The History and Return of Jai Alai

Jai Alai is a game similar to volleyball, but played in an enclosed court with walls. In the early 1900s, it was a popular pasttime for decades until machine-gun fire from European warships drove it out of the United States and into Florida’s swamps. Now there are efforts by locals to revive this unique sport that draws crowds around the world.,

The “when was jai alai invented” is a question that has been asked many times. The history of the sport dates back to the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that jai alai became popular and even more so in the early 20th century. Today, jai alai remains one of America’s most popular sports.

When I lived in Tijuana, Mexico, one of the things that stood out to me (apart from all the dead dogs and cholos) was a massive, almost palatial structure in the heart of the city. It seemed to have been transported from Morocco and looked completely out of place amid Tijuana’s drab and dusty ugliness. “Jai Alai” was written in large red letters on the building’s front.

I asked the locals to tell me what the building was used for since I didn’t know what those terms meant. They taught me how to play jai alai, a fascinating and tradition-rich game (pronounced Hi-Lie). Jai alai is a sport in which men with strange basket hands whip rock-hard balls against a granite wall in the hopes of making their opponent miss the return while avoiding being struck by the speeding bullet themselves. It’s a game that requires a mix of agility, speed, and acrobatics. Here’s a crash course on the fierce and macho world of jai alai if you’re unfamiliar with it.

The Origins of Jai Alai

Illustration of vintage jai alai game.

Over four centuries ago, jai alai began as a handball game in the Basque region of Spain’s Pyrenees Mountains. In tiny settlements, games were played at the local church on Sundays and holidays, thus the term jai alai, which means “merry festival” in Basque. The open-air church courtyard and the church’s walls would serve as the fronton or arena for the players. The game’s connection to the church gained it a patron saint: Saint Ignatius Loyola, who participated in the sport when he wasn’t busy creating the Jesuit order.

Near the end of the 18th century, players began to wear leather on their hands to shield them from the hard ball they used in the games, and they moved to indoor frontons. A Basque farmer came up with the notion of using a cesta, or basket, on their hands to throw the ball more quicker and harder in the late 1800s.

Jai alai game's white building in mexico.

The Jai Alai palace in Tijuana, as shown on a vintage postcard.

The game extended to Spanish-speaking nations like Mexico and Cuba, as well as the Phillipines, and acquired popularity. At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Americans had their first taste of jai alai. Following its original debut in the United States, frontons began to pop up all across the nation. Spectators flocked to jai alai venues to see the “ballet with bullets,” and it swiftly established itself as a parimutuel betting alternative to horse and dog racing.

Unfortunately, jai alai’s popularity decreased in the 1980s. In the United States, many of the jai alai frontons have closed. In Florida, though, where six frontons still draw elderly spectators and gamblers wearing straw hats and guyaberas and sipping cheap beer, the game is still popular. While two-thirds of the players in America come from the Basque nation, where they began playing at an early age, a few Americans have also demonstrated their talent on the court.

 

In recent years, jai alai has increased in popularity and is making a resurgence. Maybe it’s because of the Dos Equis advertisements where the Most Interesting Man in the World plays a great game of jai alai! A new jai alai facility in St. Petersburg, Florida, has opened to teach new players. There are plans to establish frontons in Dallas, Texas, and Hartford, Connecticut. Will new jai alai frontons spring up around the nation, attracting enthusiasts eager to wager on the world’s quickest game? Perhaps. Horse races are entertaining, but seeing a ball tossed at 170 mph and guys plunging on the ground and sprinting up the wall to catch it has its own charm.

What Is Jai Alai and How Do I Play It?

Illustration of jai alai's court dimensions.

If you want to try your hand at the world’s quickest game, here’s a quick summary of how it works. The fundamentals are simple to grasp, and the finer elements and laws of the game may be picked up fast after watching a few games.

The outfit. The faja is a red sash worn around the waist of players who wear shoes, t-shirts with their post number on the front and their unique number on the back, white slacks, and a red sash around their waist. Players have been forced to wear helmets since 1968, when a professional player was placed in a coma for six months after being struck in the head with the ball.

