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Ethan Trex
What Exactly Is Curling?
by Ethan Trex - February 16, 2010 - 11:10 PM

Olympic curling has taken to the ice, but if you’re like most Americans, this writer included, the game is a bit baffling. Here’s a quick, stripped-down primer on everyone’s favorite icy alternative to shuffleboard. It doesn’t cover anywhere near all of the game’s nuances, but it should give you enough info that you can enjoy watching an end or two. (And yes, you’ll learn what an “end” is.)

curling

What’s the object of curling?

Good question. First, let’s get a bit of the jargon down. The playing surface in curling is called “the sheet.” Sheet dimensions can vary, but they’re usually around 150 feet long by about 15 feet wide. The sheet is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to “curl,” or deviate from a straight path. These water droplets are known as “pebble.”

At each end there’s a target that looks like a big bullseye. These targets are known as “the houses.” The center of the house is known as the “button.” Basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

What’s with the sweeping?

curling-usa

Remember how we talked about the pebble of ice droplets that the rock has to travel across? When the stone touches the pebble, there’s friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the house.

Obviously, that friction is not always a good thing, but sweeping helps combat the problem. The sweeping motion raises the temperature of the ice by a degree or two, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone and keeps the stone moving in a straight line.

What about all the yelling?

curling-yellingEach curling team has four members: a lead, a second, a vice-skip (or third), and a skip. Each “end” (curling’s equivalent of a baseball inning) involves both teams shooting (or “delivering”) eight stones at the house, with players delivering two stones apiece.

When the lead, second, and vice are delivering their stones, the skip stands at the opposite end of the sheet (near the house) and uses his broom to give his teammates a target for their deliveries. Once the stone has been delivered and is a “running stone” (that is, one that’s still sliding), the skip then yells to the sweepers to let them know when to sweep and how hard. When the skip shoots the last two stones of a team’s end, the vice takes over calling the shots.

How do you keep score?

In each end, both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all 16 stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that’s closest to the button (center of the house) effectively “wins” the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team’s closest stone. Since the team that won the end always has at least one stone that’s closer to the button than their opponent, the team always scores at least one point, and could score up to eight points.

If neither team manages to keep a stone in the house during an end, it’s known as a “blank end,” and no points are scored. Olympic curling matches last for 10 ends unless there is a tie, in which case it goes to extra-ends, curling’s equivalent of overtime.

What’s the hammer?

As you might have guessed from reading about the scoring system, throwing the last stone of an end is a huge advantage. If you’ve got the last stone, you can always try to knock the other team’s best stone away from the button. If a team holds the last stone for an end, it “has the hammer,” and should probably be able to score some points. If the team without the hammer manages to somehow stymie their opponent and score points, it’s called a “stolen end.” Whichever team fails to score points in an end gets the hammer for the next end.

So is there strategy involved?

curling-russiaYes, there’s all sorts of strategy in curling. Let’s say your team doesn’t have the hammer. You’re at a huge disadvantage when it comes to scoring points, so you might opt to play defensively. To do that, you might just deliver a number of “guards,” or rocks that will sit in front of the house and provide an obstacle for the other team’s stones. Alternatively, guards can be used to defend your stones that are already in the house from being knocked out by the other team’s “takeout” shots.

The third major type of curling shot is the “draw,” a shot that’s meant to avoid other stones and come to rest in the house. Generally, a draw is used with the hope of scoring points, a guard is thrown to protect the house or a stone that’s already been thrown, and a takeout is used defensively.

May I see a clip?

Yes you may. Here’s a video from the 2006 Gold Medal game:

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Comments (41)
  1. One small error that I spotted.

    In the section “The Hammer”, teams don’t necessarily alternate having the hammer.

    Last-rock or last-stone advantage in an end is called the hammer. Before the game, teams typically decide who gets the hammer in the first end either by chance (such as a coin toss) or by a “draw-to-the-button” contest, where a representative of each team shoots a single stone to see who gets closer to the centre of the rings. In all subsequent ends, the hammer belongs to the team that did not score in the preceding end. In the event that neither team scores, the hammer remains with the same team. Naturally, it is easier to score points with the hammer than without; in tournament play, the team with the hammer generally tries to score two or more points. If only one point is possible, the skip will often try to avoid scoring at all in order to retain the hammer until the next end, when two or more points may lie. This is called a blank end. Scoring without the hammer is commonly referred to as stealing, or a steal, and is much more difficult.

