The Uniqueness of Curling

So, it’s curling season again, and as I’ve been watching it I’ve noticed that it has an aspect that I don’t think that I’ve seen in any other sport.

At least once if not more per game, a team is actively trying to get the opposing team to score.

At least once if not more per game, a team is actively trying to avoid scoring.

And both of these tend to happen at the same time, which means that at various points in the game one team is trying to force the other team to score, as the other team is trying quite hard to avoid scoring.

I don’t know of any other sport that — and can’t even think of any other sport that could — has that as a regular dynamic in the game.

To understand how this happens, let me give a brief rundown of curling. Curling is typically played by two teams of 4 people, throwing eight “rocks”, two apiece, towards a set of rings at the other end of the ice. The teams alternate throwing, so you start with one player from one team, and then a player from the other, alternating until all of the rocks are thrown. This means, of course, that one team gets to throw their last rock last, which is known as having the “hammer”. In order to score, you have to have your rock be closest to the centre of the rings, called the button. But it isn’t the case that you can only score one point an end (set of 16 rocks). If the next closest rock to the button is also yours, you get another point, and so on until you run out of rocks in the rings or the next closest rock belongs to your opponent. So you want lots of rocks close to the button, and none of your opponents. In theory you can score a total of 8, but that is incredibly rare (I recently saw a 7-spot in a game, however, which is still rare).

Given this, having the hammer is usually incredibly important. It gives you the last opportunity to do something to ensure that your rocks are closer to the button than your opponent’s are. It also lets you react to what your opponent is doing the entire end. So you really want to have the hammer because it gives you your best chance to score, and especially to score multiple points. Which leads to the last thing that leads to the dynamic I’ve described above: if you score even one point, you lose the hammer and it goes to the other team.

So you want to maximize your opportunities with the hammer, and so score at least 2 whenever you have it. This means that if you don’t think you can score 2, you want to blank the end and try again in the next end. But your opponent doesn’t want you to have the hammer the whole game, because while they can indeed score with stealing (scoring when you have the hammer) it’s a lot harder than scoring with the hammer. So what they want to do is force you to score, but only 1, so that they can get the hammer themselves and try to score 2 or more, to gain an advantage over you and win the game.

Thus, the dynamic. The team that doesn’t have the hammer is constantly trying to get the other team to score only one in an end, while the team without the hammer, if they can’t score two or more, wants to avoid scoring only one by blanking the end instead. Again, I can’t think of any other sport that has this.

(As an aside, I tend to prefer the women’s game, and right now my favourite curlers are Rachel Homan and Val Sweeting because they’re young, they’re pretty and, most importantly, they can curl.)

3 Responses to “The Uniqueness of Curling”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    I can think of a couple of times in American sports where a team wants to let the other team score/avoid scoring, though it is very rare.

    In American football you will occasionally get to a point near the end of a game when a team is near the goal line and it is a near certainty they will score. Occasionally, instead of trying to stop it, the defensive team will just let them run into the end zone so they at least have some time before to make a final drive and win. And the attacking team will want to string the drive out as much as possible before scoring any points.

    I know of only one time in baseball that a team actually gave the opposing team a run. Barry Bonds, who in his prime was literally the second best hitter in the history of baseball, was up to bat late in the game with the bases loaded and the opposing team up by two. The manager decided to walk him and give up the run rather than face him with the bases loaded.

    It worked, too. They got the next out and won the game.

    Otherwise I’m not sure if that’s ever happened. It is, at least, extraordinarily rare.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, but those are special circumstances. You’ll see cases like that in international soccer and hockey and the like when you’re playing for a favourable goal differential, like this one:

      In curling, it’s built into the game. For example, Rachel Homan consistently blanks the first end when she has the hammer to start, so that she can have it — if each team scores when they have the hammer — for the even ends, which would then include the last end.

      • Andrew Says:

        Deliberately under-performing in order to promote another team on the ladder is usually considered bad sportsmanship (and might or might not be punishable, depending on the rules of the competition). In addition, it’s not so much giving away points *within* a match as giving away points in the league (the match being a game within a game).

        As far as scoring sub-optimally in single instances to improve overall position, I’ve seen it done often in the closing stages of a cricket match. If there’s a significant mis-match in skill levels of the two batsmen, teams will either give away single runs (if fielding) or refuse to take them (if batting) in order to place have their preferred batsman facing the bowler.

        In a limited overs match, the batting team prefers to have the big hitter (capable of scoring 4 or even 6 runs off a delivery) “on strike”. In a longer match where the batting team is trying to remain “not out” long enough to score the needed runs, the batting team may try to protect the weaker batter from getting out by keeping him “off strike”.

        As per Malcolm’s examples, these are unusual situations rather than common tactics.

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