curling

More Crazy Curling

It’s time for the update nobody was asking for.

Seriously, I’ve seen the stats. I could tag “wiping my ass” and have five likes by the morning. But curling sends all the boys to the (other) yard.

But I don’t care, because someone (most likely me), somewhere (most likely here) wants to know how my curling has gone since my last post. Did I play more bonspiels in the second half of 2018? Have I played anything other than lead? Did I ever make it past the 2-2 bugaboo that seems to plague me at every turn?

Well, I’m glad I asked myself!

I might have some new readers since my last update, so here’s the skinny: I started curling (yes, the one with the sweeping and the grunting and the yelling) back in the 2014 Olympics. Or rather, while the 2014 Olympics were going on. Not IN the Olympics, mind you. Now I’m approaching the five-year mark, which technically means I should be getting much better. And there are some games where I totally am better. And then there are games where I seem to have forgotten which direction the stone is supposed to go or how to hold a broom or, really, what the fuck this “ice” thing is that we’re standing on. I’ve never been much of a golfer, but I hear that is response of most golfers: I hit that shot yesterday, why am I in the bushes today? And for the next three months?

In my last post, I wrote about the dream team of new-ish curlers that we put together to take the crown at the vaunted “Five Years of Experience or Less” tournament and how we failed miserably in that regard. We won our first two games and lost our next two games, which has more or less been the hill I tend to die on in most bonspiels. Two wins, two losses, and almost always in that precise order.

Well since then, I’ve curled in two more bonspiels. And the good news is that in one of them I didn’t go 2-2! Huzzah!

I went 0-4!

Just kidding. We actually won four games that weekend! Huzzah! And then I went to another bonspiel and went 2-2 again. In the same fucking order I always do. Except I was kinda, sorta proud of that record this time around. Was it against better competition? No. Not at all. The competition was atrocious. So why was I so tickled at this particular 2-2?

Before I get to that, let’s focus on the 4-1 record. Because that one came first chronologically and I’m a history teacher.

Most bonspiels are run in a standard “bracket” system a la March Madness. Some start with pool play. Others do not. Regardless of whether you played in a pool or bracket, though, you reach a point where the loser goes home. And ideally, that loser-go-home game comes after the teams have been sorted into the haves and the have-nots. Sometimes that can be a little brutal, as you win your first two games and are rewarded with a do-or-die game against some behemoth team with Olympians. Meanwhile those numbnuts who you beat 15-2 in Game One are now playing on Sunday morning, twenty hours after you were eliminated, in the semifinal of the bracket where all the teams started out 0-2.

My home club starts with pool play which then goes into three brackets. We send the top sixteen teams, which ends up being all the first-place teams and most of the-second place teams, into the A Bracket. This seeding has often been the undoing of my team. As I mentioned, we often win our first two games and then lose our third. That usually puts us in second place and then we enter the A Bracket as something like the 15 or 16 seed. And if you follow March Madness, you know what usually happens to the 15 and 16 seeds. Even if you don’t follow March Madness, I bet you can probably figure out what happens when the 16th-best team plays the best team. It’s time to drink!

So when we won our first two games at last September’s bonspiel, we got nervous. The third team we were playing was 1-1, but if they beat us, we’d both be 2-1 and they’d get first place based on head-to-head record. Most of the tiebreakers were established before the third game started, so going into it, we knew that we were either going to be the fifth seed with a win, or the fourteenth seed with a loss. The pressure was on.

We won the third game. Don’t ask me how. And by “don’t ask me how,” I don’t mean that we had no fucking business beating that team. I just don’t remember how we beat them. It was back in September and I’ve played a lot of games since then. Nothing really sticks out about that game. The games we lose? Yeah, I remember every fucking mistake and the number of centimeters each shot missed by. But wins don’t stick in my craw very long.

Wins are forgettable and the losses stick with you forever. Why the fuck do I play this game?

But I do know that, since we finally got past the double-digit seed shenanigans, we also finally won our first game in the A Bracket. Again, though, it was a win, so I got nothing to tell you about that game. All I know is we were 4-0, we had survived until Sunday, and we were in the quarterfinals of the A Bracket. The Elite Eight! And who cares if our potential Final Four match-up happened to have a guy who came in second place at the Canadian Men’s Championships last year and was prominently featured in this John Oliver clip. The one in the hat. Super nice, has come to our club a number of times. Would totally destroy my team. But that doesn’t matter, because the Final Four is the Final Four, baby.

Except you have to make it past the Elite Eight first, and astute readers will note that I already said we went 4-1. So maybe I should stop looking ahead at a match that would never happen.

What happened in our fifth match? Well, since it was a loss, I can tell you in excruciating detail. Again, why the hell do I subject myself to this mental torture?

In Game Five, we made two key mistakes. Our strategy was solid. We hit our shots. We curled well. We swept well. We took advantage of the other team’s mistakes. From a curling standpoint, we did pretty much everything you would need to do to win the game.

So where was our problem? Walking.

The first faux pas came when we had a two-point lead. They had one point in the house, and we were taking the final shot. There was a little bit of a port between guards where we could get to their rock, so we decided to go for it. Worst case scenario, we figured we’d give up one and still have the final shot in the next end. Well, our shot didn’t make it through the port. It clipped the guard. No biggie, the shooter and the guard should have rolled out and everything in the house stays where it is.

Except it didn’t roll out. The other sweeper on my team happened to have his foot there, so the rock cushioned up against his inseam. And since his foot was in the process of walking forward, the rock shifted its momentum, too. It spilled into the house.

The rules say that the opposing team gets to decide what happens to a stone that is “burned” (ie touched). Usually this means putting the stone back or removing it from play. But you can let it stay where it ended up after the other team touched it. The unwritten rule is that you do your best to determine what the rock would have done if it wasn’t touched.

I can say, without equivocation, that there is absolutely no way this particular rock was going to end up in the house. It was leaving the guard area on a route that was parallel to the house. The other team said it would’ve hit one of the other guard rocks, which is true. There were two rocks just past my teammate’s foot, which is why his foot was in the evacuation path in the first place. But there were two stones there that the stone in question would have transferred its momentum to, and the front one would’ve trapped it there. There’s no way it would have taken the right turn that it took unless it came up against an object already moving in that direction. Such as a foot.

Think of marbles. Or billiard balls. When a ball strikes another ball, it stops. It might roll a little bit one way, but it’s lost most of its momentum by then. Especially if there’s another ball there after it rolls a bit.

Anyone who knows anything about how curling rocks behave knew that the stone would not have ended up in the house. Hell, had the opposing skip actually been watching, he would have admitted that, but I don’t think he saw what happened. I think he all of a sudden looked up and saw two of his rocks in the house and just said he’d take the two points.

And the rules say it’s up to the other team and, shocker, they take the second point. I can’t be certain I wouldn’t do the same thing in his position.

But no biggie. It’s a tie game and we’ve been outplaying them the whole game. As long as we don’t make any other stupid walking mistakes.

The next snafu was mine. The good news is that my feet didn’t kick any stones into play. The bad news is that gravity can be a bitch.

I’ve fallen plenty of times while curling. Most curlers do at some point or another. When one of the primary actions of the sport requires walking on ice, it’s bound to happen. But most of the falls are harmless. It’s only bad if you fall over backwards and hit your head. That’s why we encourage people to always lean forward. That way the worst you can do is fall on your knees.

