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.
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 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:
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!) 😉
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!