Beautiful Minds at the Fronton

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My heart goes out to contemporary jai-alai players who must constantly answer a rather irritating question from casual observers: “Isn’t your sport fixed?” The stars of the circuit have gone to great lengths to assure the public of jai-alai’s credibility, but it’s still tough to overcome some of the extreme shadiness that dogged the sport in the ’70s and ’80s.

Yet although many players have been nabbed for throwing games at the behest of organized crime, the greatest scandal ever to rock the world of jai-alai had little to do with the athletes themselves. Rather, it was all about a group of mathematical geniuses recognizing that the sport’s entire betting system was poorly constructed. In 1979, Sports Illustrated broke down exactly how an organization known as the Miami Syndicate used its considerable brainpower to outsmart the house:

In doubles (the same rules apply to singles, but doubles account for nine or 10 of the 12 games on an evening’s program), pair No. 1 plays pair No. 2 to begin each game. The winners of the opening point then play pair No. 3 and so on down the line to the No. 8 pair. In most games, after each of the eight pairs has had a turn on the court, a second round begins in which the winners get two points, instead of one, for each win. The first team to get seven points wins the game.

Analyses of trifecta combinations show certain numbers rarely win. For example, an $18 box bet on 678—which covers every possible combination of 6, 7 and 8—is a sucker bet; 678, 768 and 876 almost never come in, because those teams enter the game so late. The Miami Syndicate left sucker numbers out of its basic betting system in favor of combinations that mostly involved players on teams numbered 1 through 5.

The Courant‘s Driscoll has calculated that the Syndicate won about $1.12 for every $1 bet, a 12% profit. By comparison, an average bettor gets a return of only 82¢ for every $1 wagered’, an 18% loss

Systems betting isn’t illegal, nor, incredibly enough, were the extraordinary privileges granted members of the Miami Syndicate by the Hartford fronton. They were given their own ticket puncher, their own cashier and access to computer printouts of the betting every 90 seconds while wagering was under way. Such printouts are not usually available to the public. Mark Wiesenfeld, the assistant mutuels manager, provided the printouts because, as he later testified, he thought they were “public documents.” When Hartford Jai Alai stopped Wiesenfeld from doing this, John DeWees, a ticket puncher, began providing the information.

Having the betting printouts gave the Miami Syndicate a huge advantage. With access to them, the Miami Syndicate immediately knew what other bettors were doing. The printouts, which showed how many bets had been placed on each of the 336 trifecta combinations, allowed Syndicate members to stay away from the heavily played numbers and to bet on those that were less popular. Moreover, as it turned out, the printouts permitted the Miami Syndicate to spot other systems bettors and drive them out of the game by wagering so heavily on their numbers that the payoff on them was minimal. The Miami Syndicate had such total control and such an acute sense of how to “tune” the odds that members were even able to bet just enough on a trifecta so that a win would pay less than 300 to 1. By keeping the payoff to less than 300 to 1, Syndicate members could pocket all their winnings, instead of having the IRS withhold 20%, as it automatically does on all winning tickets on payoffs of 300 to 1 or more.

The top members of the Syndicate earned roughly $7 million a year, which is nothing to sneeze at. But they’re probably kicking themselves now for not applying their math skills to even more lucrative endeavors that reward the ability to play the angles.

Of course, the defenders of jai-alai’s credibility are not without their own math nerds.

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  1. A Perfect System, Soaked in Blood | Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner:

    [...] Though my gambling amounts to little more than the occasional hand of $5 blackjack while in Vegas, I’m fascinated by the work of oddsmaking. It takes a special kind of genius to create a system in which the house will always win in the long run, though by just enough to preserve the game’s entertainment value. Adding to the challenge is that constant interference of players who constantly probe these systems for weaknesses—if you’re not careful enough when writing the house rules, a bunch of math whizzes from Miami are bound to take you to the cleaners. [...]

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