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and Mathematical Modeling to Win

This is a book about a gambling system that works

It tells how the author used computer simulations and mathematical-modeling techniques to predict the outcome of jai alai matches and bet on them successfully,

thus increasing his initial stake by over 500 percent in one year

! His methods can work for anyone

at the end of the book he tells the best way to watch jai alai and how to bet on it

With humor and enthusiasm,

Skiena details a life-long fascination with the computer prediction of sporting events

Along the way,

he discusses other gambling systems,

both successful and unsuccessful,


he shows how his jai alai system functions like a miniature stock-trading system

Do you want to learn about program trading systems,

the future of Internet gambling,

and the real reason brokerage houses do not offer mutual funds that invest at racetracks and frontons

? How mathematical models are used in political polling

? The difference between correlation and causation

? If you are interested in gambling and mathematics,

odds are this is the book for you

! Steven Skiena is Professor of Computer Science at the State University of New York,

Stony Brook

He is the author of two popular books,

The Algorithm Design Manual and the award-winning Computational Discrete Mathematics,

a new edition of which is being published by Cambridge University Press

He is the recipient of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator’s Award and the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching at Stony Brook


Mathematical content is not confined to mathematics

Eugene Wigner noted the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences

Deep mathematical structures also exist in areas as diverse as genetics and art,

The discovery of these mathematical structures has in turn inspired new questions within pure mathematics

In the Outlooks series,

the interplay between mathematics and other disciplines is explored

Authors reveal mathematical content,

and new questions arising from this interplay,

providing a provocative and novel view for mathematicians,

and for others an advertisement for the mathematical outlook

Managing Editor Ronald L


University of California,

San Diego Editorial Board John Barrow,

University of Cambridge Fan Chung,

University of California,

San Diego Ingrid Daubechies,

Princeton University Persi Diaconis,

Stanford University Don Zagier,

Max Planck Institute,




STEVEN SKIENA State University of New York at Stony Brook

Mathematical Association of America

          The Pitt Building,

Trumpington Street,


United Kingdom    The Edinburgh Building,

Cambridge CB2 2RU,

UK 40 West 20th Street,

New York,

NY 10011-4211,

USA 477 Williamstown Road,

Port Melbourne,

VIC 3207,

Australia Ruiz de Alarcón 13,

Spain Dock House,

The Waterfront,

Cape Town 8001,

South Africa http://www

Skiena 2004 First published in printed format 2001 ISBN 0-511-02869-5 eBook (Adobe Reader) ISBN 0-521-80426-4 hardback ISBN 0-521-00962-6 paperback

To my parents,

Morris and Ria Skiena,

for introducing me to jai alai

Children look to their parents to teach them values,

and you taught us the value of a good quiniela at an early age

And to our new daughter Bonnie

We look forward to teaching you the best of what our parents taught us


Preface Page xi

Acknowledgments Page xv


Glossary Page 215

For Further Reading Page 219

Index Page 223


This is a book about predicting the future

It describes my attempt to master a small enough corner of the universe to glimpse the events of tomorrow,

The degree to which one can do this in my tiny toy domain tells us something about our potential to foresee larger and more interesting futures

Considered less prosaically,

this is the story of my 25-year obsession with predicting the results of jai alai matches in order to bet on them successfully

As obsessions go,

it probably does not rank with yearning for the love of one you will never have or questing for the freedom of an oppressed and downtrodden people

But it is my obsession – one that has led me down paths that were unimaginable at the beginning of the journey

This book marks the successful completion of my long quest and gives me a chance to share what I have learned and experienced

I think the attentive reader will come to understand the worlds of mathematics,

and sports quite differently after reading this book

I tell this tale to introduce several things that have long interested me to a larger audience: ■ The joys of jai alai – Jai alai is a spectator sport and gambling forum

that is underappreciated and misunderstood by the public

I’d like to


acquaint a new audience with this fun and exciting game and whet the interest of current fans by making them more aware of what determines the outcome of each match

If you stick with me,

you will learn the best way to watch jai alai and bet on it

The power of mathematical modeling – Mathematical models govern our economy and help forecast our weather

They predict who will win the election and decide whether your mortgage should be granted


the man on the street knows little about what mathematical models are and how they work

In this book,

I use our jai alai system to explain how mathematical models are designed,

The mathematics of money – Gambling and mathematics have a long and interesting history together

I’ll discuss other gambling systems,

both successful and unsuccessful,


my jai alai system functions very much as a stock-trading system in miniature

You will learn how program-trading systems work,

the future of Internet gambling,

and the real reason brokerage houses don’t offer mutual funds that invest at racetracks and frontons

The craft of computer programming – For most nonprogrammers,

the ideas behind modern computing systems lie shrouded beneath a thick mist of buzzwords and technology

These buzzwords give no hint of the process by which computer programs are made to work or of the elegance and beauty that underlie the best software

In this book,

you will discover how my students and I built a particularly interesting computer program

