So You Are New Too?

So You’re New Too? – MORE Things to Know Before You Play

September 2010 Revised Feb. 2013

Okay, I admit, the last article was as close to a cliff hanger as non-fiction writing gets and I apologize for that.  I’m sure as you proceeded through that last one you were all excited for the “how the game works” part which of course wasn’t to be found.  I’d explain why that wasn’t included but I’m sure you would rather have me get on with it already.  Long story short, I like to keep these things to a limit of five pages and as you’ll see, I’m going to break that guideline with this article alone.

Let’s review.  Safety comes first (and second and third…).  Next, please remember to respect the club.  Finally don’t forget your clean shoes and warm, loose fitting clothing.  Assuming you’ve got all that taken care of you’re now ready to get into the game.  A warning before we begin, you cannot learn the sport of curling by reading this, or anything other volume of text.  You HAVE to get yourself to a club and you HAVE to get out on the ice, preferably with a trained instructor (and I happen to know one…).

What is curling exactly?  Often when I’m introducing people to curling they  tell me that they think curling is a lot like shuffleboard.  Some of them say they have heard that curling is like “chess on ice”, though few beginners realize how accurate that statement is.  Both of these comparisons are true, however curling is ALSO like golf, baseball, darts and lawn bowling.  So, again, what is curling??  Clearly shuffleboard is NOT like chess which is NOT like darts which is NOT like….you get the idea.  As much as curling is “like” all those sports, it is NOT any of those sports.  It borrows elements from each of them and combines them into a game that seems simple enough…at first.

Let’s get a lay of the land so to speak.  The playing area looks like a lane of ice and is called a “sheet”.  A sheet has a set of concentric rings at both ends which we call the “house”.  Take a look at Fig. 1.  It’s a busy diagram but I’ll describe the important stuff for you as we move along.  The rings themselves are named by their outside diameters, so the largest (the blue one in the diagram) is known as the “12 foot”.  The next ring (white or ice coloured) is known as the “8 foot” and the red one is known as the “4 foot”.  There is a very small circle right in the middle of the set of rings and that is known as the “button”.  Contrary to what many new curlers think, there is no significance to the various rings or their colours.  Curling clubs often have differing colour schemes for their rings.  The rings are really there to help players gauge which stone is closest to the center at any given time.  A curling game could be played with one single large 12 foot circle outlined at each end of a sheet however it would be very difficult during normal play to see which stone is closest to the center and the rules state that you may not measure stones until the conclusion of an end.  In order for a stone to count as a point it must be touching the rings but there is no difference in points for a stone in the 8 foot ring than for a stone in the 12 foot ring.  One stone is worth one point no matter what.  More on the specifics of how to score later.

The game is to slide (or “deliver”) your team’s stones from one end of the sheet to the other using the “hacks” to push off from (Refer to the handy diagram, Fig. 1.)  The hacks are in behind the house and are shown as little black bumps.  In reality they are much like foot holds embedded in the ice.  The goal of the game is to get more of your stones closer to the center of the far set of rings than the opponent’s closest stone.  (Read that again will you?  It’s a mouthful but is the most succinct way of explaining this.)  Points are only scored after each team has finished delivering all eight of their stones.  This sequence of delivering all your stones is called an “end”.  It’s the same idea as a frame in bowling or an inning in baseball except in those sports you can score before the completion of the frame / inning.  With me so far?  Good!

Fig. 1 Curling Sheet

Curling Sheet

Most of the lines above are pretty clearly labelled.  The “back line” is positioned at the back of the sheet and it represents the back of the active playing area.  A stone must completely cross this line to be out of play.  In the diagram it appears as though there are boards along the side of the sheet however in most clubs there are just lines, called “sidelines” along the sides of the sheet.  Any stone that comes into contact with a sideline is immediately out of play.  There is a center line that runs down the center of the sheet as well (aptly named the “center line”).  It has no real significance but is an aid to judging the curl of a stone as it comes down the sheet.  In the house, there is a line that crosses the sheet and forms a tee with the center line.  Oddly enough, this line is called the “tee line”.  I know, we don’t have the most inventive names for some of the lines in curling but it makes them easy to remember!  The last line to note is the thick one out in front of the house that crosses from one sideline to the other.  This is known as the “hog line” for reasons that are beyond me.  You must release your stone before it reaches the near hog line.  Also, a stone must completely cross the FAR hog line in order to remain in play.  If a stone doesn’t have enough umph to get past the far hog line it is removed from play.  The design of the playing area is where curling people get the similarity of curling to shuffleboard.   A shuffleboard is very similar to the curling sheet except of course the ice part…