But oh man, I never realized how gnarly falling forward could be. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I was too far behind the rock. I knew I was too far behind the rock. I could see the trajectory of the rock, which is something I really shouldn’t have been able to see if I had been in the proper position. That’s why there’s so much screaming in curling, because the people who are sweeping can’t tell where the rock is going. But because I was out of position, I knew it was starting to curl earlier than it was supposed to, and I knew that my skip was going to start yelling soon. So when the shouting came, I was already overextended, my front foot far away from my back foot. When I lifted my broom, I looked like Superman shouting “Up, up, and away.”

Hey, did you know Superman leaves the ground when he goes horizontal?

I flailed out like a motherfucker. But I didn’t burn the rock! Huzzah for five years of curling instinct, telling me to sacrifice my body instead of touching the rock. I did some Matrix shit in mid-air to ensure that neither my broom nor my hand nor my arm would make contact with the rock.

Unfortunately, that meant that I was going to hit hard on my shoulder and my hip.

Hey, did you know you can get a concussion from hitting your shoulder too hard? It turns out you can. And I can’t guarantee I had a concussion after that, but I’m pretty sure the NFL wouldn’t have let me back out on the field. Luckily there are no field sobriety tests on the curling ice.

That’s how they check for concussions, right? Follow my finger, touch your nose, say the alphabet backward. They’re just trying to catch you saying, “Dude, I couldn’t even do that with a horizontal brain.”

Anyway, the important part of my fall turned out to be neither my ability to avoid the rock nor the state of my brain inside my skull. No, the reason I remember this fall so much is what I saw the rock do from wonderful new vantage point on the floor.

You see, the usual purpose of sweeping a curling rock is to keep it straight. The rock wants to curl. And sometimes we want it to curl. But there are other times we want to keep it straight. And the important sweeper for this endeavor is the sweeper on the inside of the curve. If the rock is curling from right to left, then it’s the sweeper on the left that matters. He needs to seep across the rock, trying to convince the rock to follow the path of the broom, not the path it’s currently on.

The rock I fell on (not fell ON, mind you, but fell DURING) was traveling from right to left. I was on the left. Then I was no longer on the left. The other sweeper, the one whose foot had fucked up a half-hour earlier, was on the right. When he realized that his teammate and friend had crashed down in a concussive force and was sprawled out on the ice behind him, he did what any decent human being would do. He completely ignored me and concentrated on getting into position to sweep the rock.

Oh sorry, did I say decent human being? I meant good curler. He did what any good curler would do. If I sacrificed my health for the greater good, he better not waste my effort.

Unfortunately, to get into the best position to sweep, he had to stop his own momentum, step over the rock, then step forward again to get into the position I had failed to obtain, so that he could sweep from left to right. By the time my teammate was in position to sweep, our rock’s trajectory had gone from hitting the target stone at the 11 o’clock position to hitting it at the 1 o’clock position. By the time my teammate got a proper sweep in, a point in time where I should have already had ten sweeps in had I been able to stay on my feet, it was desperately hanging on to the three o’clock position. And before I knew it, there was no way it was making contact with the target. It was going to crash a meaningless stone sitting two feet to the left. I mean, yay, we held the other team to scoring one instead of the two they might have gotten. But had I swept it the whole way, they weren’t scoring any.

Want to know the final score? We lost by two. How many walking mistakes did we have? Two. So even assuming nothing else changes, the two points they got off those mistakes were the two points they won by. But in reality, it wouldn’t have been that close. Had we been up by three after my friend’s foot incident, we would’ve played the game differently. Had I swept the second rock the whole way, then we have the lead going into the final end instead of down by one.

Two walking mistakes. Two points. Ugh.

To be fair, we would’ve gotten destroyed by the professional Canadian in the semifinal. The team that beat us got destroyed. But then they went on to win the third-place game pretty handily. I’m pretty sure we could have, too. And third place sounds a hell of a lot better than “lost in the quarterfinals.”

But don’t mind me, I’ll just be sitting here watching all the 0-3 teams playing in the “C Bracket Semifinal” after my 4-1 team was eliminated.

Dammit. At the end of it all, I can’t say that 4-1 feels all that much different from 2-2. Or even from 1-4. Because I’ve had one of those bonspiels, too. We always say that the first goal is to stay alive until Sunday. But when you’re eliminated in your first Sunday game, you say, “Dammit, why did I have to drag my ass here an extra day for this?”

Oh well, maybe my next time would go better.

Which leads me, a month later, to the beautiful resort town of McCall, Idaho for a 16-team bonspiel on the shores of a mountain lake. I mean, we technically weren’t curling on the lake. We were in an ice rink right across from the lake.

1007181023They do have an outdoor bonspiel on a frozen lake in Idaho, but that’s in January, not October. The outdoor bosnpiel, called the Sawtooth Outdoor Bonspiel because it’s in the Sawtooth Mountains and because it seems like it would be a real SOB, continually runs on and off my bucket list. It usually sounds like a good idea in the middle of summer, but when my California-born-and-raised ass bundles up at fifty-five degrees, I’m not sure if athletic activity outdoors at 7:00 in the morning of a day that will top out at ten degrees sounds like a great idea.

Don’t worry, if I ever do it, I will live blog it. Assuming my fingers don’t fall off. But in the meantime, you have to muddle through my indoor Idaho curling.

McCall marked the furthest I’ve ever traveled to curl. Every other place I’ve curled has been in the Pacific Time Zone. I really need to get to one of those Wisconsin bonspiels someday. I’ve heard many of them have all-you-can-drink beer included. How the hell have I not set up permanent residency there yet?

Speaking of time zones, not only is McCall far away in miles, but I’m pretty sure it’s still 1983 there. They have a video rental store.

And an arcade.

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And deer might randomly walk through your front yard.

1006181740bAnd you can smoke in bars???

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But the town itself was a beautifully quaint mountain town. Check it out:

And the curling itself… well, I’ve already spoiled my record. Two wins, followed by two losses. But in my spoiling, I also teased that I am much prouder of this 2-2 record than most. Because this time I was skipping.

What is skipping? The skip is the person who holds the broom, does all the screaming, and then takes the final two shots when it’s all on the line. If you watch “Curling Night in America” on NBC, you might be fooled into thinking the skips are the only people on the team who take shots, because that program is pre-recorded and edited for content. As a result, the poor leads and seconds, the roles I usually fill, are rarely shown delivering a stone. Boo. Hiss.

The team I cobbled together for this trip were based primarily on who could take a day off work. The full team didn’t come together until the weekend prior. And without one of the usual skips in our club on the team, I seized the role from the members’ cold, dead hands.

Okay, maybe they weren’t dead, just cold. And really, that was only before they put their gloves on. My point is that I said I was fine with skipping and they all said they were fine with me skipping, so I skipped.

Skipping’s a different animal. I’ve done it before. Sometimes our skip is gone for a league game and the rest of us rock-paper-scissors for it. Other times I’ve been hurt and couldn’t sweep. Of course, on those times, I usually take the first two shots, then just do the holdy-broomy, shouty thing, which is only one part of skipping.