I use our jai alai system to explain to the layperson such computer science concepts as parsing and random number generation,

why real programmers hate Microsoft,

and the true glories of the Internet

The aesthetics of data – Many people don’t like the looks of charts,

no matter how many colors they are printed in

But done right,

such data representations can be a thing of beauty – vehicles driving us to understand the story that the numbers are trying to tell

In this book,

you will get to see a variety of data sets presented in several different ways

You will get a first-hand look at how to interrogate numbers and make them talk


this is the story of a mild-mannered professor who places money on the line to test whether his system really works

Do I hit it rich


? You will have to read to the end to see how I make out

My goal has been to produce a book that will be interesting and understandable even to those with little background in each of our three main topics: jai alai,

I explain all the jai alai lingo that I use,

and thus you will be able to appreciate what we are doing even if you have never been to a fronton

If you can understand how mortgage interest is calculated,

you have all of the mathematical background you need to follow what we are doing

Even if you have never programmed a computer,

you will be able to understand the ideas underlying our system

Either way,

after reading this book you will have a better understanding of how and why computers are programmed

Maybe you will even be inspired to try some mathematical modeling of your own

! At the end of this book I suggest some possible projects to get you started

I have tried to make this book as fun to read as it was to write

In particular,

I have striven to be in the spirit of Bill James,

the popular writer whose books on baseball go deeply into the essence of the game

He uses advanced statistical analysis and historical research to unearth hidden trends and overturn conventional wisdom

One perceptive review notes that part of the fun in reading his work comes from the spectacle of a first-rate mind wasting itself on baseball

Part of the fun of this book,

I hope,

is the spectacle of a second-rate mind wasting itself on jai alai


First and foremost,

I thank Dario Vlah,

Meena Nagarajan,

the three students who labored to build the system described in this book

Without the efforts of these three musketeers the project could never have been completed

I hope they enjoyed working with me half as much as I did with them

I would also like to thank our system administrators Brian Tria and Anne Kilarjian,

who patiently kept our computer systems up and running,

I would like to thank the management of the following frontons: Dania Jai-Alai,

Milford Jai-Alai,

Berenson’s Hartford Jai-Alai,

and World Jai-Alai for providing me with records of games played at their frontons over the years

I particularly thank Bob Heussler for permission to use his jai alai action photographs as well as for his time during our field trip to Milford

Thanks are also due to Dr

Simona Rusnak Schmid,

Carl Banks,

The New Brunswick Home News,

the Institute for Operations Research,

and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) for permission to use copyrighted materials

I am grateful to the people at Cambridge University Press,

Caitlin Doggart,

for taking a flier on this gambler’s tale

Eleanor Umali of TechBooks did a great job with production


Persi Diaconis worked his magic in helping me find a publisher,

and I thank him for his interest and enthusiasm



My interest in jai alai began during my parents’ annual escape from the cold of a New Jersey winter to the promised land of Florida

They stuffed the kids into a Ford station wagon and drove a thousand miles in 2 days each way

Florida held many attractions for a kid: the sun and the beach,

Disney World,


Aunt Fanny,

But the biggest draw came to be the one night each trip when we went to a fronton,

Mom was the biggest jai alai fan in the family and the real motivation behind our excursions

We loaded up the station wagon and drove to the Dania Jai-Alai fronton located midway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale

In the interests of preserving capital for later investment,

my father carefully avoided the valet parking in favor of the do-it-yourself lot

We followed a trail of palm trees past the cashiers’ windows into the fronton

Walking into the fronton was an exciting experience

The playing court sat in a vast open space,

surrounded by several tiers of stadium seating

To my eyes,

Particularly “cool” was the sign saying that no minors would be admitted without a parent

This was a very big deal when I was only 12 years old


We followed the usher who led us to our seats

The first game had already started

We watched as the server spun like a top and hurled the goathide sphere to the green granite wall,

where it rocketed off with a satisfying thunk

His opponent climbed up the sidewall to catch the ball in his basket,

and then – with one smooth motion – slung it back to whence it came

The crowd alternated between ooh and ah as the players caught and released the ball

The players barked orders to their partners in a foreign tongue,

positioning each other across the almost football–fieldsized court

thunk went the volley until a well-placed ball finally eluded its defender

After each point,

the losing side would creep off the court in shame replaced by another team from the queue

The action would then resume

You have to visit a jai alai fronton to really appreciate the sights and sounds of the crowd

Most of the spectators,

don’t seem terribly knowledgeable about the players or game


many are tourists or retired people who wouldn’t recognize a pelotari,

if they woke up in bed with one

There is only one player they are interested in: themselves

The spectators have money riding on each and every point and are primarily concerned about the performance of their investment: “You stink,

Laxi – uh,

Occasionally a more knowledgeable voice,

usually with a Spanish accent,

would salute a subtle play: “Chula

The really neat thing about jai alai is that events happen in discrete steps instead of as a continuous flow,

and thus the game is more like tennis than basketball or horse racing

After watching a few games,

I began to get the hang of the scoring system

The pause between each point gives you time to think about how the game is shaping up and what the prospects for your bet currently are