What makes curling so very much different from shuffleboard is the “curling” part.  In shuffleboard disks are slid down the playing surface along a straight path.  In curling it is impossible to throw a stone down a completely straight path.  Okay, this isn’t STRICTLY true but for all practical purposes, curling stones take a curved path down the sheet when they are delivered similar to a lawn bowling ball on a lawn bowling pitch.  This single aspect of the game makes it completely different from shuffleboard and introduces complex strategy to the game.  This is where the “chess on ice” comparison comes from.  Often I’m asked by new curlers “well, what if I want to throw it straight down the ice without it curling?”  The short answer to that is, you can’t and frankly you wouldn’t want to after the first couple of tosses.  A proper curling delivery requires that the thrower impart a spin on the stone, either clockwise or counterclockwise.  Stones will take a curved path (or “curl”) down the sheet in the direction of the rotation on the stone.  IF you choose not to put a rotation on it the stone will take one of its own, or it might lazily rotate one way then switch.  This is caused by uneven friction on the running surface of the stone.  In any case, the resulting shot will end up in a random place and will most definitely NOT simply go straight down the sheet.  I suppose you could simply throw sixteen random stones and count them all up but then if you’re going to do that you could simply flip a coin and head to the bar saving yourself a lot of effort.  Control is key in curling.  Putting stones where you want them can become a life long obsession so, you want to apply a rotation (known as a “handle”) to the stone.

Now you know what the playing area is like and you also know a little bit of the physics involved in the sport.  Next you need to know how a game works.  Curling is a team sport with teams consisting of four players.  The player who throws the first two stones for a team is called the “lead”; the player who throws the second two stones is called the “second”; the player who throws the third two stones is called (wait for it…) the “third” or “vice skip” (again with the unimaginative names!!); and the last player to throw two stones for a team is the “skip”.  Some teams vary this line up but for players just learning how to play this is what is most standard.  Teams alternate throwing but each player throws his teams stones consecutively.  This last sentence is a good example why you can’t learn to curl simply by reading about it.  I know it’s confusing so I’ll attempt to clarify.  If one team is throwing red stones and another team is throwing blue stones then an end would proceed like this:

Fig. 2 Throwing Sequence

Shot Team Colour Player Throwing
1 Red Red Lead
2 Blue Blue Lead
3 Red Red Lead
4 Blue Blue Lead
5 Red Red Second
6 Blue Blue Second
7 Red Red Second
8 Blue Blue Second
9 Red Red Vice
10 Blue Blue Vice
11 Red Red Vice
12 Blue Blue Vice
13 Red Red Skip
14 Blue Blue Skip
15 Red Red Skip
16 Blue Blue Skip

It may have already occurred to some of you that in the above scenario the blue team has an advantage.  They have the advantage of being able to throw the very last rock of the end (we call this shot the “hammer”) and thus the last chance to change the situation in the house before the score for the end is determined.  This is a big deal in curling.  When you have “the hammer” you should expect to score in that end.  If the team without the last rock advantage scores it’s known as a “steal”.  A steal is similar to breaking serve in tennis where the player who isn’t serving wins the game.  In the first end of the game a coin toss determines which team gets the advantage of throwing the last stone.  This is one of two important things that happen to start each game.  The second thing is that both teams shake hands in a display of good sportsmanship.  In subsequent ends, the team who fails to score gets the last rock advantage in the next end unless no one scores.  If that happens it’s known as a “blank end” and the hammer stays with the team that had it during the blank end.

So now we know how to start an end and how we play through an end.  How do we wrap one up?  Once all sixteen rocks have been delivered and come to rest, the thirds (aka vices) get together in the house and agree on the score before any stones are disturbed.  Remember, the team with the stone closest to the center of the rings counts one point.  That team counts one additional point for every stone closer to the center than the closest opponent stone.  Only ONE team scores in any given end.  Club games typically last eight ends but social leagues will often have six end games.  In the Olympics and other high level competitions games are ten ends long.  An end SHOULD take about 15 minutes to play so eight ends should take about two hours although newer players and, uh, unorganized players often take more than 15 minutes per end.  Teams should strive to play within that loose time limit because clubs schedule ice based on that timing assumption.

