The Roaring Game

by wombatony

AKA My Introduction to “Good Curling.”

The last few Winter Olympics, I’ve become more interested in curling. You may have seen it buried on USA Network or CNBC After Dark or whatever the 75th network down the NBC depth chart is. It’s the one that looks like shuffleboard on ice with a bulls-eye at the end.

Oh yeah, it also has brooms.

I would watch these games with fascination. What the hell were they doing? Why were they yelling so much? And who the hell sweeps ice? By the time the Vancouver Olympics rolled around, I was starting to understand the basic scoring and resulting strategy. My Italian grandpa had me playing bocce ball since the age of five, so it was easy to convert – one point for every stone of yours that is closer than your opponent’s closest stone.  When Sochi rolled around, I found myself armchair quarterbacking – “Why don’t they just put the stone right there? That seems simple enough.”

I started to wonder how one gets into this crazy Scottish/Canadian creation? The fact that most of the American Olympians hailed from Wisconsin and Minnesota made me assume I’d never find out. But boy, if I ever found myself in a place with tundra as the dominant vegetation, I’d have to check it out. I mean, the Olympians don’t look all that fit, they’re not flying at 50 MPH on ice skates, they’re not cross-country skiing. They’re pushing a little rock and walking alongside it to the other end. I’ve played bocce. I’ve bowled. I’ve even swept a floor once or twice in my life. I know I’m the kid that always got stuck in right field for Little League, but seriously, how hard can curling be?

Turns out, in a few ways I was right. And in many more, I was wrong.

It’s not that difficult to find or get started in a curling club. There are actually six clubs in California alone, and others in such frigid locales as Las Vegas and Phoenix. It’s a sport that most people without knee or hip problems can probably learn and play with some ability after a few hours. But mastery? That takes much more.

Most start with a Learn to Curl class.  It starts with a 20-30 minute preview of how the game works, for those rare few who hadn’t been DVR’ing the Sochi matches from 2:00 AM. Then it goes out onto the ice rink to practice setting up and delivering the stone.

It was at this point, long before I had actually set up “in the hack,” that I realized my early assumptions were a bit off.  The distance to the target is way farther than it looks on TV. I figured it would be about the length of a bowling lane, but it’s double that. It more or less runs the length from one hockey face-off circle to the other.

After a half hour or so of practicing delivery without the rock, then with the rock but without letting go, and of course plenty of sweeping, we finally got to make a legitimate curling shot. I crouched myself down into the hack and looked toward that distant target. You can’t even see the bulls-eye, since it is on the ground. Instead, a person stands at the other end and gives you a target. In this Learn to Curl class, the target was laid down by the instructor.  Go ahead, he was showing me, shoot for the button (that’s the middle of “the house,” or bulls-eye area). I reared back, focusing on the target and remembering all thirty minutes of form practice, and let it fly.

My first shot made it just about to mid-ice. Hey, in my defense, had this been as long as a bowling lane, like I originally thought, that would have been dead on.  It took me three more throws before I could get a stone past the “hog line,” the minimum possible distance for stone to be in play. The hog line is a little bit beyond the blue line in hockey, so I had increased my throw by maybe fifty percent, but the hog line is also still a good twenty feet from the house.

With a half-hour or so to go in our two hour training, and still with only a couple of legal shots to my name, they wanted us to “play a couple of ends to see what that’s like.” We only managed to get in two ends (an end is the equivalent of a baseball inning), and each player throws two stones per end, so I only managed to throw four shots. This is the most common complaint about Learn to Curl classes – by the time you put it all together, you only get to take a handful of real shots. But that’s how they keep you coming back for more, I suppose.

And that’s how it happened to me. My final shot, with some good sweeping by my teammates (more on that in a moment) landed directly on the button.

Oh, Damn! I thought to myself. First time out and I hit the hardest shot in curling? Maybe it’s too late for #Sochi2014, but #Pyongyang2018? Here I come.

Turns out hitting the button with no other stones blocking the way isn’t really all that hard. Maybe not as easy as a free-throw in basketball, but not all that much harder. Maybe like an undefended three-pointer.

“You know what we call that?” another instructor asked when I made a similar shot at a later practice. “A target.”

So here I am, some six months later, having gone through two Learn to Curls, two “advanced trainings” (basically Learn to Curl without the first hour), a six-game league, and a bonspiel. In the league, they paired newbies with veterans, and I benefited from this arrangement to the tune of an undefeated 7-0 (counting the playoffs). In the “bonspiel” (what curlers call their weekend-long tournaments), I played one sheet over from two women who had four Olympic appearances between them. Veterans want newbies nowhere near them at a bonspiel, so we fielded a team where my ten times curling was tied for the most. From both of these experiences, I learned more about how simple, and yet how difficult, this game can be.

Each player on the team throws two rocks in a row, interspersed with the other team.  Each player should, then, have a different forte or strategy. During our season, I was the lead in all but one of the games.  The lead’s job is to intentionally throw the rock short of the house.  These “guards” can either be curled behind or raised into the scoring area later. If the lead were to throw that definitive button shot, like I had in the Learn to Curl, it would likely be knocked right out by the other team, and then we’re either back to square one or else the other team is now in a better position. I’ve actually had a team knock my own rock out of the way, then have their stone ricochet behind a guard, making it very difficult to knock out.

The strategy for the second and third team members (throwing rocks 3-6) varies depending on what the play area looks like after the two leads throw those first four stones. And, at least at the level I usually play, those first four have done some kooky, crazy things.  Rare is the game where there are four perfectly placed guards, or even three guards with a well-placed point behind them. The two basic shots for them  are a takeout, which is exactly what it sounds like, or a draw, which is an attempt to score a point closer to the button than the other team’s stones. The one game I did not play lead was quite an adjustment, as I was trying to throw harder than the lead throws.