Sometimes you can look ahead and figure out an exact sequence of events that will take you to victory

and then 4 wins its next two points,

the game ends 4–2–1 and I win

the loyalties of the crowd change rapidly

A wonderful aspect of the jai alai scoring system is that the dynamics of the game can


In baseball,

and thus giving up one run costs you absolutely nothing

This is not so in jai alai

No matter how far ahead you are,

the loss of a single point can kill by forcing you to sit down to watch your opponent win the match

Suddenly a team given up for dead trots back on the court,

and then it becomes a whole new game

Fan loyalty is particularly fleeting because it is often the case that a bettor now needs to defeat the same player he or she was rooting for on the previous point


I mean Sor-ze-ball

After we got settled into our seats,

a pair of rumpled one-dollar bills

It was enough for one bet over the course of the evening

But what did wisely mean

? On his way into the fronton,

my father had invested 50 cents on a Pepe’s Green Card

Pepe’s Green Card was a one-page tout sheet printed on green cardboard

I was much too young to catch any allusion to Pepe’s immigration status in the title

For each of the games played that evening,

Pepe predicted who would finish first,

and third alongside a cryptic comment about each player such as “wants to win,” “tough under pressure,” or “in the money

in a box on the right-hand side,

Pepe listed his single “best bet” for the evening

That night,

Pepe liked a 4–2–1 trifecta in the sixth match

My brothers and I studied this strange document carefully

We liked the idea of a tout sheet

It would help us spend our money wisely

As kids,

we were used to being told what to do

Why should it be any different when we were gambling

Pepe must really know his stuff,” I said

My brother Len agreed

! We’ve got nothing but winners here

why do other people pick their own numbers when Pepe has all the winners here

!” came my parental voice of authority

“Pepe wouldn’t know a winner if he stepped on one

Pepe gives a best bet

A 4–2–1 trifecta in the sixth match

It can’t possibly lose


My father shook his head sadly

“Trifectas are the longest shots of all,

the toughest bet one can make in jai alai

You have almost no chance of winning

Why don’t you bet on something that gives you a better chance to win

it is clear that my father was right

To win a trifecta,

you must identify the players who will come in first,

and third – all in the correct order

There are 8 × 7 × 6 = 336 possible trifectas to bet on,

only one of which can occur in any given game

But we trusted Pepe

And besides,


we convinced our father to trade in our 2 dollars for a 4–2–1 trifecta ticket on Game 6

We waited patiently for our chosen moment

At last the public address announcer informed us it was one minute to post time for Game 6

Last-minute bettors scrambled to the cashiers to the accompaniment of the betting clock: tick,

The chosen game proved to be a doubles match

Eight pairs of men,

each pair wearing a numbered jersey of a prescribed color,

marched out to ceremonial bull-fighting music: the “March of the Toreadors

” They gave the crowd a synchronized,

and all but the first two teams straggled back to the bench

The betting clock completed its countdown,

which was terminated by a loud buzzer announcing that betting was now closed

The referee whistled,

and the first player bounced the ball and served

The game was on

We cheered for team 2,

at least until they played team 4

We switched our allegiance to team 4 up until the moment it looked like they would get too many points and win without 2 and 1 in their designated positions

We booed any other team with a high score because their success would interfere with the chances of our favorites

We watched in fascination as player 2 held onto first place,

while player 1 slid into a distant but perfectly satisfactory second-place position

When player 4 marched on the court for the second time,

my mother noticed what was happening

only two more points and the kids win

!” This revelation only made us cheer louder

Player 4 got the point,

leaving us only one point shy of the big payoff

The designated representative from team 4 served the ball


We followed up with the play-by-play: “Miss it,

! Family pandemonium broke out as we waited the few moments it took for the game to become official

Our trifecta paid us $124

The public address announcer,

informed all in the house that Pepe’s Green Card had picked the winning trifecta in the previous game

Mom told all in earshot that her kids had won the big one

Dad sauntered up to the cashier to collect our winnings for us,

kids being forbidden from entering the betting area by state law

We kids took the family out to dinner the next night

We experienced the thrill of being the breadwinner,

hunters returning from the kill

It was indeed fun being a winner – so much fun that I starting wondering how Pepe did it

It was clear that most people in the crowd didn’t understand what was going on at the fronton,

Maybe I could figure it out,

An old gambling axiom states that luck is good,


but finally I have figured it out

Let me tell you how I did it



Jai alai is a sport of Basque origin in which opposing players or teams alternate hurling a ball against the wall and catching it until one of them finally misses and loses the point

The throwing and catching are done with an enlarged basket or cesta

The ball or pelota is made of goatskin and hard rubber,

and the wall is of granite or concrete – which is a combination that leads to fast and exciting action

Jai alai is a popular spectator sport in Europe and the Americas

In the United States,

it is most associated with the states of Florida,


which permit parimutuel wagering on the sport

In this chapter,

we will delve deeper into the history and culture of jai alai

From the standpoint purely crass of winning money through gambling,

much of this material is not strictly necessary,

but a little history and culture never hurt anybody

Be my guest if you want to skip ahead to the more mercenary or technical parts of the book,

but don’t neglect to review the basic types of bets in jai alai and the Spectacular Seven scoring system

