Jai-Alai (pronounced hi-lie in English and hi-ah-lie in Basque) means “Merry Festival” in the Basque language. The term is used to denote a fronton (or open-walled arena) used to play a variety of Pelota called Cesta Punta, and, more broadly, to the game itself. The game is characterized by the fast pace of play, in which a 125g ball covered with parchment skin can travel faster than 180 mph. The ball is placed into play and volleyed by players wearing a wicker basket glove approximately 63 to 70 cm long.
The glove, known as a Cesta-punta (in Spanish) or xistera (Basque), was invented by the French Basque Gantchiqui Diturbide (also Gantxiki Iturbide) in the 19th century.
Rules and Play
The court (or fronton) for Jai Alai consists of 3 walls (front, back, and left), and the floor between them in play. If the ball touches the floor outside these walls, it is considered out of bounds. Similarly, there is also a border going about 3ft inside the front wall that is also out of bounds. The ceiling on the court is very high, so the ball has a more predictable path.
The court is divided by 15 lines going horizontally across the court, with line 1 closest to the front wall and line 15 the back wall. When serving, the server must bounce the ball behind the serving line, then with the basket hurl it towards the front wall so it bounces between lines 4 and 7 on the rebound.
The goal in Jai Alai is to score 7 points, thus winning the game. Points are scored by the other team dropping, missing, juggling, bobbling or sending the ball out of bounds. The game is played in a round-robin format, switching teams every point, where the team to score a point stays up and the opposing team rotating out into the end of the list of opponents.
In countries such as France, Spain and Mexico the game of jai-alai is popular; in some regions, the game is played in almost every town and city.
In the United States, jai-alai enjoyed some popularity as a gambling alternative to horse racing and remains popular in Florida, where the game is used as a basis for parimutuel gambling.
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. A fronton in Newport, Rhode Island has been converted to a general gaming facility.
Jai-alai enjoyed a brief and popular stint in Las Vegas, Nevada with the opening of a fronton at the MGM Grand Casino and Hotel; however, by the early 1980s the fronton was losing money and was closed by MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian.
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 United Auto Workers Local 8868 is the recognized bargaining agent for jai-alai players and fronton employees in Florida. The union also represented jai-alai players and fronton employees in Connecticut until its three frontons permanently closed, and in Rhode Island where at the behest of the gaming facility owners, the Rhode Island State Legislature abolished legalized jai-alai in favour of video lottery terminals.
- Dania Jai-Alai, Simulcast and Poker Room, Dania Beach, Florida
- Fort Pierce Jai-Alai, Fort Pierce, Florida
- Hamilton Jai-Alai and Poker, Jasper, Florida
- Miami Jai-Alai, Miami, Florida
- Ocala Jai-Alai, Orange Lake, Florida
- Orlando Jai-Alai, Casselberry, Florida