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Jai alai play in progress
|First played||19th century|
Jai alai (//; Basque: [ˈxai aˈlai]) is a sport involving a ball bounced off a walled space. It is a variety of Basque pelota. The term, coined by Serafin Baroja in 1875, is also often loosely applied to the fronton (the open-walled playing area) where the sport is played. The game is called "zesta-punta" (basket tip) in Basque.
The Basque Government promotes jai alai as "the fastest sport in the world because of the balls" and once held the world record for ball speed with a 125g–140g ball covered with goatskin that traveled at 302 km/h (188 mph), performed by José Ramón Areitio at the Newport Jai Alai, Rhode Island, until it was broken by Canadian long drive champion Jason Zuback on an episode of Sport Science in July 2009 with a golf ball speed of 328 km/h (204 mph).
Rules and customs of play
The court for jai alai consists of walls on the front, back and left, and the floor between them. If the ball (called a "pelota," Spanish for ball) touches the floor outside these walls, it is considered out of bounds. Similarly, there is also a border on the lower 3 feet of the front wall that is also out of bounds. The ceiling on the court is usually very high, so the ball has a more predictable path. The court is divided by 14 parallel lines going horizontally across the court, with line 1 closest to the front wall and line 14 the back wall. In doubles, each team consists of a frontcourt player and a backcourt player. The game begins when the frontcourt player of the first team serves the ball to the second team. The winner of each point stays on the court to meet the next team in rotation. Losers go to the end of the line to await another turn on the court. The first team to score 7 points (or 9 in Superfecta games) wins. The next highest scores are awarded "place" (second) and "show" (third) positions, respectively. Playoffs decide tied scores.
A jai alai game is played in round robin format, usually between eight teams of two players each or eight single players. The first team to score 7 or 9 points wins the game. Two of the eight teams are in the court for each point. The server on one team must bounce the ball behind the serving line, then with the cesta "basket" hurl it towards the front wall so it bounces from there to between lines 4 and 7 on the floor. The ball is then in play. The ball used in Jai Alai consists of metal strands tightly wound together and then wrapped in goat skin. Teams alternate catching the ball in their cesta and throwing it "in one fluid motion" without holding or juggling it. The ball must be caught either on the fly or after bouncing once on the floor. A team scores a point if an opposing player:
- fails to serve the ball directly to the front wall so that upon rebound it will bounce between lines No. 4 and 7. If it does not, it is an under or over serve and the other team will receive the point.
- fails to catch the ball on the fly or after one bounce
- holds or juggles the ball
- hurls the ball out of bounds
- interferes with a player attempting to catch and hurl the ball
The team scoring a point remains in the court and the opposing team rotates off the court to the end of the list of opponents. Points usually double after the first round of play, once each team has played at least one point.
The players frequently attempt a "chula" shot, where the ball is played off the front wall very high, then reaches the bottom of the back wall by the end of its arc. The bounce off the bottom of the back wall can be very low, and the ball is very difficult to return in this situation.
Since there is no wall on the right side, all jai alai players must play right-handed (wear the cesta on their right hand).
The sport can be dangerous, as the ball travels at high velocities. It has led to injuries that caused players to retire and fatalities have been recorded in some cases.
The jai alai industry
It is a very popular sport within the Latin American countries, and the Philippines owing to its Hispanic influence. It was one of the two gambling sports from Europe, the other being horse racing, in semi-colonial Chinese cities of Shanghai and Tianjin, and was shut down after communist victory there. The jai alai arena in Tianjin's former Italian Concession was then confiscated and turned into a recreation center for the city's working class.
It was played in Manila at the Manila Jai Alai Building, one of the most significant Art Deco buildings in Asia, which was torn down in 2000 by the Manila city government. In 1986, jai alai was banned in the Philippines because of problems with game fixing. However, jai alai returned to the Philippines in March 2010. In 2011, jai-alai was briefly shut down in the province of Pangasinan because of its connection to illegal jueteng gambling but was re-opened after a court order.