Understanding the implications of the scoring system is perhaps the single most important factor in successful jai alai wagering

Much of this background material has been lifted from the fronton Websites described later in this chapter and earlier books on jai alai


A pelotari in action at Milford

particularly urge readers interested in more background to explore Websites such as www

How the Game Is Played The term jai alai comes from the Basque word meaning “merry festival

” In the English vernacular this is sometimes spelled as it sounds,

“hi-li,” although the use of the corrupted spelling seems to be fading

In the Basque provinces of Spain and France,

the sport is known as cesta punta

Cesta punta is a traditional part of Basque festivals,

which accounts for the connection

The Spanish call the game pelota vasca (Basque ball)

Whatever the game itself is called,

jai alai has a lingo associated with its equipment and strategy that we detail below

EQUIPMENT Jai alai is best viewed as a variant of handball in which two sets of players (or pelotaris) alternate throwing the ball against the wall and catching the rebound

The most important pieces of equipment,


A return from backcourt

■ The cesta – Basques played early forms of jai alai with bare hands and

then with leather gloves and wooden paddles until the cesta was introduced

Some credit Melchoir Curachaque with inventing the cesta after breaking his wrist in Buenos Aires in 1888

Another story gives the patent to a young French Basque who tried hurling the ball with his mother’s curved wicker basket

Either way,

the word cesta is Spanish for basket

Every cesta is handmade to the player’s specific requirements and constructed by interweaving thin reeds found exclusively in the Pyrenees Mountains through a frame of Spanish chestnut

The life of a typical cesta is only about 3 weeks

Cestas cost about $300 each,

and a professional player goes through about 15 of them per year

Like cigars,

cestas are stored in humidors to prevent them from getting too dry and brittle

■ The pelota – Named after the Spanish word for ball,

the pelota is slightly smaller than a baseball and harder than a rock

The ball’s liveliness comes from its virgin rubber core,

which is significantly larger than the equivalent core of a baseball

This core is covered by one layer of nylon and two outer layers of goat skin

The stitches on the


pelota are embedded so as to minimize damage when it slams into the cesta

Each pelota has a court life of only 20 minutes or so before the cover splits owing to the punishment it takes hitting the wall during play

These pelotas,

which are made by hand at a cost of about $150,

are then recycled by sewing on new covers and subsequently aged or “rested” for at least one month in order to regain full liveliness

Pelotas in play have been clocked at over 180 miles per hour,

which is twice the speed of a major league fast ball

The combination of hard mass and high velocity makes it a very bad idea to get in the way of a moving pelota

Pelota is also used as the name for a sport with religious overtones played by the ancient Aztecs

Those guys took their games very seriously,

for the losing team was often put up as a human sacrifice

Such policies presumably induced greater effort from the players than is seen today even at the best frontons,

although modern jai alai players are able to accumulate more experience than their Aztec forebears

■ The Court – The most interesting part of the playing court is the granite front wall,

which makes a very satisfying clicking sound whenever a pelota hits it at high speed

At Milford Jai-Alai in Connecticut,

this front wall is 34-feet high and 35-feet wide and is made of 8-inch-thick granite blocks

The geometry of the playing court


The court (or cancha) can be thought of as a concrete box with one of the long sides of the box removed

A wooden border (the contracancha) extends out 15 feet on the floor outside this box

The pelota makes an unsatisfying thwack sound whenever it hits the wood,

signaling that the ball is out of bounds

A wire screen prevents pelotas from leaving the court and killing the spectators,

thus significantly reducing the liability insurance frontons need to carry

At Milford,

Although courts come in different sizes,

players stick to one fronton for an entire season,

which gives them time to adjust to local conditions

The numbers from 1 to 15 are painted along the back walls of the court

The front court is the region near the small numbers,

and the back court is near the big numbers

The lines marked 4,

and 11 designate the underserve,

The rest of the numbers function,

only as reference points to help the players find where they are on the court

STRATEGY The rules of jai alai are quite similar to those of tennis and racquetball

In all of these sports,

the goal is to accumulate points by making the other side misplay the ball

All games begin with a serve that must land between the 4 and 7 lines of the court

The receiving player must catch the pelota in the air or on the first bounce and then return it to the front wall in one continuous motion

It is illegal for the player to stop the pelota’s motion or to juggle it

The players continue to volley until the pelota is missed or goes out of bounds

Three judges,

An aspect of strategy peculiar to jai alai is that the server gets to choose which ball is to be used

At each point,

he may select either a lively ball,

or a dead ball – all of which are available when he serves

Once the server has chosen a ball,

the receiving team may inspect his choice for rips or tears and has the right to refuse the ball should they find it to be damaged in any way

Jai alai matches are either singles or doubles matches

Doubles are more common and,

The court is simply too long for any single person to chase down fast-moving balls

One key to


being an effective player is correctly judging whether it will be easier to catch the ball as it flies directly off the frontwall or to wait for the rebound off the back wall

