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Next: 3. What is Jai-Alai? Up: Excerpts from Calculated Bets: Previous: 1. Introduction

2. The Making of a Gambler

My interest in jai-alai began during my parent's annual escape from the cold of a New Jersey winter to the promised land of Florida. They stuffed us kids into a Ford station wagon and drove us a thousand miles in two days, each way. Florida held many attractions for a kid; the sun and the beach, Disney World, Grampa, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Sam. But the biggest draw came to be the one night each trip where we went to a jai-alai fronton and watched them play.

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, or jai-alai stadium.

Walking into the fronton was an exciting experience. The playing court resided in a vast open space, three stories tall, surrounded by several tiers of stadium seating. To my eyes, at least, this was big-league, big-time sport. Particularly cool was the sign saying that no minors would be admitted without a parent. This was a very big deal when I was twelve years old.

We followed the usher who lead us to our seats. The first game had already started. We watched as the server spun like a top and hurled the goat-hide 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 their basket or cesta, and then - with one smooth motion - slung it back to whence it came. The crowd alternated between o-oh and ah-h 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-field-sized court. Thunk-thunk-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, thunk-thunk-thunk...

You have to visit a jai-alai fronton in order to really appreciate the sights and sounds of the crowd. Most of the spectators, at least the most vocal ones, don't seem terribly knowledgeable about the players or game. Indeed, many are tourists or retired people 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, red.''

``Drop it, number 5.''

``Just one more point, Laxi-, uh, whatever your name is.''

Occasionally a more knowledgeable voice, usually with a Spanish accent, would salute a subtle play: ``Chula! Chula!''.

The really neat thing about jai-alai is that events happen in discrete steps instead of as a continuous flow, 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 which will take you to victory. ``Look, if 1 beats 5 on this point, then loses to 7, and then 4 wins its next two points, the game ends 4-2-1 and I win!''

With each point, the loyalties of the crowd changed rapidly. A wonderful aspect of the jai-alai scoring system is that the dynamics of the game can change almost instantaneously. In baseball, you can be 12 runs ahead, so giving up one run costs you absolutely nothing. Not so in jai-alai. No matter how far ahead you are, the loss of a single point can doom you to defeat, 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 now 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 they were rooting for on the previous point.

``You stink, blue.'' ``Drop it, number 6.'' ``You're my main man, Sourball. I mean Sor-ze-ball.''

After we got settled into our seats, my father gave me, the oldest of the three kids, a pair of rumpled one-dollar bills. It was enough for one bet over the course of the evening. ``Use it wisely'', he said.

But what did wisely mean? On his way into the fronton, my father had invested fifty 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, second, and third, along side a cryptic comment about each player. ``Wants to win.'' ``Tough under pressure.'' ``In the money.''  

On the top of the card, 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?

``Boy, this is great. Pepe must really know his stuff,'' I said.

My brother Len agreed. ``You bet! We've got nothing but winners here.''

``Dad, why do other people pick their own numbers when Pepe has all the winners here?'' asked Rob, the youngest.

``Pepe, my pupik!'' came my parental voice of authority. ``Pepe wouldn't know a winner if he stepped on one.''

``Look, 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 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 which gives you a better chance of winning?''

Looking back, it is clear that my father was right. To win a trifecta, you must identify the players who will come in first, second, and third, all in the correct order. There are $8 \times 7 \times 6 = 336$ possible trifectas to bet on, only one of which can occur in any given game.

But we trusted Pepe. And besides, it was now our money. Eventually, we convinced our father to trade in our two 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-tick-tick-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 if half-hearted wave of the cesta, and all but the first two teams straggled back to the bench.

The betting clock completed its count down, 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 boo-ed 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. ``My G-d, only two more points and the kids win!''

This revelation only made us cheer louder. ``Green-Green-Green!,'' I yelled.

``Four-Four-Four!,'' my brothers chimed in.

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, o-oh. No, catch it! ah-h. Miss it, o-oh. No, catch it! ah-h. Miss it....''

He missed it!


Family pandemonium broke out as we waited the few moments it took for the game to become official. Our trifecta paid us $124.60 for a $2 bet - an incomprehensibly large amount of money to a bunch of kids. The public address announcer, in shock, informed all in the house that Pepe's Green Card had picked the winning trifecta in the previous game. Mom inform 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 the betting area by state law.

Us kids took the family out to dinner the next night. We experienced the thrill of being the bread winner, 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, but Pepe did. Maybe I could figure it out, too...

An old gambling axiom states that ``Luck is good, but brains is better''. Indeed, it took me almost twenty five years, but finally I have figured it out. Let me tell you how I did it...

I hope you have enjoyed this excerpt from Calculated Bets: Computers, Gambling, and Mathematical Modeling to Win!, by Steven Skiena, copublished by Cambridge University Press and the Mathematical Association of America.

This is a book about a gambling system that works. It tells the story of how the author used computer simulation and mathematical modeling techniques to predict the outcome of jai-alai matches and bet on them successfully -- increasing his initial stake by over 500% in one year! His method 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, for such games as lotto, roulette, blackjack, and the stock market. Indeed, he shows how his jai-alai system functions just 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 don't 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 curious about gambling and mathematics, odds are this is the book for you!

This book is available in both hardcover and paperback.

next up previous index
Next: 3. What is Jai-Alai? Up: Excerpts from Calculated Bets: Previous: 1. Introduction
Steve Skiena