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 Jai Alai History


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Jai Alai History


Jai Alai Origins

History and evolution of Jai Alai fronton

History and evolution of Jai Alai pelota

History and evolution of Jai Alai cesta

Modern history of Jai Alai

Jai Alai history in United States

History and evolution of Jai Alai rules


Jai Alai Origins and early History

Jai Alai originated in the Basque region of Europe from a form of handball played by the Basques in 15th century. Jai Alai literally means “merry festival” when translated from the Basque language. Basque region comprises few provinces in Spain and France. There are few historical references dated from 15th century mentioning popularity of pelota (a handball game) among Basques. The references include the stories about good players rewarded by the King Henry VII, matches between Spanish and French Basques and descriptions of the primitive predecessors of Jai Alai frontons. In France pelota became very popular at the end of the 16th century. It was popularized by the King Henry IV himself. Before becoming the King of France he was the King of Navarre, which is a part of the Basque region. Reportedly the King was a big fan of the game and a skilled player.

King Henry VII rewarded good pelota players

King Henry IV was a skilled pelota player

History and Evolution of Jai Alai fronton

The pelotas of the 15th and 16th centuries that later evolved into modern Jai Alai were simple games similar to tennis with two opponents hitting the ball at each other over the line. At some point in time the position of the players changed. Instead of being opposite to each other they had to stand side by side behind the line and hit the wall first before having an opportunity to return it. By the 18th century pelota with the single wall playing court was the most popular form of the game. In the 19th century the side and back walls and the roof were added transforming a primitive playing court into a modern Jai Alai fronton. Additional walls made the game more complicated, physically demanding and interesting for the public.

History and Evolution of Jai Alai pelota (ball)

It is very likely that introduction of the wall into early Jai Alai forms coincided with the new rubber ball being accepted by the pelota players. Initially the balls used were made from leather, wool, animal hair and feathers. They were in use until rubber factories appeared in Europe in 18th century. Balls made of rubber bounced better off all kinds of surfaces than wool and skin balls and, in result, they made the action during the game a lot faster and more entertaining.

History and evolution of Jai Alai cesta (basket)

The rubber balls were the hard balls hitting hard the hands of the players trying to catch and return them. Previous wool and skin balls were soft in comparison. Rubber balls were causing soreness and injuries to the players’ hands. To avoid the injuries the players started using gloves. The gloves were made from hard leather stretched over the wooden frame. To make catching the balls easier the gloves had an elongated crescent form. With time the gloves grew in length reaching 16 inches in length. Due to the high cost of such gloves, the glove was finally replaced by a woven basket called cesta. Cestas completely replaced gloves in 19th century and by the end of the century they became standard Jai Alai equipment.

Jai Alai modern history

The three walls frontons, fast rubber ball and the power and speed produced by cesta turned Jai Alai into a very entertaining sport enjoyed by many. The popularity of Jai Alai grew rapidly and it spread into other countries besides Spain and France at the end of the 19th century. In few countries like Cuba, Mexico, Philippines and some American States like California and Idaho Jai Alai was confined to Basques immigrant communities. However in many South American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and others Jai Alai achieved a nationwide popularity. After the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, American troops stationed in Havana, Mexico City and Manila had first the spectators’ experience with Jai Alai. The next encounter with Jai Alai Americans had at the centennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase in New Orleans and World Fair in St. Louis in 1904. The Jai Alai exhibitions in these two cities generated a strong interest for the sport from American public. In 1930s Jai Alai spread into Belgium, China and few other Asian countries.

Jai Alai fronton in old Havana, Cuba

Jai Alai History in United States

The first Jai Alai frontons in the United States were established in the early 1900s in New Orleans and Chicago. They were closed in 1920s during hard economic times. In1924 the first Jai Alai fronton was built in Florida. It was followed shortly by the second fronton – a famous Biscayne Jai Alai. In 1930s a pari-mutuel wagering was legalized in Florida and it became possible to bet on Jai Alai matches. At that time there was only one fronton in business. In 1953 the second Dania Jai Alai fronton in Florida started its operations. In 1960s the number of frontons in Florida grew to 12 spreading all over the state. In 1970s frontons started to appear in other states of the country including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Nevada and others.

Evolution of the Jai Alai rules

The rules of Jai Alai stayed the same in principle over the centuries. Most of the changes happened after the legalization of pari-mutuel wagering in 1930s. Before that Jai Alai matches were long time consuming competitions where the goal was to reach sometimes up to 45 points. The teams were doubles and singles. After introduction of pari-mutuel wagering the format of the game changed. According to new format Jai Alai match included 8 teams (or players) who had a goal of reaching 5 points only. First three teams or players that reached three points continued competition between themselves for the first three places (a win, place and show positions). That format was later changed to a modern “Spectacular Seven” format, which required the players to reach seven points only. Under that system, the match starts with teams (or players) one and two playing against each other. The team (or a player) that loses goes back in line behind the rest of the six players being replaced by team No. 3 and so on. The match continues until a team or a player wins seven points.

Copyright Progress Publishing Co. 2006

Selected References:

John Scarne  New Complete Guide to Gambling The Gambling Times Guide to Winning Systems
Kelso Sturgeon  Guide to Sports Betting Alice Fleming  Something for Nothing/A History of Gambling
Carl Sifakis  The Encyclopedia of Gambling Alan Wykes   The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling
Z. Hollander, D. Schulz  The Jai Alai Handbook Don Lostritto  Jai Alai Wagering to Win