Doubles players specialize as either frontcourters or backcourters,

depending upon where they are stationed

Frontcourters must be faster than the backcourters because they have more ground to cover and less time to react,

whereas backcourtsmen require stronger arms to heave the pelota the full length of the court

Understanding the court geometry is essential to appreciate the importance of shot placement

Although the ball does spin and curve,

jai alai players rely more on raw power and placement than English1 to beat their opponents

The following are the most interesting shots : ■ Chic-chac – In this shot,

the ball first hits the floor of the court close

to where the floor meets the back wall and then bounces up,

and comes out with little or no bounce

If one is placed close enough to the crack in the wall,

■ Chula – Pronounced choo-la,

this is everybody’s favorite thing to yell

You will hear cries of chula every time it looks like the ball will get wedged into the crack between the back wall and floor

The ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne shouts chula whenever a baseball batter bounces a line drive low off the outfield wall

■ Rebote – An attempted return after the ball bounces off the backwall

The proper technique is to dive head first towards the wall,

and then fling it forward from the prone position

Traditional Basque players don’t rely on English much to speak,


rebote is considered the hardest single shot to master in jai alai

■ Carom – A thrown ball that hits the side wall,

This kill shot usually ends the point

■ Dejada – A short lob that hits the front wall just above the foul line and

This is the kind of shot that makes singles games boring,

although it is trickier than it looks because of the spin of the ball


■ Arrimada – A ball that is returned to hug the side wall,

opposition limited room to maneuver

Although each point is contested by two teams of either one or two players per team,

eight teams are involved in any given match

As governed by the Spectacular Seven scoring system (to be described later in this chapter in greater detail),

and the losing team goes to the end of the line as the winner keeps playing

Having eight teams in any given match greatly enlivens the space of betting possibilities

The composition of the teams and post (starting) positions assigned to each player changes in each match

To help the fans (and possibly the players) keep everything straight,

regulations require that the shirt colors for each post position be the same at all frontons

In Florida,

the shirt colors for each post position are as follows:


Post Position 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Shirt Color Red Blue White Green Black Yellow Brown Purple Because each player needs jerseys with his uniform number in each of these eight colors,

fairness) considerations dictate that no player appear in a particular position too often each night

History of the Game Tracking down definitive information on the history of jai alai posed more difficulties than I might have imagined

The best book on jai alai’s early history appears to be Blazy’s La Pelote Basque from 1929,

whose neat old photos and line drawings lose none of their charm even though the book was written in French


the definitive Historia de la Pelota Vasca en Las Americas is written in Spanish


my nickname would be Monolingual


most of the history reported below comes from less authoritative sources

Some cite legends that jai alai was invented by Saint Ignatius of Loyola,

Others sources trace the origins of the game even earlier to Adam and Eve

These same legends assure us that they spoke to each other in Basque

THE BASQUES About three million Basques live in their green and beautiful homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains

The land of the Basques (called Eskual Herria in the Basque language) straddles the border of France and Spain,

comprising three French and four Spanish provinces

The Basques are a distinctive people with several unique characteristics: ■ Language – Basque is apparently the only Western European language

that does not belong to the Indo–European family of languages

Written Basque is as strange-looking as the language is strange-sounding,

featuring an extraordinary number of x’s and an apparent disregard for vowels

The Basques refer to themselves as Euskaldunak or “speakers of the Euzkara

” Contemporary theories suggest that Basques may have descended from early Iberian tribes,

and this language presumably came with them

Legend states the Devil tried to learn Basque by listening behind the door of a Basque farmhouse

After 7 years,



is a tribute to their women as well as the difficulty of their tongue

■ Blood – Blood-type frequencies cement the Basque’s claims of ethnic uniqueness

They have the world’s highest frequency of type O and RH negative blood

The Basques clearly are a people who did not mingle with outsiders

■ Toughness – The Basques are a tough people with a strong determination to preserve their national character

They defended themselves against the Phoenicians,

The Basques wiped out half of Emperor Charlemagne’s rear guard at the battle of the Pass of Roncesvalles

Guernica was a Basque village leveled in the Spanish Civil War and made famous by Picasso’s painting

now it is the home of the largest fronton on Europe

The Basque love of freedom continues today

For over 30 years,

the terrorist group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna,

which is translated as “Basque Homeland and Liberty”) has been fighting Spain to win the independence of the Basque region,

killing some 800 people in the process

More recently,

the spectacular new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has put the Basque region on the map for something other than jai alai or terrorist activities


the Basque region of Spain and France is a terrific place to spend a vacation

A one-week trip could combine the unique architecture of Bilbao with the spectacular beaches of San Sebastian

You can drive winding cliff roads along an unspoiled rocky coast,

stopping to eat fresh seafood and tapas,

the little plates of savory appetizers that have spread throughout Spain but originated in the Basque country