The thing that really separates most skips, and the reason we continually see John Shuster or Nina Roth when we’re watching the American teams at the Olympics, is because they’re taking the last shots. Oftentimes, these are the toughest shots. But even if they aren’t tough, they are the shots that matter. If I’m a little bit short when I take a shot as the second or vice, I shrug my shoulders and say, “it wasn’t horrible, and I’ve put it in a good position for the people after me to do something with.” But when I’m skip, there’s nobody after me. And if I’m supposed to get it to the button (the middle of the “target”), but I end up on the outer ring, then the other team just scored some points.

Mike McEwen made one of the best shots I’ve ever seen, but if he had been a vice skip, then the skip on the other team would’ve just put another rock into the middle of the house, negating most of his good work. When a vice makes a good shot, it’s like that defensive lineman who celebrates tackling the running back for a loss on second down, only to see the QB convert the third down thirty seconds later.

So while Matt Hamilton has a much better porn ‘stache, John Shuster’s the guy who hit the double takeout to score five in the gold medal game. And in most bonspiels, I’m like Matt Hamilton, but with less cool facial hair. In McCall, I was John Shuster.

Which doesn’t mean I won. Trust me, if you followed curling before last February, John Shuster’s name was hardly equated with winner.

So how’d I do?

I mean, how’d we do?

(But really, how’d I do?)

We dominated the first game. Wasn’t even close. The other team had at least one new curler, and the others had never played with their skip before. I mean, we had a new curler and most of my team hadn’t played with me as skip before. But the other team had been onsite, and drinking, since morning and were really sloshed, whereas we had just flown to Boise then driven for two hours to get there. So I guess that’s all it takes.

Game two was a little bit closer, but it still didn’t raise much of a sweat. I think after three ends, we were up 3-2. They had scored one twice, we had scored three points in the second end. Then I don’t think they scored again till the final end. If I were to guess at the final score, I’d assume 7-3 or 8-3. Pretty comfortable, and we were feeling good about ourselves. With only 16 teams in the tournament, we were already into the semifinals of A Bracket. And if we lost the next game, we’d drop down to B Bracket. So either way, we’re through to Sunday. Goal #1: Accomplished.

I’m not sure what Goal #2 might have been, but it wouldn’t end up mattering.

Game three was bad. They had a Canadian. I think we were down 5-0 before we even scored. Then we got it back to 5-4, as in the words of Robin Williams’s golf bit, “just ta give ya hope.” Then they scored in the next two ends, and we managed to put up a respectful 7-5 loss. Afterward, the Canadian complemented us, said he told his team not to rest easy when they went up big, because we were really close on a lot of our shots. If only we had an experienced skip who knew what the hell he was doing.

The Canadian didn’t say that last part. Canadians are way too polite. And, to his credit, maybe he wasn’t even thinking it. But I was.

That whole game, I felt like we were chasing. We could never get to playing the game I wanted us to play, the style of play from the first few games. I knew at the time that this was happening, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop playing from behind. Even on the ends that we scored, we were still scoring on their terms.

Oh well. On to B Bracket. Still two wins away from taking home a trophy. Or maybe just getting our picture taken with a trophy. Wait a second. Did they have trophies? Well, I’ll never know.

That night was the banquet, which took place in one of the smoking bars. Then there was a pub crawl, which is not easy to do in a town with one major road and only two or three bars. The team we were playing the next morning kept trying to get us drunk. We kept trying to get them drunk.

Hey wait, I finally figured out why I still play this infernal game!

Our final game was a back and forth affair. I still felt like I was playing the other team’s game a lot, but we were at least able to keep the score close. I figured out early on that this team didn’t like hits and takeouts. They always wanted to draw. They could put the rock the proper distance into the house almost every time, although not always on the right line. My team? Exact opposite. We could throw the correct line each time, but our weights were nothing to be relied upon. And I was the worst of all. My weight was off all weekend. But man, give me something to hit, and I’m in my happy spot.

So if I can always hit their stone, I just need to make sure there’s nothing behind their stone, right? So dammit, why was I faced with their stone on the button, right in front of two of my stones every damn time I’m heading down to take the final shot?

But we persevered. We entered the final end tied, and we had the hammer (final shot), which is totally the position you want to be in.

At least we thought it was the final end.

You see, at most bonspiels, and in most leagues I’ve experienced, they usually ring a bell to signify you’re getting close to the end of the game. It’s usually about 20-30 minutes before the time limit, and the rule is (usually) that you can finish the end you’re on and play one more. At McCall, there was no bell, just instructions to not start any new end after the one hour, fifty minute mark, so that we could be off the ice by two hours. Most ends take between 15-20 minutes, so I felt like ten minutes was cutting it a bit close, but whatever.

And in my defense, I was saying that before we lost our last game.

We started the “final” end with about 25 minutes to go until we had to be off ice, meaning about 15 minutes until we couldn’t start another end. So I played the whole thing as if this was it. We put a stone near the button with one of our first shots. They missed it and then it became a series of guard, guard, guard. The other team kept pouring stones into the house, but they couldn’t get to the one we had buried. All I needed to do was score one, and that one wasn’t going anywhere. The opposing skip went down and delivered his first stone, and then it was my turn. As I’m walking down the sheet, I glanced up at the clock. It was 10:45 AM.

Wait, what the fuck? How have we delivered the first thirteen stones in only ten minutes? And how can I waste five minutes for the final three stones? If this was an NFL game, I could fake a hamstring injury or something. Can I throw the flag for an instant replay?

Okay, don’t freak out.

“This is the final end, right?” I asked my sweepers when I got into the hack.

They looked back at me like the metaphorical deer in the headlights. They had just been having a similar conversation. And none of us really liked the answer we were coming up with.

I delivered the stone, and their skip practically runs down to deliver his next stone. He isn’t even trying to go after my rock. He’s… he’s guarding me from putting another one in there? What the fuck kind of wicked sorcery is this?

So I stall. I discuss my shot with my vice, not only to waste time, but because all of a sudden, for the first time this end, I’m like “Shit, how do we score two here?” Because I’ve spent the last four rocks trying to close that shit off.

But I can’t just run out the clock. There are unwritten rules, and if I was going to break one of these unwritten rules, I needed to be less obvious. I needed all of my teammates to take an extra thirty seconds for each of their shots instead of me taking an extra five.

At 10:47 AM, I let go of my final rock. Twenty-something seconds later, it came to a rest. I take off my glove in order to shake some hands, but the other team’s hearing nothing of it. Their lead is in the hack and ready to deliver.

Could I have still won? Or tied? Sure. But we were shellshocked. Just like after AJ Piersynski cheated to get on base in the 2005 ALCS. Could the Angels have gotten the next guy out? Sure. But it’s pretty fucking hard to get your head back in the fucking game when you realize that Doug Eddings is a fucking dipshit umpire that doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, much less the difference between a catch and a drop.

Sorry. Angels fan here. Not still bitter thirteen years later or anything.

But we were in a similar situation. We thought the game was won.Each person on my team felt they had thrown their last stone. We were focused on playing in the finals. Preparing our acceptance speech. And now all of a sudden we had to play one more end, without the hammer, against a team that could out-draw us. The good news is they still had to make their final shot. The bad news is they did.

So there you have it. My last six months or so of “competitive” curling. And even though I haven’t won any big ones, I’m still pretty happy with how things have gone. My competitive team went farther than it’s ever gone, and then I skipped a team to a respectable finish. Two bonspiels in a row where my team ended up in fourth-or-fifth place range, whether I’m calling the shots or sweeping the shots. Not too shabby. Maybe I’ve finally figured this shit out.

