Neophyte Impressions of Curling

I suppose I'm not alone when I say that, for the most part, I only remember curling is a sport whenever the Winter Olympics come around.

Each Winter games, I say, "Hey, curling seems cool, I'm going to keep following it after the Olympics are over." Not only do I fail to do that, but I even get distracted away from curling before the medals are doled out.

But here we are again. I haven't lost interest in curling yet and I'm (again) declaring it my favorite Winter Olympic sport. We can dismiss reasons why I lose interest as "I'm an idiot with ADD." After all, there are plenty of national championships, world championships, and a World Curling Tour with events all year and freely available on the web. It's not so niche that you can't keep on top of things.

Let me instead tell you about what I like about it, and one sore-thumb issue I do not like one bit.

I'm not going to waste a lot of ink explaining the rules, which you can read about on the curling Wiki page.

I will give you the basics, however. Each team of four players take turns sliding stones across the ice towards a bullseye-looking target area called "the house." Once both teams have thrown eight stones apiece, scoring happens. Whichever team has a stone closest to the middle of the house (the "button"), scores a point. They also score a point for each stone closer to the center (but still in or at least touching or overlapping the edge of the house) closer than the closest opponent's rock.

In other words, in red vs. yellow, if the four closest stones to the middle are all red, then red gets four points. If the closest stone to the middle is yellow, and the next closest is red, then yellow gets one point.

This means only one team can score per inning, called "ends" in curling. If neither team has any stones in the house after an end (it does happen due to strategic decisions and backfires), nobody scores and the same team keeps the hammer. The game is over after 10 ends.

What's "the hammer," you ask? That's the last stone thrown in an end. As you might imagine, the team that has "the hammer" has a tremendous advantage. They have the last shot, the last word, the last chance to affect things in each round.

You might think, as I did, that teams take turns with the hammer, but that's not true. Instead, it's the team that failed to score the last end who gets the hammer (when neither team scores, it's called a "blank end" and the hammer stays with the same team; as implied earlier, it is impossible for both teams to score in an end).

You see, while having the hammer is a big advantage, it doesn't automatically mean that team will be the one to score that round. The other team may throw their stones perfectly using some sort of excellent strategy executed flawlessly. Or (more likely) the hammer-having team screwed up. The team without the hammer scores instead — that's a "steal."

If you "steal" an end, you aren't rewarded with the hammer. Remember, the team that did not score the last round gets the hammer. If you keep stealing, you keep surrendering the hammer (worth it, because as in most sports, the real goal is the score points. It's just easier to do that with the hammer. If you're doing it without the hammer, more power to you.) Think of it this way using football terms: if you keep scoring, you keep kicking off...

... except for overtime. Here is where I think the rules need fixing. If my math is right, the team with the hammer won about 81% of the ends with a winner (that is, not counting blank ends) in the men's tournament at the 2014 Sochi games. Only 19% of scoring ends were "stolen."

The first team that scores in overtime wins. That's it. It's sudden death. If you don't have the hammer for the first overtime end — sorry, Charlie. Maybe that 19% will hit for you.

Seems to me it'd be way fairer for overtime periods in curling to be played in twos, like the mini-halves in a soccer match that cannot end in a tie. If that will make it drag on too long, reduce the number of stones in overtime (other, more curling-smart people have suggested that). Or do the above with the caveat that a steal in overtime is an instant win, such as returning an interception for a TD in college football overtime.

Here I said I'd only go over the rules briefly, and ... I didn't. And the only commentary part of this was something I don't like. And I didn't even get to sweeping.

(They sweep the ice to alter the smoothness of the ice and therefore the speed and direction of the stone. You're welcome.)

I really like curling. It's relaxing to watch, as is golf for me and other precision sports, like pool or bowling. Like those sports, you don't have to be an uber-athlete to do well at it, and that's a good thing.

And guess what? Americans aren't bad at it. Their men's team is ranked fourth in the world, the women, 7th. There are 165 curling clubs in the United States, even in places like Phoenix and Tampa.

So why don't we vow to stick with it this time? The next World Curling Tour event after the Olympics is the Princess Auto Elite 10, a men's tournament March 15-18 in Winnipeg with an $100,000 prize pool. Let's watch it.

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