You can stop in nearby Pamplona to see the running of the bulls made famous by Hemingway

you can watch the finest jai alai in the world

JAI ALAI IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY The first thing to know is that at least four types of pelota are played professionally in the Basque country,

and you will see all of them if you spend enough time watching Basque television

They differ primarily in the implement used to hit the ball: ■ Cesta punta – This is the variation of pelota that has come to the United

States as jai alai and uses a long,

curved basket (cesta) for catching and throwing the ball

CALCULATED BETS ■ Remonte – This is the most challenging variation of the sport and uses

shallower basket than the cesta

Players are not permitted to catch the ball but must hit it back immediately

The result is an even quicker game than cesta punta that is a lot of fun to watch

■ Mano – Spanish for “hand,” mano is just that – handball

Played on a smaller court than cesta punta,

it remains a fast-moving game with serves that can reach speeds of over 60 miles per hour

■ Pala – The players whack the ball with small,

Pala is more popular among amateur players because these clubs are considerably cheaper than baskets

it amazes me that anyone succeeds in hitting a fast-moving ball with these foot-long clubs

The Spectacular Seven scoring system is in use primarily in the United States

Much more common in France and Spain are partidos,

in which two teams (red and blue) play to a designated number of points,

The first player to get,

All championship matches are partidos

Such matches can take hours to play,

In partido betting,

spectators are encouraged to bet even after the game has begun

This system is quite interesting

A bookmaker sits in the center of the room,

updating the odds in a computer after each point is played

The latest odds are immediately displayed on the scoreboard

The cashiers face the spectators with their own computer screens and a load of tennis balls

Any fan interested in placing a bet yells (in Basque) for the cashier to throw him or her a tennis ball,

which contains a slot in which to deposit money

The fan touches his or her cheek to bet on red,

The cashier processes this signal and the enclosed cash and returns a tennis ball with a ticket indicating the bet amount and current odds

Setting the right odds at each point in the match presents a considerable challenge for the bookmaker

To make its money,

the house shaves 16% off of all bets

The system is sufficiently complicated that I was discouraged from betting when I attended a match in Pamplona,

which is a friendly gesture towards inexperience you won’t see in any casino

The first indoor fronton was built in 1798 in Markina,

Not long after this,

the great Spanish painter Goya designed a tapestry called the “Game of Pelota” that now hangs in the Escorial Palace near Madrid


professional jai alai can be watched in Spain at frontons in Pamplona (Huarte),

San Sebastian,

In France,

the premier fronton is in Saint-Jean-de-Luz,

Basque players dominate world jai alai

Of the 48 players on the 1998 Milford Jai-Alai roster,

The close-knit Basque player’s association has been credited with helping to preserve the integrity of the sport by rigorously policing itself

This association eventually evolved into the International Jai-Alai Players Association (www

which is a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers

Jai alai has been played whereever Basques have lived

Before World War II,

jai alai was played in Havana and such exotic places as Shanghai and Tientsin,

The Havana fronton was one of the best in the world before Castro outlawed the sport in the late 1950s

At least until recently,

jai alai was played professionally in Italy,

Jai alai achieved international recognition when it was played in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games as a demonstration sport

JAI ALAI IN THE UNITED STATES Jai alai was introduced in the United States in 1904 at the Saint Louis World’s Fair,

was also where the ice-cream cone was first unveiled to a hungry populace

The sport caught on to such an extent that America’s first permanent jai alai fronton was built in 1924 on what is now the parking lot of Hialeah racetrack in Miami,


It was almost immediately destroyed in a hurricane but then quickly rebuilt

Ten years later,

wagering on jai alai was legalized in Florida

jai alai contributes an estimated $200 million per year in total economic revenues to the Florida economy

After the Basques,

Americans constitute the largest population of professional jai alai players

Many of these players learned the sport at a long-standing amateur facility in North Miami or the more recent amateur fronton at Milford,


Jai alai underwent a big boom in the mid-1970s

At its peak in 1978,

there were 10 frontons in Florida,

Referenda to expand the sport to New Jersey and California failed by narrow margins,

but further growth seemed inevitable



the jai alai industry today is not what it used to be

The first problem was the long and nasty players strike,

which lasted 3 years starting in 1988 and left serious wounds behind

Proclaimed “one of the biggest messes in U

labor history” (Balfour 1990),

it directly involved the International Jai Alai Players Association,

eight different employers in three different states,

the National Labor Relations Board,

immigration restrictions and threatened deportations,

a secondary boycott by employers in Spain,

Basque machismo,

and the United Automobile Workers

The strike poisoned relationships between the players and the frontons,

significantly lowered the quality of play through the use of underskilled scab players,

and greatly disenchanted the fans

It was a lose–lose situation for all concerned

But even more damaging has been the competition from other forms of gambling that has been cutting heavily into the fronton’s business

Since 1988,

when the Florida Lottery started,

the number of operating frontons there has dwindled to five (Miami,


Fort Pierce,

the last two of which are open only part of the year

Connecticut’s Hartford and Bridgeport frontons closed in the face of competition with the Mashantucket Pequot’s Foxwoods Resort Casino,

leaving Milford Jai-Alai as the sport’s only outpost in the state

Several prominent frontons skate on thin financial ice and are in danger of suffering the fate of Tampa Jai-Alai,