Check back in three months, when I can’t hit the broadside of a barn.

Curling, Parts 1 through %$@*&$

Since my last effort at real-time blogging seemed to work, I’m trying it again. Only this time, instead of Hawaii, I’m off to lovely Seattle. And I ain’t going for no fun-fun time vacation, neither. This time, my game face is on. It’s curling bonspiel time, motherfucker!

No, I won’t be live-tweeting every shot. I won’t be attaching a GoPro to my broom. I probably won’t even post the thing until after the weekend is over. What I will write down my thoughts and reflections after each game, as my team works our way through the weekend tournament. The highs and the lows that inevitably come from these tourneys. The “I curl better than John Schuster”, followed by the “Why the fuck do I do this stupid sport?”.

One of the reasons I’ve chosen this particular bonspiel to live-blog is that we’re here to fucking win it!

Don’t I always want to win? Sure. But this time, there’ll be no Olympians in my way. This bonspiel is called a Five-and-Under. It’s not for toddlers, although that would be friggin’ awesome on a whole nother (hilarious) level. In this 5&U, everyone in this tournament must have less than five years of experience. This is my fourth year, as with two others on my team, and our skip is aging out this year. So if we’re ever going to win it, this is the time.

This is my third time at this particular event. Two years ago, it was a mish-mash of different players thrown together at the last minute. We won our first two games, but lost our third, which is the first elimination game. The team we lost to went on to win the entire tournament, so as far as I’m concerned, we might have been the second-best team there. We would have lost to that team whenever we faced them, but so did everyone else. Second-place may be first loser, but who’s the one that lost first, hmm?

Last year, my team was a bit more purposeful. We combined two players from our team with two players from a team that went all the way to the final game. They lost that game against the same team we lost to. So combine the first loser and the last loser, and what do you get? We lost our second game, which is actually better than losing your third game. It isn’t an elimination game. Instead, it drops you into the “B Bracket,” and we went on to win that bracket. Not bad, but there were some personality conflicts. Shaq and Kobe all over again.

This year, it’s finally the team I’ve always wanted to bring. A team of people I like playing with that also has a chance to win. Me and the guy I’ve played with all three years (he’s the skip that is aging out) finally convinced two of the guys we curl with locally to venture out of California. Well, it wasn’t the two guys that needed the convincing as it was convincing their wives. But we finally did that, and now we’re ready to go 5-0 and take the crown.

Let’s do this.

Game One. 

Game one only counts in the standings. But it still counts in the standings.

Three of the four curlers on our opponent team have been curling less than a year. Oh, and one of those three hadn’t shown up yet, so add some fatigue to their inexperience. Yes, you can get fatigued while curling, especially if you’re taking extra shots and are the only sweeper.

Their skip, the only person with more than one year of curling, could hit some draws. Unfortunately for him, we made him draw every end, and he could only hit “some draws.”  A draw is where you’re just trying to slowly go around a guard and have your rock sit in the house. You’d think that would be easy. It’s not. Give me a guard or a takeout any day over a draw to the button. The difference between a draw and a rock that sails through, hitting nothing, is two-tenths of a second on your delivery.

In our first end, we scored two, and thought we were going to cruise to victory. We played the second end a little loose, and all of a sudden, they had two points in the house. We took out one with our final shot, but they had one more shot and a wide-open draw to score a second point and tie the game. He came up short, so they only scored one. Whew!

That scared us enough to bear down. We scored two in the third end and four in the fourth and cruised to victory.

These are the types of games that can be dangerous. We didn’t hit all of our shots. Far from it. Yet we won 12-2, and we were being generous to keep it that close. We could have scored fifteen or more. There were two ends where we had all eight of our stones in play. We would put two in the house, then set up six guards. If we wanted to, we could’ve put more of them into the house. At least I think we could have, but I was light on a lot of my throws. A better team could’ve taken advantage of that.

Like the team we’re playing tomorrow. They beat some of my friends at the same time we were playing. Every time we looked over, we assumed we’d be playing our friends next. They were up 4-0. Then they were up 5-3. After we were off the ice (a 12-2 game tends to go faster than a close game), they gave up three and lost 6-5. Ouch. They made the mortal sin of continually scoring one point per end, which is a very precarious way to play. In the final tally, they won five of the seven ends that were played, and the other team only scored in two of the ends, but that’s not what matters in the end.

Our friends said we should have no problem beating this next team. We’ll see. It’s hard to judge which part of their game was the fluke. Were they a lucky team in those two ends, or were they good enough to keep limiting their opponent to one point at a time? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

The only other item of note in game number one was the double balloon. At a number of bonspiels, they have a cowbell stuck to the end of a balloon. If anyone on your team hits a double-takeout (Removing two opponent stones from the house with one shot), you ring the bell and move the balloon to your sheet. It sits there until another game steals it with a double-takeout of their own. Whoever ends the game in possession of the balloon gets a free pitcher of beer.

I’ll repeat that: A free pitcher of beer!

The goddamned balloon had been in our goddamned possession for damn-near a half-hour. When our skip got in the hack to take his final shot, he turned around to look at the balloon. “Okay, we still have the balloon, so I’ll just throw a guard.” When his fucking shot was halfway down the fucking lane, some other fucking team rang the fucking bell.

I’m a little bitter. Can you tell? Nothing is so demoralizing as, in the midst of sweeping our final shot, knowing that I’m now going to have to pay a whopping thirteen dollars for my next pitcher of beer. That bell was worse than the bell that starts the final day of school. Something so close, and yet just out of reach.

We had time to play one more end. We discussed with the other team the possibility of playing one more end just to set up doubles. We tried to convince them that they could use another end as practice. Heck, that was the only reason we had played the final end, already up 10-2. But this time, they just shrugged. The spirit of curling says that the winner buys the loser beer, so they were getting free beer regardless of if it came via us or a balloon. Besides,the way they were playing, we couldn’t guarantee their ability to put stones in the house for us to take out.

So pitcher on me! Worst. Thirteen Dollars. Ever.

Interlude.

The curling club that’s nice enough to give us their ice for this shindig has their own league that runs on Friday nights, so the organizers of our event usually find an activity in Seattle for us to comradarize at that night. Last year, it was a Mariners game. This year, they’re out of town, so we went to a grown-up mini golf and duffleboard place, instead.

What’s duffleboard, you ask? Good question. It was a question most of us had, and oddly, it was not defined on their website. I guess they just want you to come on down and check it out.

Duffleboard is part shuffleboard, part mini golf. They set up a “green” on a table. You use a stick with a flat end, like the letter T, and push the golf ball across the board. You get points based on where the ball ends up. On a soccer table, you push the ball from corner kick territory and are supposed to bank it off of a defender into the goal for the equivalent of a hole-in-one. If you missed the goal long, it was two strokes, three if it was on the near side of the goal, up to five or six for missing the defender and leaving the ball out in the middle of nowhere. Another table was set up like SafeCo Field (hole in one for hitting it through small holes in the home run fence, two for a slightly large hole without a defender, six if you couldn’t push it out of the infield). There was also a Seahawks #12 table. I’m sensing a Seattle theme. Then we came upon a basketball one, which I found odd because Seattle hasn’t had basketball in twenty years. The table had a picture of Key Arena. I don’t think that’s even standing anymore.

