Curling 101

Every four years the winter Olympics come along and people all over the world sit in front of their TV’s watching teams of athletes slide down a sheet of ice with a piece of granite in their hands while they yell at each other.

Of course most of those viewers not familiar with the game find themselves thinking, “What the f*ck is going on?”

If you also find yourself fitting into the category of fascinated head-scratcher then have no fear, I’ve put this post together specifically with you in mind.

What is Curling?

Curling is a game that was invented in Scotland about 500 hundred years ago. It is contested between two teams of four players on a 150 foot sheet of ice. Each team has eight 42-lb granite stones that are thrown, two per player, alternately between teams, at a round target of circles at the opposite end of the ice called the house.

Each player has a set role, or position on his/her team and always throws their stones in the same order.

After a coin toss to determine who will go first, the first player from team A throws their first stone and then the first player from team B will throw theirs.

The first player from team A will then throw their second stone, after which the first player from team B will throw theirs. This alternating sequence continues until all eight stones are thrown by each team.

When the last stone is thrown the end is complete and the players will converge around the stones in the house to count the points.

The object of the game of course is to score more points than the opposing team.

To complete a game in an internationally sanctioned competition such as the Olympics, this process is done ten times.

Though ten ends make a up a standard game, if the teams are tied after tens ends, an extra end must be played to break the tie. Just like baseball, there are no tie games in curling.

Also if one team takes a big lead that the losing team feels is insurmountable, the losing team has the option of conceding the game before completing all ten ends; this is curling’s version of the mercy rule.

How do the points work?

The biggest mystery for the uninitiated is the point system. People see a bulls-eye type of target and immediately think that the different sized rings have different values that affect scoring, but this is not the case.

Regardless of where the stone is within the rings (the house), points are awarded one per stone, and in each end only one team can score points. This is determined by which team has a stone in the house that is closest to the very center, called the button. Any stone that is not in the house cannot score any points.

Then each next closest stone from the scoring team that is closer to the button than all of the stones belonging to the other team also scores a point.

Determining which stone is closest is usually done by eye by the players themselves. If there is any disagreement about which stone is closest to the button, an official can be called in to use a special tool to measure and determine who scores.

If no stones are left in the house at the completion of the end, then no points are scored. This is called a blank end and can be a desirable result if one team is leading and is trying to run their opponent out of chances to score points to catch up.

Here are some examples of some different scoring possibilities:

In the first example each team has two stones in the house. The red stone is closest to the button, therefore the red team scores. The next closest stone to the button is yellow. This beats the second red stone, therefore red only scores one point.

In the second example yellow is closest to the center, therefore they score. The next two closest stones to the button are also yellow, meaning yellow has three stones in the house that are closer to the button than the closest red, therefore yellow scores three.

In the third example despite the fact that yellow has five stones in the house, the red stone is closest to the button; it beats all of the yellow stones and therefore red scores one.

In the last example no stones are touching the rings of the house therefore no points are awarded and the result is a blank end.

The mechanics of curling

This looks really easy, kinda like shuffleboard on ice. So what makes it all so complicated?

Well it is kinda like shuffleboard on ice, but combined with billiards, and mixed with chess. Plus it requires seamless teamwork and communication, athletic ability (especially on the part of the sweepers), a talent for thinking ahead, plus an incredible memory.

Here’s why:

Unlike skating rink ice curling ice is textured, not smooth. In fact for curling, smooth ice would be absolutely useless.

Between games the ice-maker will go out with a special sprayer to sprinkle large water droplets onto the ice. Those droplets freeze and form the rough surface called the pebble. The pebbled surface is what provides friction allowing the stone to curve (curl) in one direction or the other, depending on which way the handle was turned upon releasing the stone.

This is where the strategy comes in.

Because you can manipulate a stone’s trajectory by turning the handle, players look to hide their scoring stones behind guard stones positioned in front of the house.