The primary hopes of the industry now rest on embracing casino gambling,

and owners have been lobbying the governments of Connecticut and Florida to permit frontons to operate slot machines on the side

Besides competition,

fronton owners complain about the amount of taxation they must pay

In the year before it closed,

Tampa Jai-Alai paid $1


professional jai alai is now played only in Florida,


Rhode Island,

Each fronton is owned and operated by private businessmen but licensed by the state

Frontons are good-sized


can each employ several hundred people

The following are the major frontons in the United States: ■ Dania Jai-Alai – Dania opened in 1953 as the second jai alai fronton in

The fronton seats 5600 people and claims an annual attendance of over 650,000

Dania’s fortunes have risen recently when the state of Florida permitted this fronton to add a poker room that operates concurrently with the jai alai matches

Address: 301 East Dania Beach Baleverd,

Florida 33004

Phone: 305–949–2424

URL: http://www

Milford Jai-Alai – The only remaining fronton in Connecticut,

it is my favorite place to see a match

Proclaimed “the Tiffany of frontons,” the $9

Their Worldwide Web site is updated daily,

which will prove crucial for the system described in this book

Address: 311 Old Gate Lane,


Connecticut 06460

Phone: 203–877–4242

URL: http://www

Orlando–Seminole Jai-Alai – Yes,

you can combine a visit to jai alai with Disney World

the Orlando–Seminole fronton seats 3163

Its new Worldwide Web site is quite slick

Address: 6405 South U

Highway 17–92,


Florida 32730

Phone: 407–339–6221

URL: http://www

Miami Jai-Alai – Opened in 1925 as the Biscayne Fronton,

it has held as many as 15,000 jai alai fans for a single match

Desi Arnaz’s band played the opening march here in his post-Cuba,

Miami is part of the Florida Gaming chain (formerly World Jai-Alai),

which also operates Ocala Jai-Alai,

Fort Pierce,

They aggressively promote amateur jai alai,

through several schools in Spain and France and one in Miami

Address: 3500 N

Florida 33142

Phone: 305–633–6400

URL: http://www

Newport Jai-Alai Sports Theater – Open since 1976 and the only fronton in Rhode Island,

Newport’s Website now posts schedules and results regularly

I’ve never been there,

but I’ve heard complaints from jai alai aficianados that the quality of play at this facility is substandard and that it seems to function largely as an adjunct to a casino gambling operation

One of these days I’ll have to check it out

Address: 150


Admiral Kalibfus Road,


RI 20840

Phone: 401–849–5000

URL: http://bermuda

■ Ocala Jai-Alai – Located near Gainesville,


it offers live jai alai May through October

Ocala serves as somewhat of a farm team for American players,

and thus it is a good place to see up-and-coming domestic talent

Address: 4601 N

Highway 318,

Orange Lake,

Florida 32686

Phone: 352–591–2345

URL: http://www

■ Fort Pierce Jai-Alai – Part of the World Jai-Alai empire,

it has been located in Port Saint Lucie County since 1974

Fort Pierce currently operates from January through April,

presumably to coincide with baseball’s spring training season

Address: 1750 South Kings Highway (at Pico’s Road),

Fort Pierce,

Florida 34945–3099

Phone: 407–464–7500

URL: http://www

Mexico’s most prominent fronton is the Tijuana Jai-Alai Palace,

More recently,

frontons have opened and closed in Acapulco and Cancun

The jai alai palace is the classiest structure on Revolucion Avenue in the tourist part of Tijuana

In front of the fronton,

a statue of a pelotari with his cesta aloft strides the world

no gambling is allowed at the matches played Friday and Saturday nights in the Jai-Alai Palace,

although there is a betting parlor next door that simulcasts games from Miami

There are much easier ways to lose your money in Tijuana – easier but ultimately less satisfying than jai alai

Address: 1100 Revolucion Ave


URL: http://www

Amateur play in the United States focuses at Milford and the North Miami Jai-Alai School

All told,

there are about 500 active players in the United States

THE PLAYERS Like all athletes,

jai alai players are people with feelings and passions motivated by the same forces that affect us all

The rest of this book will consistently ignore the fact that players are people

Our system for predicting the outcome of jai alai matches treats players as machines that generate points according to a


The 1998 Milford Jai-Alai Player Roster No

Player Altuna Tino Aitor Aja Douglas Sorozabal Xabat Olate Eggy Zarandona Urquidi Tevin Goixarri Jandro Beitia Alfonso Aragues Liam Lander Iruta Ara Jon Borja Iker Arrieta Retolaza Lasa Brett Alberto Aritz Sergio Ibar Zabala Capozzo Azpiri Fitz Acin Matera Alvarez Guisasola Wayne Arruti Edward Richard Raul Baronio Jorge Badiola



Basque American Basque Basque American Fr/Basque Basque Basque American Basque Basque American Basque Span Basque Basque Fr/Basque American Basque Basque Basque Basque Basque Basque Basque Basque American American Basque Basque Basque Basque Chile Italy Basque American Fr/Basque American Basque Basque American Basque American Basque Basque Fr/Basque Basque Basque