The duffleboard was fun. More fun than the actual mini golf. The mini-golf course was seven holes making the word “Seattle.” However, to make it grown-up, the letters are all chopped up with boards and kegs and awkward lanes. To wit:

I get it. I’ve played mini golf with the daughter, and one would assume adults need something with a little more nuance, a bit more adversity. But this place also had beer, and one would think that drunk adults might not need too many wrinkles. Just think of the joys of stimulus-response time if they were to put in a windmill

In the end, the duffleboard was much more fun, cheaper, and we didn’t have to wait a half hour for a tee time. They might want to pump that up a little on their website.

One more thing from Friday night. The bar didn’t take cash. Card only. I really wanted to go all economics teacher on them and mention that fiat currency is “good for all debts, public an private,” but decided against it. Because they had beer and I really, really wanted to incur a private debt.

Game Two. 

Curling is a team game. And thank God for that. Because I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in game two, but we still managed to take the W.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on myself. My first two shots were beautiful. Pristine. We had one beautiful stone fully covered underneath a proper guard. In fact, maybe I should wax a bit more eloquent about that first end. We only scored one. It wasn’t even the one that I had put in the house, because that got jostled out by the best player on the opposing team – a twenty-year old girl who could pretty much hit anything out of the house whenever she wanted. I can’t throw upweight half as well as her.

So the end itself wasn’t all that spectacular, but did I mention I hit both of my first two shots? Because in case you hadn’t heard, I did.

The next twelve shots I took? Yeah, best not to talk about them. Maybe my hangover was starting to fade too much.

There were at least two ends where neither of my rocks ended up in play. That’s bad. It doesn’t give the rest of my team much to work with. Unless I want to claim that I was keeping it wide open for my teammates to take out the other team’s stones. Yeah, yeah, that was my plan all along. Like when Kobe bragged about giving his teammates so many rebound opportunities when he missed.

Mind you, not all of my shots were horrible. Many were, but some were not. Unfortunately, the non-horrible ones still weren’t very good. The best I could call them was “something my teammates might have a chance to do something with.”

But hey, we won, right? I’d rather play shitty and win than to be on top of my game in a loss. After we scored one point in the first end (did I mention my shots in the first end? No? They were magnificent!), the other team came back and scored two in the second. In the third end, we couldn’t get anything going and, starting with their wee-lass doubling out two of our stones (what’s the point? She wasn’t even old enough to drink her free pitcher, so she might as well have kept our rocks in play), neither team let any stone stick around. The result was a blank end, meaning nobody scored. That was intentional on our part when it came to the final shot, because it’s better to hold onto the hammer (final rock) than to score one and give the hammer back to the other team. Especially if we’re already down one.

At that point in the game, I was nervous. If they could take out our stones and were already up by one, then it would be difficult to score more than one, and we had already seen what this team will do if you keep scoring one against them. Or zero, as we had just done.

But in the third end, we scored three. We didn’t deserve it. In fact, I thought we only had two, but there was a stone, way in the back of the house, still in play by maybe only an inch, that counted. It had been sitting there for five minutes, just minding its own business, laa, laa, laa, don’t mind me, and what do you know, we score three.

That’s when the wheels came off the other team. Their second was still shooting lasers, but everyone else on the team was missing. Did I mention I’d rather play shitty in a win than play well in a loss? Annie fucking Oakley over there was the Reverse Wombat in this particular game.

So we made it through to the  quarterfinals. Because we’re 2-0, we are still alive whether we win or lose the next game. If we lose, we head to the B Bracket. If we win, we’re into the Championship Round. Goal number one of any bonspiel is to still be playing on Sunday. Mission Accomplished!

Good thing, too, because the team we’re playing next looks solid. They played right after us, so we stuck around to do a little scouting. The team they played came from our sister club, so we’ve played them pretty regularly. Our sister club team, who we’re comparable to, fell behind 4-0, but made a game out of it, coming back to 4-3 before giving up one in the final end.

So there’s a chance there, if only our fucking lead can get his fucking stones in play.

Oh, and there will be karaoke off ice while we’re playing. Expect a second interlude.

Game Three.

Fuck.

A.

Duck.

I swear, those of you reading this as one full post after the fact will believe that I, like the masterful storyteller I am, went back and changed my Game Two write-up for juxtapositional purposes. I promise that is not the case. The reason I decided to track my progress through this weekend was because this ain’t my first go around, and most bonspiels come with highs and lows in rapid succession. And we just experienced the fuck out of those highs and lows.

Remember when I said I’d rather play shitty and win the game than play wonderfully and lose? Well, I played great in game three.

Seriously, let me take a moment to explain some of my wonderful shots. Draw to the button? Yeah, I hit three of those. Guards? No fucking problem. There was this one shot – there were two guards, one ours, one the other team’s, that were about two feet apart from each other. Behind the gap, sitting right on the T-Line (that’s the horizontal line that goes through the middle of the house, making a T, or maybe a t, depending on your angle). I threw a take-out that went right through the port, knocked their rock out of play, and then rolled just a little to the right, under the cover of one of those guards I had just passed through. If I were to pull a John Elway and walk away at the height of my curling career, it might’ve been after that shot.

My vice (that’s the guy who shoots third – vice skip, right before the skip) also had a double takeout that end. Ring the cowbell, motherfucker! We scored four points in that end, to go up 5-3.

Then we lost the game.

At least we held onto the double-balloon for the free pitcher of beer this time. Trust me, we needed it.

Prior to that four-ender, the other team made an odd decision. They were up 2-1 in the third end, and with their final shot, the house was wide open. According to Hoyle, you should blank the end – throw through, intentionally score zero, hold onto the final shot. Instead, they drew for one point and gave us the hammer back. The following end was the one we scored four. That’s why Hoyle says what Hoyle says.

After that four-ender, we stole one, which means we scored one despite the other team having the final shot. We were feeling good. This game was following the same pattern as game two. Take a few ends to feel out the competition, then exploit their weaknesses and keep stealing points. We were up three with three ends left to play. Ninety percent of the time, the team who’s up by three with three ends left will win. All we have to do is play conservative and not give up big ends.

Oops.

They scored two in the next end. Had we been a tad more conservative, we might have held them to one. Feeling all Big Johnson, we went for a knockout and forgot about the counter-punch.

No problem. Only two ends left, and we’re up one with the hammer. If we score two, they’ll have to score three. Early in the end, we got one near the button that they couldn’t do anything with, and we guarded it. There were a couple times we could have tried to get a second rock in, but instead we just guarded the fuck out of that one rock. Once it was secure, we tried to get a second rock in, but the guards work two ways. We probably waited too long to try to get that second point, but whatever, we go to the final end up by two.

They score two. Fuck a duck.

Our skip was heavy on two draws in a row that would have cut them to one. If we cut them to one, we win the game. In the grand scheme of things, if one person is going to hit their shots and the other is going to miss, you want the lead missing and the skip hitting. Not vice versa. As games two and three demonstrate.

So what do you do when a curling game ends in a tie? The skip on each team draws to the button. The closest one wins.

I hate this practice, but it’s a necessary evil, especially in knock-out bracket play. I coordinate the league at our home club, and I give the loser of a draw to the button the equivalent of the NHL’s overtime loss. It’s worth one point instead of two. A team that is 3-3 with a DTB loss is better than a legitimate 3-3 team, worse than a 4-2 team. Because, especially at our level, a draw-to-the-button a brutal crapshoot.