The other way to manipulate a stone’s trajectory, and also its travelling distance, is through sweeping.

Sweepers use brute force to put as much weight as possible on their brushes while scrubbing the ice vigorously in front of the stone. This heats up the ice and softens the pebble keeping the stone from curling and allowing it to travel a longer distance than it would on its own.

Good sweepers (not these guys!) can make a rock travel up 12 feet more than without sweeping

Good strong sweepers can cause a stone to travel up to a dozen feet more than without any sweeping. This can be used to compensate for a stone that was thrown too lightly.

Sweeping to keep a stone from curling allows players to throw as close as possible to a stone in front of the house. Once the stone gets past the guard, they will stop sweeping to allow the thrown stone to curl and hide behind that stone, thereby making it harder for their opponents to remove it.

How much a stone will curl also depends on how hard it was thrown. A stone that is thrown with a lot of force carries more momentum and will not curl much at all. A stone thrown with a lighter touch will have a tendency to curl much more. If you watch closely, using the center line as your reference, you’ll also notice that a stone curls more as it begins to slow down.

Depending on the ice conditions and a number of other factors, players can make a stone curl as much as 6-8 feet across the width of the ice. Considering the house is only 12 feet wide, this leaves a lot of room for all kinds of strategic possibilities.

What’s all the yelling about?

Basically it’s just communication.

The captain of the team called the Skip is in charge of strategy and calling the shots. The skip stays behind the house and will communicate to his/her teammates the intended results of the next shot.

The skip will show the players where they want the stone to end up. Then the skip will use their broom to set a target for the shooter and tell the shooter which way to turn the handle and how hard to throw the stone to get it to its intended destination.

Over the course of the game ice conditions change due to wear of the pebble and changes to temperature and humidity in the arena.

The skip is constantly analyzing, calculating, and re-evaluating the ice conditions after each stone is thrown, in order to determine how much the next stone will curl and how hard it needs to be thrown.

Throw it on target, with the right weight, and the correct rotation, judge the line and the speed to make sure you sweep it when needed, but not too much….

Suddenly it doesn’t seem so simple does it? 😀

Once the stone is released the sweepers will immediately shout to the skip to let him/her know how hard or soft it was thrown and where they think the stone will end up. Then based on whether or not the stone was thrown on target, the skip must decide if the stone needs to be swept or not. The skip will then shout instructions to the sweepers to let them know what to do.

Some of the things you’ll hear from the skip include:

Yes! (sweep)

No! (don’t sweep)

Never! (sweep and I’ll throttle you)

Only for weight! (it’s on target but might not be thrown hard enough)

Yes for line! (it’s curling too soon and we need to get around the guard so keep it straight)

Needs to curl.  (It’s off target so wait for it to curl and only sweep for distance)

Hard! (it’s gonna be close to the guard so sweep!)

Really Hard! (no really, you guys need to sweep already!)

And of course: REALLY REALLY HAAAAAAARD! (what are you asleep? I said SWEEP!) 😉

Basic Strategy

A coin toss determines who throws first to start the game.

Just like having the last word in a debate, getting to throw the last stone is a distinct advantage in curling. In fact throwing last is so important it has its own name: having the hammer.

To keep things fair the team that scores in any given end must throw first in the next end, giving up the hammer to their opponents. If the end is blanked then whoever had the hammer keeps it.

The team that has the hammer is rightfully expected to score. Their opponents will usually play a strategy that’s designed to prevent them from scoring more than one point. The idea is to score two or more points when you have the hammer and force the other team to only score one when they have it.

Do this consistently and after ten ends you’ll come out on top.

Scoring without the hammer is also possible though much more rare. This is called stealing and usually requires a series of mistakes and missed shots by the team with the hammer.

The first few stones in each end are usually thrown in front of the house as guards. Teams will then hide behind those guards to try to score points or limit scoring by the other team. To keep rocks in play there is a rule that prevents those guards from being removed until the fifth rock of the end is thrown.