Hometown Tolosa,


CT Markina,


CT Biarritz,




MA Durango,



CT Mutriku,






CT Berriatua,








East Granby CT Agawam,

MA Benidorm,





East Haven,

CT Ondarroa,


Jean De Luz,


CT Markina,



RI Mutriku,


CT Milford,

CT Mutriku,





Alfonso with the rebote at Milford

given probability distribution

This section is the only portion of this book in which we will ignore the numbers and look at the people who have stories to tell

Just as with soccer players,

it is traditional for jai alai players (or pelotaris) to adopt a one-word player name such as Pele

Many players use their actual first or last name

The Basques often use shortened versions of their last names,

which can approach 20 letters in their full glory

Other players choose their mother’s maiden name,

while some take the name of their home town

Brothers or children of established players often append a number to their mentor’s name becoming,

Javier II


players prefer the fans to call them by name rather than uniform color or number

There are stars in jai alai as there are in every sport

Many old timers consider Erdorza Menor to be the best player of all time

Perhaps the best American player was Joey Cornblit,

who was a star for many years beginning in the early 1970s

Capturing the international essence of


Heaving the pelota the full length of the court

Can you find it

? Hint: Look in a corner of the photo

Joey was born in Montreal of Israeli parents,

He honed his game playing summers in Spain after turning professional at age 16

As in baseball,

many of the best players throw hard

The Guinness Book of World Records credits Jose Ramon Areitio with throwing the fastest ball ever

His pelota was clocked at 188 mph on Friday,

August 3,

This is almost twice the speed of a top-notch fast ball

Numbers like these support the claim that jai alai is the world’s fastest ball game


the playing court is long enough to enable players and fans to follow the action


Still the game is fast and dangerous

Since the 1920s at least four players have been killed by a jai alai ball

The only U

fatality occurred during the early 1930s at the old Biscayne fronton when the frontcourter Ramos was struck in the back of the head by his partner

He died a few days later

In 1967,

a champion player named Orbea was hit in the head,

and he lay in a coma for weeks

Ultimately he recovered,

eventually becoming the player-manager at Dania and Milford jai alai

this incident forced the introduction of helmets because the traditional Basque head gear (red or blue berets) didn’t do much to stop a pelota


there have been few instances of serious head injuries ever since

Legend recounts at least one instance of the pelota being used for selfdefense

Perkain was a champion player who fled to Spain to escape the guillotine during the French Revolution

he could not resist returning to France to defend his title against a French challenger

When threatened with arrest,

he succeeded in making his escape by beaning the law enforcement official with the ball

! Jai alai players come in all shapes and sizes

The players on the 1998 Milford roster ranged in height from 5 feet 6 inches to 6 feet 3 inches and in weight from 140 to 220 pounds

Frontcourt players are typically shorter and quicker,

for they must react to balls coming at them directly off the frontwall

Backcourt players must be stronger and more acrobatic to enable them to dive for odd bounces yet recover to toss the ball the length of a football field in one smooth motion

It is not that unusual to see players sporting substantial bellies,

but appearances can be deceiving

These are highly skilled,

According to pedometer studies,

each player runs about one mile per game,

and each player typically appears in four to six games per night,

As in tennis,

the players must be versatile enough to play both offense and defense

The sport is not as easy as it looks

Babe Ruth once tried a few shots,

failing even to hit the frontwall before he concluded that the cesta was “not my racket

” Pelotaris can have long careers

Three of the members of the 1998 Milford roster (including Alfonso,

shown in the figure on the page 22) have played at Milford since at least 1982

As in baseball,

professional players range in age from less than 20 to over 40

Both youth and experience have their advantages on the court

Not all players have such long careers,

I recently read an article in The Jewish Week about the Barry sisters,


The granddaughter of Claire Barry,

recently married a professional jai alai player named Bryan Robbins

This newspaper account identifies Bryan as a “nice Jewish boy” and notes approvingly that he has ended his jai alai career to become a medical student

The open wall of the court results in an asymmetry that makes it very undesirable to have the cesta on the left hand


all professionals today are right-handed,

or at least use that hand for playing jai alai

There have been exceptions,

Marco de Villabona managed to be a competitive player after losing his right arm

A nineteenthcentury player named Chiquito de Eibar was such a dominant player that he was sometimes required to play with the basket on his left hand as a handicap

Jai alai is a male sport,

although a few women have played the game on an amateur level

Perhaps the best-known amateur player was Katherine Herrington back in the 1940s,

who went on to write a book on the sport after playing her last exhibition at Saint-Jean-de-Luz,


The legendary Tita of Cambo,

was reputedly so strong that her serves damaged stone walls

BETTING ON JAI ALAI Much of the excitement of attending a jai alai match comes from being able to bet on your favorite player or outcome


jai alai has been called “a lottery with seats

” Each fronton supports a variety of different types of bets,

some of which are fairly exotic,

but the most pop


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