I had no faith in my skip making the draw to the button, having been heavy and outside on his last two shots. But, DAMN, he got it within five inches of the button (Thanks to my phenomenal sweeping). Five inches is nothing. I’ve scored many of these competitions, and twenty or thirty inches is usually good enough to win. Hack, I’ve seen seventy-two inches win (seventy-three is the maximum, meaning you missed the house entirely). So five inches, we’re punching our ticket to A Bracket.

The other team got within three inches.

Fuck a duck.

Welcome to B Bracket.

We played well, even excellently at times, for one hundred minutes. For fifteen minutes at the end, we fell apart. Such is a bonspiel.

Hey, guess who we’re playing in the morning? The two people that the skip and I played with last year, that we separated from to go our own way. Grudge-match extraordinaire. At least we’ll finally figure out which two people on last year’s team deserved the accolades.

Again, I promise I did not add this shit in to the top to add suspense.

Interlude Two.

I wasn’t in much of a karaoke mood after that last game. The guy that runs it even came up to me, said I killed it last year, and wondered what my first song would be. I told him we had just suffered a gut-wrencher and to give me a little time.

Fortunately, the spirit of curling brought one pitcher our way via the loss, the double-takeout balloon gave us another one, and then I was finally ready to sing.

I started with “As Good as I Once Was,” by Toby Keith, at the request of my skip, who was not feeling as good once as he ever was after that last game.

I followed it up with “Baby Got Back” and “Chocolate Salty Balls.” Then it was home to (write this up and) get ready for tomorrow morning. Did I mention our first game is at 8:00 AM?

Game Four.

Boy, am I glad I didn’t punctuate last night’s come-from-ahead, two-inch loss with some form of “I’d rather get blown out in a game than lose such a close one.”

I was definitely thinking it, but I wasn’t stupid enough to write it. Maybe even thinking it was a bad idea.

Game four started off bad, then got worse. In the second end, we gave up three points even though we had the hammer. The two flashes (when the stone hits nothing and sails right on through, waving like the beer bottle in the Laverne & Shirley credits) that our vice had were bad enough, but the two flashes that our skip had right after definitely didn’t help. Four misses in a row tend to be problematic.  When a quarterback throws four interceptions in a game, that hurts the team’s chances of winning. Our opponents only had one rock in play when we missed the first shot. By the fourth, they had three.

But the fun wasn’t over, as we gave up one more point the following end, and before our bodies had acclimated to the ice, we were down 5-0. In our defense, we battled back to 5-3, but down two without hammer in the final end doesn’t give you a lot of options. But hey, at least we were hitting some of our shots. And our skip’s final shot, going through a port smaller than the one I had hit in game two, in order to almost knock out three opponent stones, was a helluva shot and almost brought us back from the dead!

New team motto: Playing best when it matters least!

I remember reading, a long, long time ago, before the Cubs and Red Sox ended their respective curses, about the different types of painful sports losses. There’s misery and agony. Agony is acute, misery is more pervasive. The Cubs have tended to have more misery. Usually in last place, losing ninety games a year with no big prospects or future or hope. The fans don’t expect to win and wear their “lovable losers” badge with a sense of pride. The Red Sox, on the other hand, were usually a good team, fighting for division crowns, often making the playoff. Yet every time they thought this was the year, Bucky Dent happens, Billy Buckner happens. Agony.

After this weekend, I can speak from experience. Neither is great. The misery route sucks more while you’re on the ice. Slumped body language, looking at the clock to see how much longer you have to endure, trying to be a good sport when really you want to scream expletives at the top of your lungs through sobs in the corner.

But the good news about sucking is that, by the end of the game, you’re already resigned to the fact. Even though that last game was against people we know, with every ounce of pride on the line, and even though I will be reminded of that loss umpteen times whenever I curl against them, or even see them, in the future, this shitty showing ain’t going to be the one that I remember when I look back on this tournament.

Giving up three, then losing by two inches? That one’ll stick with me for a long, long while.

Billy Buckner was a career .289 hitter with over 1200 RBI. Ask him what he’s remembered for.

Conclusion

Two and two. 2-2. W, W, L, L.

Doesn’t matter how I write it, it doesn’t look any better.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended a bonspiel with that exact same record. And in that order. If I did it in the opposite order, two losses followed by two wins, I’d be called the C-Bracket or D-Bracket champion. But win, win, loss, loss usually equates to some bullshit title. In this case, we were called the sixth place team. The seventh-place team got a pin for winning the B Bracket. Kinda like College Football, it’s all a matter of getting those losses out of the way first.

At least they made this bracket so the 2-0 teams weren’t eliminated if they lost their third game. Been there, done that. Nothing’s worse than watching the teams that played horribly still alive on Sunday while you’re eliminated because you had the audacity to win early.

Not sure why my teams tend to start strong then finish weak. In theory it’s because the competition gets harder as the weekend goes along, but in practice, that’s not always the case. Hell, the final was between a team from our sister club (who we’ve beaten more times than we’ve lost to) and the team that beat us by two inches. And the way they both played that final game, I think we would’ve had a damn good shot.

Then again, it’s always easy to make your hypothetical shots when you’re sitting in the warm room with a beer in your hand.

Maybe it’s a fatigue thing. We are well into our thirties and forties, after all. Maybe it’s that other teams adjust better. Not sure. If we lost the same way each time, that would be one thing. Sometimes the front end (aka me) falls apart. But this weekend, the best player on our team lost his touch and didn’t get it back.

I guess that’s why sports exist, though. If we played the two-inch team ten times, we’d beat them seven or eight. The Patriots would probably have a similar record against an Eagles team with a back-up quarterback, but who is the Super Bowl champ?

And all things considered, going 2-2 in a curling tournament ain’t such a bad thing. Hang out with friends, drink lots of beer, get more than my money’s worth. At least that’s what I’ll keep reminding myself over the next few days when I’m hobbling around like I’ve been doing lunges all weekend long. Oh wait, I HAVE been doing lunges all weekend.

Obviously, I didn’t post this multiple times over the weekend. Something about getting back to the airbnb at midnight after a few pitchers might be conducive to stream-of-consciousness drivel, but not for editing and publishing. I’ll go back and clean it up a little, but I promise, all of the entries (before this one) were written in real time. I wanted to capture the ups and downs of a bonspiel, because my bonspiels typically go through these highs and lows. The good shots linger for a short time, while the misses get scorched in your brain for longer.

It’s like ol’ Blue Eyes said, you’re “flying high in (3:00 PM on Saturday), shot down in (seven hours later).”

But the real bonspiel experience was the plane ride home. My club sent 23 people from Sacramento to Seattle this weekend. Eighteen of us were on the same flight home. First at the bars and restaurants, then sitting at the gate, then walking down the aisle, there were familiar faces everywhere. Here are the husband and wife who beat me and lost in the B Final. Over there are members of a team that went 0 and 3 in their very first bonspiel away from home. Right behind me is a family of three who shifted their lineup at the last minute because their fourteen year-old son wanted to play on an all-teenager team. The teenager’s team went 2-2, winning the middle two games, while his parents went through a grueling 1-3 weekend, their only win coming in the E Bracket against the team I had played first – the ones with three years of experience combined. Who even knew they made an E Bracket?

Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much about my 2-2 weekend after all.