That’s the nuts and bolts of the game but there are still some holes in your knowledge right?  For instance, when the lead is throwing, what are the rest of the players doing??  Practically everyone who has ever seen curling knows about the brushing (and yelling at the brushers…).  What do they do?  Who are they?  Also, what is this skip person?  First, the skip “calls” the game.  By that, I mean the skip stands in the far house and directs play for his team by telling each player what shot to throw.  When it comes time for the skip to throw, the third (or vice-skip) takes over for the skip.  The skip calls shots by communicating the desired end result of the shot, then providing a target using his broom, and finally indicating which “handle” (or rotation) to put on the stone.  Once the stone has been delivered the skip also yells at, uh, directs his sweepers by indicating whether they should sweep or not.  This is the source of the scream of “HURRY” you often hear on TV.  The chart below shows who is sweeping and when.  You’ll note that skips avoid sweeping duty…

Fig. 3 Positions

Thrower Sweeper #1 Sweeper #2 In the House
Lead Second Vice Skip
Second Lead Vice Skip
Vice Lead Second Skip
Skip Lead Second Vice

The natural next question is why do you need to sweep (brush)?  Brushing does a number of important things.

  1. Brushing keeps the stone from slowing down.  It can’t speed up the stone because that breaks the laws of physics.  Brushing warms up the ice in front of the stone lubricating its path and allowing the stone to travel further than it would have otherwise.
  2. Brushing also reduces the amount of curl in the path of the stone.  Brushing helps keep the travel path straighter than it would have been without sweeping.  Both this effect and the first one depend on the intensity of your sweeping.  The harder you brush and more friction you generate, the greater the effect.
  3. Brushing removes debris such as frost or dirt from out of the front of the stones travel path.
  4. Finally, sweeping warms up the sweeper!  This is not as inconsequential as you might think….

The last few bits of information you need are with respect to where you should be positioned during play.  If your team is throwing, the person about to deliver the stone should be in the hack ready to go.  The sweepers should be off to the side to give the thrower a clear view down to the skip.  They should however be ready to accompany the stone as it slides towards its destination.  The skip (or vice skip depending on which shot it is) should be standing in the far house directing his team.  The non throwing team should be positions that do not interfere with or distract the throwing team.  This means the person who is next in the throwing order should be standing quietly on the back boards getting ready to assume the delivery position.  The non-throwing sweepers should be on the sidelines and between the hog lines.  The skip of the non-throwing team should be behind the opposing skip and out of the way.  The house belongs to the throwing skip for the majority of time and it`s disrespectful and improper to be in the house doing anything during your opponents turn.  This is something even “experienced” player still don’t recognize.  Once you’ve completed your shot move to the side of the sheet and get into position for your teams next throw.  Please don’t do what I see so many new curlers do and simply turn and follow the center line back to the house after your shot.  That’s not why the center line was put in.  If you don’t get out of the way you slow down play and honestly annoy the other team.  You might recognize the expectation of behaviour of the non-throwing team as something similar to golf.  When you’re opponent is swinging you’re not doing cartwheels or practicing your opera solo, you’re quiet and still so you don’t become an annoying distraction.  That’s more than just good manners, it’s in the rules.

That, my friends is it.  You have all the nuts and bolts required to at least start to play a game.  Unfortunately that’s really all you have.  You still need to learn about a few rules that I’ve omitted for simplicity sake.  I’ve also not shown you how to use the scoreboard which is a non-trivial exercise for new curlers.  Delivering a stone simply can’t be fully explained in text nor can sweeping a stone.  This little volume has simply given you the barest basics to get you primed.  Your next step is to find a club, get on the ice (again hopefully with a competent and certified instructor) and DO IT!  Once you hit the ice a million and one more questions come up and that’s not only natural, it’s expected!  You simply cannot learn to curl by reading about it.

Hopefully as we’ve gone through the different aspects of the game you’ve recognized the different sports that lend characteristics to curling.  I also hope that you’ve seen how different curling is than any of those sports.  Curling is a game that places a high value on sportsmanship and on tradition.  I explained that every game begins with a hearty handshake and every game also ends with one.  It’s also tradition for the winners of a game to buy their opponents the first round of drinks in the lounge afterwards.  Yes, I’m serious but THAT one isn’t in the rules…

See you on the ice!

Sean Turriff

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