  2. Great to see the attempt to explain curling, just a small quibble with your facts – teams do not necessarily alternate with the hammer! The team that does not score points in one end has the advantage of the hammer in the next. So if one team manages to steal multiple ends in a row, there is no alternating of the hammer!

  3. Thanks, Mike & Anna! We’ve tweaked that paragraph.

  4. Wow. Another wannabe “sport” masquerading as an actual Olypic-class challenge.

    This is why we have so many ESPN channels. Because NO ONE else wants to air it. Boring!

  5. Curling is awesome, that’s what!

  6. It’s “Olympic,” not “Olypic,” the Olympics are being broadcast on NBC, not ESPN, and demeaning an Olympic sport that requires a great deal of mental acumen on a ‘mental_floss’ blog is stunnningly obtuse.

  7. Curling has been a part of Winter-style places for a very long time. Just because it isn’t sponsored by beer, and no one blows up (as far as I know it’s never happened :P) doesn’t mean it isn’t a sport.

    Even if it wasn’t? They’re called the Olympic GAMES for a reason.

  8. it kinda sounds like bocce ball on ice

  9. Mental acumen? Required for curling?!?!?!?

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    Please, more comments like that one! Too funny!

    And yes, I did misspell. Oopsie!

  10. I kind of thought it was interesting. I may actually watch a curling match this time.

  11. wow…I was actually going to look up “curling” this morning after watching some of it last night in awe. I’m still not sure I get it; maybe you have to be Canadian to really appreciate it? One question I had: is there a time limit? The reason I ask is because last night they called “time out.”

  12. One of the reasons I enjoy the Olympics so much it the opportunity to see and enjoy sports that you would normally never see on TV. True, I would probably not watch these events if they were on all the time but for the next two weeks I will be as big a fan of curling and cross country skiing as you can find in the U.S.

  13. I never knew what curling was until I heard the Jonathan Coulton song “Curl.”

    Also, Stephen Colbert tried out for the US Olympic curling team.

  14. Wow. I’m a southerner and never knew a thing about it. It actually looks pretty awesome. I wonder where I could give it a shot? Not likely anywhere around the Carolinas.

  15. @Eric..You’d be surprised on the availability. I got interested after the last olympics, looked it up and found a Curling club here in Indianapolis. Luck had it there was a clinic 2 weeks later and it only cost me $10 to go.

    Good fun, just watch your step. Even with sneakers on, it’s easy to slip and fall while sweeping.

  16. Curling is an insane joke of a “sport” and is no more interesting than, say, blowing the seeds off a dandelion and having teams who blow on them try to make the seeds fly toward a “goal.” (Btw, this new Dandelion Blowing event is being added to the 2012 Summer Games – you just watch!!!)
    And Luke, when you’re criticising someone’s spelling make sure you use spell check yourself. Anybody can slip and miss a key, just as easily as you happily overtype ‘n’s. Now go get some mental acumen (it’s hiding under your bed). Oh, and I second the HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA….

  17. Oh, thank goodness someone spelled this out so nicely! I’ve watched curling at the last two Olympics, trying to pick up the rules as it went along, and every time I thought I had it figured out, the commentators said something that made me realize I had it totally wrong. Now I can watch it AND actually know what they’re on about.

    recaptcha: would castors…I just replaced those on a hope chest! Hahaha!

  18. You can have blowing up in Curling, but it’s only visible in “Men With Brooms”, and it’s pure Hollywood.

  19. I have been trying for years to figure out this sport, and had no luck! Thanks a ton for the great article, and armed with this new knowledge I am looking forward to actually getting it this year!

  20. The fiancé and I watched the last half of the Women’s USA/Japan game last night, and I found it rather intriguing. J’s coworker, who is from Minnesota, was there, so he was able to explain some of their strategies to us (he’s watched a good deal of it, and played it a few times). It was pretty cool. I’d watch it again.