Olympic Curling Guide

It’s the Most! Wonderful! Time… of the year.

Christmas? Bah! Valentine’s Day? Nope. Live Punxsutawney updates? Umm, maybe, but that’s not what this specific post is about.

It’s Curling-on-TV season!

You might know this, incorrectly, as the “Winter Olympics.” But there’s really only one reason to watch the Winter Olympics.

Okay, maybe two. Matt Hamilton’s porn-stache and the Norwegian team’s pants. But both of those will only be seen during curling matches.

As many of you long-time readers (ie people who know me in real life) know, I took up curling four years ago this month. You can read about it here, but here’s the tl;dr: it had always fascinated me and while watching the last Olympics, I decided to google if there was any place I could curl within, say, a hundred miles. Turned out that, yes, they curled about five miles from my house. Who knew?

So I did my very first Learn-to-Curl in February of 2014. Since then, I’ve become a league coordinator and drawmaster (“schedule dude”) for a number of bonspiels (curling tournaments). I’ve curled six different places in California (again, who knew?) and have traveled to Seattle and Vegas to compete. I’ve won two different bonspiels (not the A-Bracket, but if I get my picture taken with a trophy, it’s a fucking win).

I’ve met and competed against former Olympians. I even beat one! Once. Out of six attempts. I’m now 1-5 against Edie Loudon (she lives nearby, so I see her often). And maybe 0-4 against all other professional curlers.

The trick to beating an Olympic curler? Beat the other people on their team. It also helps if you catch her on the last day of a double-bonspiel, meaning she’s curled about eight times over the last 48 hours. I know it doesn’t look like it on TV, but curling is tiring.

I even met Olympic gold-medalist Kaitlyn Lawes and she let me touch her gold medal. And no, that’s not a pervy euphemism. She literally let me touch her literal gold medal. Look:

Gold Medal.jpg

I think I was even more excited by that picture than if she had let me “touch her gold medal.”

Professional curlers are very nice. Kaitlyn even said I could take a picture with just the gold medal. I figured she should probably be in the picture, because a) she’s cute, and b) she earned it. But man, if that were my gold medal, I wouldn’t let somebody touch it, much less take a picture with it around their neck. You try to take that thing from me, you better be an Olympic biathlete.

And now it’s another Olympic year. The requisite “Hey, check out this quirky sport” stories are running in media outlets everywhere. We love it at our club. A year ago, we couldn’t beg enough to get a mention in local media. In the past six weeks, we’re getting contacts from newspapers, radio, and local TV (the NBC affiliate, naturally). Our Learn-to-Curl program, which often has only one or two customers, is booked solid. We’ve put 100 people through a LTC in the past two months, and the Olympics hadn’t even started yet. We even added a second class most weeks and people are willing to come out at 7:45 Sunday morning to try it.

So yay, curling on TV.

Of course, I can usually find it any time I want. ESPN3 shows most of the upper-tier Canadian curling. American curling is a little harder to find, but that’s okay, because it’s not as good. I know it’s ironic that Canadian curling is easier to find in the U.S. than American curling, but there’s a reason the Canadians dominate the sport. It makes it a little hard on my Olympic rooting interests, but the Americans usually make that easy by being in last place.

But there’s still something special about watching in the Olympics. It’s the one time NBC doesn’t fuck up the flow of the game with asinine editing. During their normal broadcasts, “Curling Night in America,” they jam a three-hour game into about ninety minutes. So they’ll finish one end (like an inning in baseball), take a commercial break, and when they come back, there’s already six stones in play in the next end. Or they skipped an entire end. Imagine watching the World Series and, after the first inning, they jumped ahead to the sixth and said “Oh, by the way, the score is now seven to five.” That’s how the average curling match goes on NBC. Also, since it’s edited to fit into two hours, a lot of the drama is gone. Are they going to tie it up and force an extra end? Oh, it’s 7:50, so I guess not.

I’m not saying NBC doesn’t fuck up coverage in the Olympics, but at least it’s fucked up in the normal way. They show two ends, then go away for twenty minutes of luge, then come back. That’s just Olympics 101. At least they have an app now.

This year, they’ve added a new round of curling called mixed doubles. In it, each team only has two players instead of the usual four. Each end only has five stones, instead of eight. So the games take about half as long.

I’m undecided on mixed doubles. It’s not real curling. It’s a made-for-TV sport. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I’ve tried mixed double before. Well, maybe not mixed doubles, because I was curling with another dude, but “open” doubles. It’s a weird beast. In normal curling, you have your skip making a target with his broom at the other end of the sheet. Then you have two other team members to sweep your rock. In mixed doubles, you only have one other teammate, so one of those vital pieces are gone. You’re either aiming at nothing or you have to sweep your own rock.

When it was first designed, the assumption was that people would still want a target, so they would sweep their own rock. It’s not that difficult. Most mediocre curlers can jump up and follow their rock. A lot of us jump up and follow our rock, anyway.

The first time I tried mixed doubles, the person holding the broom said I was coming out in the right direction, but something was happening to the rock when I released it. Turns out I was subconsciously clipping my release in order to jump up and sweep. Add to that the fact that I’m losing about fifty percent of my sweeping power because one of my shoes has a Teflon bottom, which isn’t great for leverage. I also have a tendency to start sliding faster than my rock, so pretty soon I’m sweeping backward.

I guess I wasn’t alone, because the next time I saw professionals playing it, their strategies had changed, too. Now many of them opt to have their teammate sweep their rock instead of providing the target. Depends on the curler and depends on the shot.

So that’s a little “inside curling” you can wow your friends with. Watch for when their teammate is right next to them and when they’re at the other end. If the former, they care more about weight than location. If it’s the latter, they’re probably trying to draw through a smaller port.

Mixed doubles works better for TV because there are more rocks in play. An end in team curling can last twenty minutes and resolve nothing. I’ve seen a number of matches where one team throws a guard, the other team hits that guard out, and the first team throws another guard, for six shots in a row. That can get tedious. Then with the final shot, there’s one rock in the house (bulls-eye), and the skip hits it out to score zero because that’s a sound strategy. In mixed doubles, you almost never see a blank end (no score). Usually there’s six or eight rocks in the house.

In addition to those “This Crazy Sport” articles we see this part of the quadrennial, I’ve seen a fair number this year that lead with “It’s not as easy as it looks.” Um, yes and no. Is it a difficult sport to learn? No. You can do it in an hour or so. But at the Olympic level? Yeah, that’s tough. They’re good. Again, compare it to baseball. Is swinging a bat and making contact with a ball difficult? No. Most five-year olds can do it. But I wouldn’t like my chances standing in against Justin Verlander.

Curling’s the same way. The professionals play at an entirely different level. They see angles that don’t exist at the amateur level. Sometimes I’ll wonder why they are calling a certain shot. Then they’ll ricochet off three stones, just as they planned it, and I realize “Oh, they called that shot because they can hit that shot. I would’ve knocked my opponent’s stones in if I tried that.”

That whole “knowing what they’re throwing,” is one of the great reasons to watch curling on TV – you can hear them discuss their strategy and sometimes the two of them will debate what to throw, giving the viewer insight we don’t get in other sports. The catcher and pitcher use secret signs to debate their strategy. We don’t get to listen in on an NFL huddle. But in curling, they’ll say where they want to hit a certain rock and what they think it’ll do if they hit it there.