The team with the hammer will throw guards away from the center line called corner guards, while the team without the hammer will try to block up the middle of the ice with center line guards. Blocking up the middle limits access to the button for the team with the hammer, making it more difficult for them to score with their last stone if they need to.

Through the course of an end, teams will feel each other out and hope for misses or strategy mistakes while using a variety of shots such as guards, draws (precision placement shots), takeouts, and combination shots bouncing off other stones.

That pretty much covers the basics. Of course there are plenty of other rules, details and etiquette points involved but this should be more than enough to get you shouting along with your favorite skip to “Hurry! Hard!” like the rest of us crazy curling fans.

I hope this was helpful, assuming you haven’t died of boredom while reading it 😀

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Happy curling!

About Norm 3.0

World’s youngest grumpy old man & heart failure wonder boy. Interests: writing, woodworking, photography, travel, tennis, wine, and I know a bit about power tools.
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56 Responses to Curling 101

  1. reocochran says:

    I’m not sure I grasp it all but Norm, this helped me a Lot!! I like the way it looks like they are sweeping instead of clearing a path, heating the ice up, right and smoothing it out.
    I loved the Olympics finale with gorgeous designs and music from so many sources. I also watched bobsledding, skating and skiing when I had a chance! 🌐 💞 It was a beautiful Winter Games!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy P says:

    Great tutorial! After struggling with the nuances of the game while watching the Olympics (stayed up to watch the men’s gold medal game live!) this is nice for filling in some of the gaps. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amy Sampson says:

    “Good sweepers (not these guys)…” 😂🤣😂🤣😂🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wanda says:

    Thank you for such a good article on curling. I love to watch this, as a matter of fact, it is my favorite winter Olympic sport.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      You’re welcome.
      I think it’s the strategy and all of the different possibilities that first drew me in. Plus even when you know exactly what you want to do, you still have to execute, which is not always easy.
      It’s a very challenging game.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ally Bean says:

    I remember seeing curling at the halftime of an ice hockey game. It was fascinating to watch, but kind of goofy at the same time. My impression was that it was a game for people who didn’t want to get winded, and liked to plot & plan. Thanks for explaining it here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Thanks Ally. Try sweeping a rock all the way down the ice – I promise you, you’ll be winded.
      Do it for six rocks an end for ten ends and I guarantee you’ll be sore the next day too 😉
      BTW the American men beat Canada today in the semis so they’ll be going for the gold in their next game against Sweden.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. analogphotobug says:

    Thanks so much for this explanation. My husband is fascinated by Curling, even though he has no idea what’s going on. So I’ve passed the link on to him and he can read it for himself. Must be his latent Scottish genetics coming through!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Amy says:

    Thanks so much Norm!! We were once again mesmerized by it the other day and I was wishing I understood the game! And now I do!! I had no clue that the ice was pebbled. That makes a lot more sense. I thought I heard them yelling out numbers, but I probably wasn’t listening closely. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Thanks Amy. You probably heard correctly. The sweepers will yell out numbers to the skip to communicate the speed of the stone and where they think it will end up.
      Some teams use a stopwatch to time the stone between two reference points on the ice, so you may have heard them calling out a time.
      Others use a system that divides the ice into zones, in which case you’ll be hearing numbers from 1-11.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Tara says:

    Oh, so it’s not just people throwing a rock down a lane for no good reason! 🙂 Thanks for the detailed explanation. It makes MUCH more sense now.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. marianallen says:

    Thanks, Norm! A clear and exciting explanation. It sounds riveting!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this Norm. I had no idea how it was played. I feel like watching a match now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh, that’s easy then. I guess I just need some ice now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great explanation, Norm. Thanks very much. My husband wants to know if this means you can win by a stone’s throw. 🙂 (You can see why he and I get along.)


