cm when measured straight or 110 cm when measured around the curve.[3]  The cesta was invented by French Basque player, Gantchiqui Diturbide, in the 19th century.

The fronton is used to describe the court of jai alai. In some countries, the courts are called canchas, especially the outdoor courts.  In some places, a building with several courts Jai Alai Fronton; Photo by Alasjourn CCA-by-SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Alasjourn CCA-by-SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia Commonsis called the fronton and the individual courts inside are called canchas.[3]  The court is three-walled with walls on the front, back and left side, leaving the right side open; thus all players play right-handed.  The court is divided by 14 parallel lines numbered from front to back.  A red area around the front wall surface indicates “out of bounds” and on the right side of the court, a 10-15 feet wooden floor area is out of bounds.  Spectators are protected by a screen over the open section.  The court can be varied in length, but is usually about 40 feet wide and 176 feet long.

The Game of Jai Alai

The object of the game is to score points by throwing the ball against one of the walls in such a manner the opponent is unable to catch the ball before it bounces more than once.   The game starts with one player serving the ball.  The server is required to bounce the ball behind the serving line and hurl the ball using the cesta directly to the front wall in such a manner it rebounds and bounces between lines Number four and seven.  If the ball bounces elsewhere, it is considered an “under” or “over” serve and the opponent is awarded the point.  Players then alternate catching and throwing the ball.  It must done in one fluid motion; juggling or holding the ball is called by the referee.  Points are awarded if the opposing player:

  • Does not serve the ball so it bounces between lines four and seven
  • Does not catch the ball in the air or after the first bounce
  • Juggles or holds the ball (no fluid motion)
  • Throws the ball out of bounds
  • Interferes with a player’s attempt to catch and hurl the ball

Most games are played until a player or team reaches seven (Spectacular Seven) in a round-robin rotation with eight teams or single players; though some go to nine points (Superfecta).   Once the first round is completed, points double.  In tie situations, there is a play-off to determine the winner.   In doubles (teams) there is a front-court and a back-court player.  The front court player serves the ball to start the game. The winner of each point stays on the court to meet the next team in rotation with losers going to the end of the line to await their next turn.  The first team to the seven score, wins.   In the Spectacular Seven, round-robin style of play, players or teams with the lowest post numbers usually have the advantage as the Players of Jai Alai; Photo by Karl E. Holland, 1919-1993, courtesy of  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/59059Credit: Photo by Karl E. Holland, 1919-1993, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/59059 higher numbers see less court time.[1]

In the United States, initially most of the jai alai players were from Cuba; then Basques from Spain were brought in for the sport.  When the number of frontons increased (after WWII), a training facility was built in Miami to accommodate the increased need for top players.  The program entailed a four-five year training regime before the students were capable of entering the professional realm.[4]

Professionals usually start young, between ages eight to ten, and train for years before becoming good enough to be a professional player.  However, the youngest recorded professional player in the history of the sport was Piston I who began his professional career in Spain at the age of nine in 1922.[1]

Spectators of jai alai will not want to blink lest they miss the speeding ball bouncing wickedly into a player’s cesta only to smoothly be launched out within a nano-second.  Analyze the players well before making bets; money may disappear as fast as the pelota.


The copyright of the article Don’t Blink: Super Sonic Sport of Jai Alai is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.