  21. You mean all this time, I’ve been sweepin’ my floors for nothing? I could’ve been curling?!

    Damnit!

    Victor@icomplainthereforeiam.com

  22. Well Bubba, curling is a hell of a lot more interesting (and more of a sport) than NASCAR…

  23. @Andy — there’s also some curling explosion action in the Beatles movie “Help!” only because a bad guy exchanged a curling stone for a bomb…in an effort to kill Ringo!

    I’m so sad. That’s how I was introduced to curling.

  24. Though both curling and NASCAR seem to involve bumping competitors out of the way…

  25. My wife and I started the Ariz curling club. Officially The Coyote Curling Club. Yes, we curl in the desert.

  26. Thanks Mental Floss for the post! I’ve been curling for a couple of years and love it.
    There’s likely at least one curling club in every major city now, even though many have to use hockey (known in the curling world as “arena” ice) which does make for a different game. There’s exceptions in the Northeast, Mid Atlantic and North Central US.
    Eric, if you live anywhere near Raleigh, they do have a club, the Triangle Curling Club and they have some pretty good players. Check it out if you can.

  27. Could one of the Curling fans let everyone know when and on what channel we can catch some Olympic curling?

  28. http://www.nbcolympics.com will have live streaming starting at 12 EST today on their website.

  29. I never knew so much about curling. I will definitely be checking out the Olympic curling.

    Thanks for all of the Olympics posts. It helps to tide me over while there are no Olympics on TV.

  30. Tracie– I’m totally the same way and when someone mentioned explosions, that’s the first thing I thought of. That and good ol’ Mal Evans as the channel swimmer who comes up out of the hole in the ice created by the explosion :)

  31. Yes, VM, but in curling, the competitors are smart enough to hold down jobs, unlike NASCAR drivers. And in curling you can turn both ways, not just left.

    My GF is totally into curling, since yesterday, now I will know whats going on when she has it on.

  32. What a strange sport. I don’t even know what shuffleboard is.

  33. Hard for me to think of it as ‘exotic’ as most of you seem to, because here it seems like it’s on TV all the time. I’m also one of those people who think it doesn’t belong in the Olympics. The Olympics to me is all about athleticism, the need to be in peak physical conidition to excel at your chosen sport. While curling requires years of practice to master the skill, I think any 50 year old pot bellied guy could potentially make it to the Olympics in curling, and you can’t say that about the other sports.

  34. @Pete

    Each team has 70 minutes to complete the 10 ends. If they don’t, they forfeit the game. Your clock only runs when it is your turn.

    I don’t know if that is an Olympic thing or if all Curling is like that.

  35. I much rather watch Curling then a marathon (and I run those!) Acording to my wife, running is not a sport but competitive exercise)

    Curling is a lot like Boccee, but more so like it’s French cousin Paytonk

  36. One of the hallmarks of excellence in a sport is to make what you do look easy, whether it’s throwing a rock down 150 feet of ice or driving a car at insane speeds. Knowing as many curlers as I do, I know it takes years of work to develop good curling ability. For those who pursue it only for recreational purposes, however, it seems that it’s a drinking team that sometimes curls! :)

  37. Beth:

    Driving a car at insane speeds doesn’t belong in the olympics either. I know it takes skill, so does darts. But does anything that takes skill belong in the olympics or only the ones that require the utmost physical conditioning? Their motto is “higher, stronger, faster” is it not?

  38. I’m a Canadian so I’ve seen a lot of curling (my parents played in leagues, and we even curled in gym class), but somehow I failed to answer this Trivial Pursuit question correctly: “In which sport do you throw rocks at a house?” The correct answer, of course is curling; my answer: vandalism. My brother and I still laugh about that one!

  39. Thanks for the helpful and timely post!

    Just this morning we were talking about how watching curling is like watching a baseball game: you can either get really into the minutiae of strategy or just chill out and discuss Life’s Great Questions between shots!

  40. Hydrate! Hydrate Hard!!

  41. I’ll admit that I have made disparaging remarks about curling in the past, but after watching it and reading this article, I have to say, it’s pretty cool. My feeling is, to get to the Olympics in ANYthing, you’ve got to be really excellent. So stop being snarky, naysayers.

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