    Liked by 1 person

  13. amoralegria says:

    My parents used to belong to a curling league. It was funny to watch them, especially my mother, sweeping. I didn’t understand the game at all but they had fun with it. Amazing that there was a curling league (a rather obscure sport) in our small home town of Janesville, Wisconsin!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Can you rerun this every four years please? This was great. I’ve watched some of the coverage and could tell it required precision, but I had no idea how in depth it was and most of all that the ice is textured. Thank you!! Now, I have to send this to my husband. He’ll love the explanation. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. willowdot21 says:

    Love it, bowls on ice!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. joey says:

    I thought I had a pretty clear idea of it, and get a little tense when people joke about it, equate it with underwater basket weaving or whatever, but that was a very good explanation. It’s clear now how strategic it is, and I wasn’t expecting that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      I don’t take offense to those who poke fun, I just invite them to come give it a try so I can convert them 😉
      Strategy can get very complex at times. It really is like a chess match – trying to figure out what to do based on what you think the opponents tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Even at the recreational level, it’s a fun way to lose yourself for a few hours.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Dan Antion says:

    Thanks for this, Norm. I thought I had picked up a pretty good idea of the sport, but I did not understand scoring, I also didn’t know about the pebbled surface. That makes sense. I have watched quite a bit of curling this year. My favorite round was when the Japanese women beat the US women. I like when the US wins, but the Japanese women were so excited and so vocal and it looked like they were having fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great game, curling. We lived in Scotland for over 20 years and our son (briefly) played for his school. Much more to it than bowls on ice.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Really, 500 hundred years ago? 😮 😉 This was quite fascinating to read. I actually know the person in charge of Slovenian curling team (or at least he used to do it, I don’t see him around any more to ask). No wonder that we are nowhere near the Olympics. 😀

    And the natural question? Does Norm curl?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Thanks Manja. There are a lot of good teams in Europe and only so many spots available at the Olympics so the Slovenians are going to have to step it up if they want to compete at that level. They should hire a Canadian coach; that’s what the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have all done.
      Yes we used to play in a regular recreational league. We still play once or twice a year just for fun with family and friends. That’s me in the second shot, and me and Honey in the last two pics.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. JT Twissel says:

    My mother for some reason has gotten totally into curling – I’ll have to send your explanation of the sport to her! (she’s an accountant so I’m sure all those intricacies will appeal to her)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I confess I couldn’t keep myself interested to finish reading… Consequently, I still think it’s the silliest sport ever created. I can imagine a group of drunk and bored Scotsmen inventing it… And the Norwegians took it to another level with their ridiculous pants. I hope I haven’t offended anyone with this comment…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      To each his/her own 😀
      To be honest I find myself feeling the same way about soccer but there’s about 4 billion people on the planet who’d disagree.
      If you ever make out to our part of the world during curling season let me know and we’ll take you out on the ice to try it for yourself. Then I’m sure you’ll be hooked 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Donnalee says:

    Thanks for this comprehensive intro. It interests me that the scoring is not like archery or darts but more competitive within each round. The subtleties of technique are lost on me right now, but I appreciate that they exist!

    What countries are good at this now? Who does well in the sport at the highest levels? I don’t actually have a tv so have not been watching the Olympics–thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Sign me up for a teem. I want to be the Yeller 😆

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Wow, that’s way more complicated than I thought… but I still question its inclusion in the Olympics. It seems more like a game (bocce ball, lawn bowling) than a sport… but then I’m not Scottish 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      I understand what you’re saying. This is a common reaction from those who’ve never tried it though. Get out on the ice and you’ll see that while bocce, or petanque, or lawn bowling ARE relatively easy, curling only LOOKS easy because elite players are so darn good.
      At the recreational/club level though, it certainly is more a game than a sport.
      However, if I ever get you out on the ice to try it, you will have sore muscles the next day, I promise 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Joanne Sisco says:

    Holy Hammer – I think I actually understand this game now!

    Liked by 2 people

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