The pelota is a kind of horse. The quickest and most difficult ball in sports is the jai alai ball. It can reach speeds of up to 188 miles per hour and is as tough as a rock. The ball is about 34 inches in diameter and is made of hand wound Brazilian rubber that is wrapped in thread and coated by two firm goat skin coverings. Each ball takes around an hour to make by hand and costs about $100. Because the cover splits when it hits the fronton wall at high speeds, it must be changed after 15 minutes of play. Because of the hardness and velocity of the pelota, jai alai is a very deadly sport that has claimed the lives of numerous players.

The cesta is a kind of cesta. Cestas are custom-made for each jai alai player from reeds found in the Pyrenees Mountains. The hand is put into a leather glove and secured with a cinta, a wrap-around tie. Cestas are hand woven and each one takes over 14 hours to complete. They’re also not inexpensive. Each cesta is more than $100. Players possess a number of them and must regularly repair and replace them due to wear and tear.

The cestas gave the game a whole new meaning—literally. It would be pretty simple to throw and catch a straight ball with them, but players can put massive spin on the balls, making them less predictable and more difficult to hold onto.

Illustration of jai alai's court and game play.

The spots on the wall that are red are considered filthy. It is no longer possible to play balls that have struck this location. The foul area is built of a different material than the rest of the wall and produces a unique sound when struck, allowing players, officials, and spectators to spot a foul ball right once.

 

The cancha is a kind of horse. The cancha is a big three-walled court (front wall, left wall, and rear wall) where jai alai is played. There is no set size for a cancha, although it is normally 176 feet long and 40 feet wide (twice the size of a basketball court). Spectators watch the game from the open right side, which is shielded from errant balls by a screen. All jai alai players must wear their cestas on their right hand since all canchas have a wall on the players’ left side. As a result, left-handed people are out of luck.

The contracancha is a 10-15 foot wide wooden out-of-bounds section that runs along the right side of the court. This region is not hittable by a ball, however it may be used to save a ball by a player standing or running in it. Because granite is the only material strong enough to survive the impact of the pelota, it is used for the front wall.

The cancha is divided horizontally across the court by fourteen parallel lines. Line 1 is closest to the front, while line 14 is furthest away.

Scoring. Jai alai scoring is quite similar to racquetball scoring. Every point begins with a serve. The ball must be bounced behind the serving line (#11) and then hurled towards the front wall by the server. After hitting the front wall, the ball must bounce between lines 4 and 7.

After that, teams alternate catching the pelota in their cesta and throwing it in a single swift motion, without holding or juggling it. The judges of the game decide whether a player catches and throws the ball in a single motion.

The ball must be caught on the fly or after it has bounced once on the floor.

Points are awarded if a player on the opposing team:

  • If a player fails to serve, the ball will bounce between lines 4 and 7 on the court.
  • catches the ball on the fly or after a single bounce
  • juggles or holds the ball
  • the ball is thrown out of bounds
  • obstructs a player who is trying to catch and hurl the ball

Jai alai games are generally played in a round robin style with eight teams of two players (one on the front court and one on the back court) or solo players. Each team is assigned a number, which shows on the front of their jerseys as the “post number.” The winner of Team 1 vs. Team 2 will play Team 3 in the next round. The winning team stays on the cancha, while the loser team is sent to the back of the line to wait for another turn on the court. After the first round, the points generally double. The game is won by the first side to score 7 or 9 points. The next best score is given “place,” and third place is given “show,” much as in horse racing. In the event of a tie, playoffs are employed.

Taking a chance on Jai Alai

Vintage Jai alai's female spectator watching game from stands.

Betting on jai alai is similar to wagering on horse or dog races. So you may bet on a single team to “win,” “place,” or “show,” or you can gamble on two teams to finish first and second in a “quinella” bet. Bets on the trifecta and superfecta are also available to spectators.

 

The players’ ability and agility allow for some handicapping, but the pelota’s speed and difficult motion brings an element of chance into the game.

In Action: Jai Alai

Check out these gameplay video to get a flavor for the game:

 

 

 

The “jai alai spain” is a game of Basque origin. It was brought back to life in the United States in the early 20th century.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where did Jai Jai originate?

A: Jai Jai is a Hindu god who was born from the fire of time.

How old is jai alai?

A: Jai alai or jai-alay is a sport in which players hit a ball with their hands, using wooden bat and an open palm. It was brought to Spain by the Moors on horseback between the 13th and 15th centuries, but it came to be known as “the queen of sports” thanks to its popularity among Spanish nobility during the 16th century.

When was jai alai popular?

A: Jai alai is a sport that has been popular in America since the mid 1800s.

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