Then there is the skip, the captain of the team, who spends the first six shots providing the target at the far end of the sheet before taking the team’s final two shots. I skipped during the bonspiel because of my huge experience advantage of having curled one more time than the rest of my team. Skipping is a very lonely life. All the other curlers hang out with each other, walk back and forth while sweeping, even chitchat with the opposition. The skip stands at the far end, calculating and permutating  the constantly changing game. And particularly with a team of newbies, he must think of what might happen if (nay, when) the shot is missed. What is Plan B? Or Plan G? Or what is the worst possible thing that can happen with this shot?

Then, when the skip gets in the hack to take those final shots, the “what’s the worst that can happen” strategy is much more noticeable. I can’t count the number of times my final shot knocked a couple of my opponent’s stones into the house, raising their score from two to four. The lead is like the kickoff return guy. Can a good kickoff return help the drive? Absolutely. Can he fumble or lose ground? Sure. But most of the time, he’s not going to affect the game much. Set up a guard or return the ball to the 25 and the other players on the team are in position to do their thing. When you’re skipping, you’ve become the kicker attempting a 50-yard field goal to tie or win the game. You’re Dennis Eckersley facing Kirk Gibson. Except I was never Dennis Eckersley. At my best, I was in Byung Hyun Kim territory. I can’t count the number of times I made the long walk toward the hack only to tell my teammates, “Well, if I can draw around those five stones with a perfect button shot, we might be able to salvage one point.”

Why does the skip tell his teammates what he’s aiming for? Because they are the sweepers. When someone first watches curling, the first question is usually about sweeping. What is the purpose of it  and does it really make much of a difference? The simple answer is yes, sweeping matters. In my league team, the other rookie and I didn’t always hit our shots, but we were two of the stronger sweepers.  Our ability to salvage a short shot into a guard, or to raise a guard into the house, made us partly responsible for some of that undefeated season.

The curling ice is not clean like in hockey.  No glassy Zambonied surface here.  Instead, the ice is “pebbled” by tiny droplets of water, delivered like an exterminator spraying for bugs.  The pebbles do two things to the stone – slow it down and cause it to curl.  Sweeping flattens out those pebbles for a short time, allowing the stone to both go farther and straighter.  Sometimes the stone is light and you need to sweep like hell just to get it over the hog line.  Sometimes you need to sweep it straight until it gets past a guard, then you stop to let it curl behind the guard.  What happens if you want it to go farther but also curl? Or if you want it to go straight but slower? Well, then you’re screwed and that’s when everybody is quickly assessing plan B. It might be better to keep it straight so that it misses everything instead of curling into and raising the other team’s guard into the house. If you ever watch curling and hear them alternate between on and off, usually they’re trying to make it go further but curl. Or the skip might say “off, off, off,” then all of a sudden, scream “Yes, Hard, yes.” That means the stone finally curled in the right direction and now it needs to be swept as far as possible. Or it could also be an indecisive skipper, but that’s not likely at the level that is on TV. Plus the indecisive skip will say things like “Off. Shit, no. On. I mean… shit… Hard, I guess?”

The one thing that sweepers can’t do, that nobody can do once the stone leavers your hand, is to slow it down. Imagine if you were bowling and instead of throwing your ball through the pins, you had to make it stop right at the five pin. That’s the finesse part of curling, and that (plus the other team getting in your way) is really what makes it difficult. After the first few throws in a Learn to Curl, pretty much anybody can throw the stone hard enough to get through the house. So what’s constantly on your mind as you throw is to try to “take a little off.” Better to be a little short and have the sweepers get it where it needs to go than to send a meaningless stone flying through into the hockey goal. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been worried about it going too far and end up hogging the stone. And then on the next throw, I over-compensate and sail right through the house.

So while I’m far from a grizzled veteran, I guess I’m no longer a raw rookie. In some ways, my initial thoughts were accurate. It’s a game that can be learned quickly. And after three or four shots, most players can at least line up and play a game. And most of the leagues I’ve encountered or heard of have spots for these new players, and these new players can be competitive. However, there’s also an upper level of competition that takes years to reach. The Olympians that were on the same ice as me never called shots with Plan B or C in mind. They make their shots.

Although sometimes I pity their accuracy – there’s nothing as entertaining as watching an awesome cascade of unintended ricochets that steal some points. In the one game we won in the bonspiel, we were up by three and were playing a very conservative final end. On the other team’s final shot, we had one point on an outer ring, and there were about ten stones of various colors clogging up the area in front of the house. With no other option, she threw a stone at full force up the middle, knocking three of her stones in, one of which knocked mine out. We then had to take one final shot each on an empty sheet, with the closest to the button winning the game. That’s curling for you.

And if you don’t score any points? Still no big thing. After the game comes broomstacking, when  you shake hands, say “good curling,” and grab a drink. Oh, did I mention the winning team buys drinks for the losing team? So that 1-5 record my Team o’ Rookies compiled at the Bonspiel? Hell, we pretty much made our entrance fee back in free libations.

Nothing beats sitting around with the team you just spent two hours competing against and re-hashing the game. Man, I can’t believe you missed that shot by an inch. Did you see when that stone lost its handle? Why’d you call for that one shot? Do you think I called off the sweepers too soon?

                 Followed by the line repeated by curlers everywhere.

“If it was easy, they’d call it hockey.”