United States of America
In the United States of America, jai alai enjoyed some popularity as a gambling alternative to horse racing, greyhound racing, and harness racing, and remains popular in Florida, where the game is used as a basis for parimutuel gambling at six frontons throughout the state: Dania Beach, Orlando, Miami, Reddick (as "Ocala Poker and Jai Alai"), Fort Pierce, and Jasper (as "Hamilton Jai Alai and Poker").
The first jai alai fronton in the United States was located in St. Louis, Missouri, operating around the time of the 1904 World's Fair. The first fronton in Florida opened at the site of Hialeah Race Course near Miami (1924). The fronton was relocated to its present site in Miami near Miami International Airport. Year-round jai alai operations include Miami Jai Alai (the biggest in the world with a record audience of 15,502 people in 27 December 1975) and Dania Jai Alai. Seasonal facilities are: Fort Pierce Jai Alai, Ocala Jai Alai and Hamilton Jai Alai. The Tampa Jai Alai operated for many years before closing in the late 1990s. Inactive jai alai permits are located in Tampa, Daytona Beach, West Palm Beach, and Quincy. One Florida fronton was converted from jai alai to greyhound racing in Melbourne.
By contrast, jai alai's popularity in the north-eastern and western United States waned as other gambling options became available. Frontons in the Connecticut towns of Hartford and Milford permanently closed, while the fronton in Bridgeport was converted to a greyhound race track. The fronton at Newport Jai Alai in Newport, Rhode Island has been converted to Newport Grand, a slot machine and video lottery terminal parlor. Jai alai enjoyed a brief and popular stint in Las Vegas, Nevada with the opening of a fronton at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino; however, by the early 1980s the fronton was losing money and was closed by MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian. The MGM Grand in Reno also showcased jai alai for a very short period (1978–1980).
In an effort to prevent the closure of frontons in Florida, the Florida State Legislature passed HB 1059, a bill that changed the rules regarding the operation and wagering of poker in a Pari-Mutuel facility such as a jai alai fronton and a greyhound and horseracing track. The bill became law on August 6, 2003.
The sport of jai-alai is vanishing. Poker, not jai-alai, now is the draw at frontons. There used to be 10 frontons in Florida, plus six in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Nevada and two in Cuba. Six in Florida remain. Miami Jai-Alai, built in 1926 and known as the Yankee Stadium of the sport until it became a rundown hulk, reopened in November 2010 after a six-month closure, but is struggling to survive. The spotlights by the front entrance are long gone.
Although the sport is in decline in America, the first public amateur jai-alai facility was built in the United States in 2008, in St. Petersburg, Florida, with the assistance of the city of St. Petersburg.
In addition to the amateur court in St. Petersburg, The American Jai-Alai Foundation whose president Victor Valcarce was a pelotari at Dania Jai-Alai (MAGO #86) and was considered the best "pelota de goma" (rubber ball) player in the world, sponsors (in North Miami Beach, Florida) the only indoor air conditioned cancha, (once owned by World Jai-Alai as a school which in 1972 produced the greatest American pelotari, Joey Cornblit #37) that is still open with free lessons from some of the sport's best. During the late 1960s, in addition to North Miami Amateur, there was at least one other amateur court. From International Amateur Jai-Alai in South Miami professional players emerged including "RANDY" #44 at World Jai-Alai, regarded as the first American pelotari who turned pro in 1968 and enjoyed a lengthy career. In the 1970's and early 1980's Orbea's Jai-Alai in Hialeah featured four indoor courts. Two of the courts played with hard rubber balls ("pelota de goma") were shorter than a standard court (75' / 90') & used for training players and amateur leagues. There were also two courts played with the regulation pelota (hardball / "pelota dura"), one short in length (115') and one regulation length (150'). Orbea's also sold equipment such as cestas & helmets. Retired players visited and played as well as highly skilled amateurs, pros from Miami Jai-Alai and various other professional frontons operating at the time. What the South Miami, North Miami, Orbea & later the Milford amateur courts contributed to what is thought to be the golden age of the amateur jai-alai player & the sport in the United States is impressive. In the late 1980s at least one other amateur court was constructed in Connecticut.
At Dania Jai Alai, there is a "Hall of Fame" which documents the best front and back court players.
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