Basque pelota is the ancestor of Jai alai

Basque pelota is a court game originally played in the Basaque Country in Spain and France. Several variations have been described historically, such as playing with a bare hand, playing using a racket, playing using a wooden bat and playing using a woven basket-glove. What most version have in common is that a ball is thrown again a wall.

In Basque (euskera), the game is known as pilota. In Spanish, the game is called pelota vasca, while the French says pelote basque. The term pilota / pelota comes from pilotta, a diminutive form of pila in Vulgar Latin. A pila was originally a ball filled with pilus (fur or hair).

The earliest mentionings of the game pilota are from the 13th century. The game is believed to be based on ball games played by the ancient Greek and other peoples living in the Mediterranean basin during the classical era.

The fronton (court)

historyUnlike Jai Alai, which is played in a three walled court, Basque pelota is played in a two walled court. In Basque, this court is known as the frontoi or pilotaleku.

Basque pelota courts with just one wall do exist (especially in the French part of Basque Country) but they are not approved for international tournaments by the International Federation of Basque Pelota. Usually, these uni-walled courts are used to play joko-garbia and open-air grand chistera games.

Rules for Hand Pelota

Hand pelota, known as esku huska or esku huskako pilota in Basque, is played barehanded or using minimal hand protection.

The traditional hand pelota ball has a hard core surrounded by wool. The wool is covered by leather. All in all, the ball should weigh 92 – 95 grams.

Hand pelota is played either one vs. one or two vs. two in the court.

The player to serve bounces the ball before propelling towards the front wall. The ball must then rebound between the low line and the high line. It doesn’t matter if it rebounds directly off the front wall onto the ground, or if it rebounds onto the side wall first.

The task for the opposing team is to play the ball. They can either play the ball immediately after its rebound from front or side wall, or play the ball when it has rebounded from the floor once.


  • A team scores if the opposing team fails to play the ball before it has rebounded off the ground more than once.
  • A team scores if it plays the ball and it rebounds off the front wall and rebounds off the floor and outside the playing area.
  • A team scores if the opposing team plays the ball and it hits the front wall below the low line or above the high line.
  • A team scores if the opposing team plays the ball in time but the ball doesn’t reach the front wall.

Basque pelota around the world

Basque pelota gameBasque pelota is played around the world, especially in countries that used to be Spanish colonies. Still, the game retain its strong ties to Basque Country, and many of today’s most successful Basque pelota players were either raised in Basque Country or raised in a Basque diaspora.

Once upon a time, the Basque pelota was an offical Olympic sport. It was a part of the 1900 Paris Games (Summer Olympics). It was also a demonstration sport in the 1924 Summer Olympics and the 1992 Summer Olympics.

International Federation of Basque Pelota

The highest governing body of the sport is the International Federation of Baque Pelota (FIPV).

Spanish: Federación Internacional de Pelota Vasca

Basque: Euskal Pilotaren Nazioarteko Federakuntza

The International Federation of Basque Pelota was formed in Buenos Aires, Argentina on May 19, 1929. The founding organizations were the Spanish Federation of Basque Pelota, the French Federation of Basque Pelota and the Argentinian Federation of Basque Pelota.

Because of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, the official modalities regulated by the international federation wasn’t defined until 1946.

The International Federation of Basque Pelota is headquartered in Bernardino Tirapu, Pamplona, Navarra, Spain.

Examples of countries where there are federations of Basque pelota

  • Spain
  • France
  • Italy
  • Greece
  • Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Sweden
  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Ecuador
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela
  • Costa Rica
  • Nicaragua
  • El Salvador
  • Guatemala
  • Mexico
  • Cuba
  • Puerto Rico
  • Dominican Republic
  • USA
  • Canada
  • The Philippines
  • India

Modalities and disciplines

The International Federation of Basque Pelota has standardised the many varieties of the game into four modalities and fourteen disciplines. This includes standards for scoring, court size and ball weight.

The four modalities:

  • 30 meter wall
  • 36 meter wall
  • 54 meter wall
  • Trinquete

Examples of variants

Paleta Goma

Paleta Goma is played with a solid rubber ball. Goma is the Spanish word for rubber.

Argentine Paleta Goma

Basque pelotaArgentine Paleta Goma is played with a gas-filled rubber ball. The ball is made from two halves glued together. The fact that the ball is filled with gas instead of being solid or completely empty, gives it a special firmness and bounce. The ball speeds recorded at Argentine Paleta Goma games have been really high.

The bat, which is called paleta, is short and broad.

As the name suggests, this game was invented in Argentina.

Paleta Cuero

Cuero means leather in Spanish. Paleta Cuero is played with a bat that is similar to the short and broad paleta used for Argetina Paleta Goma, but a traditional leather ball is used instead of a gas filled rubber ball.

Pala Corta

Corta means short in Spanish. Pala Corta is played with a very short bat, that is also thicker and more narrow than a normal Basque pelota bat. The bat is called pala ancha. The ball can be a leather ball or a rubber ball.

Pala Larga

Pala Larga is played with an extra long bat. (Larga means long in Spanish.) The bat is very thick and narrow. The ball can be a leather ball or a rubber ball.

Jai alai (Zesta punta)

Jai alai is the offshoot of Basque pelota that is most well known in North America. In Basque, it is known as Zesta punta or Xisteria punta, while in Spain the game is called Cesta punta. Zesta / cesta means basket, and is a reference to the long curved woven basket-glove worn on the player’s right hand. This contraption is about 60 cm long in straight line and roughly 110 cm in curved line. The players use their basket-glove to catch the rubber ball and propel it back.

Jai alai means merry festival in Basque. The name was coineb by Basque poet Serafin Baroja in 1875.

Joko garbi

Joko garbi is similar to jai alai, but use a shorter basket-glove. Also, the player is allowed to retain the ball only momentarily. Joko garbi is Basque for pure game, as opposed to the joko zikin (dirty game) played in the late 1800s.


Remonte is similar to joko garbi, but the basket-glove is flatter.


Xare, also known as sare, is a soft racket from which the game derives its name. The word means net in Basque. Playing Xare is especially popular in South America. The game is known for very quick, sharp and precise movements.


This is a game that grew out of Basque Pelota in Mexico. Ordinary tennis rackets are used instead of special Basque Pelota basket-gloves.

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