So check it out. Listen to the skips.

And trust me, it’s just as easy as it looks. Come on out to your local club and we’ll show you just how “easy” it is 😉

One Year of Curling

About six months ago, I wrote about my baby-step foray into the fascinating sport of curling. (No really, it’s a sport. We are athletes. It doesn’t matter that it ends with the winner buying beer for the loser.) I’ve continued with it and just passed the one-year anniversary of my Learn-to-Curl workshop. In fact, there was another Learn-to-Curl in February of this year, and at this one, I had fully graduated from student to teacher. I’ve continued to learn about the sport (okay, fine, “activity”) as I’ve grown from fresh-faced newbie to… um, not grizzled old vet… pock-marked adolescent? Sure, let’s go with that.

When I last checked in, I had just finished my first bonspiel, a weekend-long tournament, where I had curled next to Olympians. We had won our first match in the loser’s bracket before losing the last two game, missing out on the coveted “Travolta Cup” by one win. The Travolta Cup is a Red Solo Cup atop a pedestal of four VHS boxes of Travolta movies that gets passed around the four California bonspiels every summer. Much like the Stanley Cup, the winning team gets to write their names on the Cup. This year: that Cup will be ours!

Since then, I suffered through a horrible fall season, causing me to put together my own team of noobs for the winter/spring season. All of these things, both on and off the ice, has inspired a few more a-ha’s, which leads me to:

What I’ve learned about curling in my second six months.

  1. You can always watch curling.

Much like all the writing websites and resources I discovered when I went down that particular rabbit hole, joining the curling community in this day of internet streaming made me realize how much competitive curling is online. Gone are the days of being relegated to NBC’s seventh network once every four years. Much to the chagrin of my wife.

For instance, the World Women’s Championships have been held in Japan over the past week. They are being broadcast on World Curling’s YouTube channel, except for when NBC’s Universal Sports Network is streaming it on their own website. Or TSN, Canada’s equivalent of ESPN, broadcasts the Canadian team, and a recent deal allows espn3.com to mirror any TSN Canadian curling broadcast, so I can choose which country’s team to watch. Spoiler Alert: Canadians are better. To get to the World Championships, both the United States and Canada had their own tournaments a few weeks ago.  All broadcast on espn3.com or usacurl.org. Prior to that, each Canadian province held its own tournament to determine who went to Nationals. Not all of these were streamed, a surprising number of them could still be found.  I’m not ashamed to say I watched the Nova Scotian semi-final.

The men have been going through a similar journey, so I can only assume the World Championships will be coming to an internet site near you soon.  Add in the Juniors, the colleges, the Seniors, and I can pretty much find live curling any day I want. And if I can’t, there’s always old matches on YouTube. It’s not like I already know who won the Scotties matchup between Val Sweeting and Rachel Homan in 2012.

But even when the professionals aren’t engaging in some world  tourney, it’s still not hard to find something streaming live. The Coyotes Curling club in Arizona (yes, Arizona) holds a number of bonspiels every yer, and they stream all of them. TESN.com appears to stream league matches from many eastern and Midwestern states.  All it takes is some dedicated ice and a webcam on their part, and a little bit of research on mine.

  1. Watching the professionals isn’t always a good thing.

I start out watching with the best of intentions. I want to see what sorts of shots the skips call, and I want to see how the very best deliver the rock. Plus when they call the sweepers on and off. One of the nice things about curling broadcasts is that you can often hear the curlers discuss their strategy. You never hear a Tom Brady monologue about progressing through his wide receivers. No catcher is miked up to say he thinks the batter will swing at a low-and-away curveball. But in curling, especially in the last two shots per team, they talk about what they’re going to try to do.

Me and my team? We don’t hit our shots with the 85% accuracy the pros do. Usually our strategy is “throw it in this general area and hope that you don’t knock the other team’s rocks closer to the button.” Whenever I start watching the good curlers, I keep that in mind. “Yeah, There’s no way anyone I know could reliably thread that needle, so I would’ve gone for the outside shot.” But after binge watching on Saturday, I show up to the sheet on Sunday and call ridiculous shots.

It happens to us all. I got in the hack a few weeks ago and my skip called for me to knock the opponent’s stone out then have my stone roll in the opposite direction just enough to go behind a guard stone. The pros do that shit all the time, but at my level we’re concerned with hitting the target, not the precise force and trajectory to influence what happens after it hits. All I could do was look at my sweepers and say, “Does he know there’s no way in hell I’m hitting that?”

  1. Many people don’t know how good they are.

And it’s not always because we’ve just been watching Mike McEwen do shit like this.

No, some people just think they can thread the needle on a whim. And it’s easy to see why. The game isn’t difficult. There are only three things you have to do: throw the rock the correct distance, in the correct direction, and with the correct spin. Anbody who has been curling for more than a month has done that at least once.

But that “correct distance” thing is a matter of hitting a four foot window from 140 feet away. And the right direction might only be an inch or two wider than the stone, to say nothing of the amount of the curl. Imagine how many field goal kickers would get the three points if the uprights were only two feet wide.

The team I was on in the fall league had two players that felt they could not miss. The lesser experienced of the two demanded to be vice-skip, shooting third, and swore she was best at take-outs (knocking the other team’s rocks out of play). She hit less than half of them. Could I do better? Maybe or maybe not. But I wouldn’t be bragging about this alleged ability unless I could at least get a D-. She also would only sweep from one side and chastised me whenever I swept closer to the stone than she. However, when the skip said to start sweeping, I would always have my broom in position, while she would take two or three steps before her broom was on the ice. Hence I would end up closer to the stone than her.

The skip was even more sure of himself. I constantly wondered why he was calling certain shots. Later in the season, after the vice-skip stopped showing up to games, I viced once. The vice acts as the target for the final two shots when the skip is throwing, so I was finally able to see some of his thought process. Sure enough, he assumed he could throw that correct weight and correct distance every single time. So when he had been calling certain shots from me earlier, it was because he assumed he could knock out two opponent stones or raise two of ours.

“Are you sure you want me to put the broom here?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s the right shot because it’ll knock theirs back and we’ll score three points.”

“But if we came in on the open side, we’d at least score one instead of giving them two,” I offered.

“I’m pretty sure I can hit it if you put the broom here.”

“That’s what you said the last time.”

“I’ll hit it this time,” he promised.

He didn’t. Did I mention we only had one win?

  1. The better you get, the more frustrating it becomes.

I’m now fully capable of hitting most shots laid before me. The right distance, direction, and spin? I can nail all three of them about a quarter of the time. And well over half the time, I can at least get close enough to do some damage.

A few weeks ago, taking my penultimate shot as skip, I went around two guards and knocked the opponent’s stone off of the button to sit one point.  The opponent used his final shot to block up the hole I had just gone through, but there was still a little opening. My vice and I decided to try to throw the same shot I did the time before, just at a smaller gap this time. And you know what? I hit it. Precisely. Nothing feels as good as watching my stone hit that gap and curl out of view headed for an extra point.

Then the next end came and I couldn’t hit shit. The first shot doesn’t even make it across the hog line and the next one hits one of our own stones out.  It was like following up a bowling turkey with a couple of gutter balls.

It’s not just me. I was vicing and our skip was hitting every obscure shot I was calling. Then we’re faced with one opponent rock inside a ring of four of ours. All we have to do is knock theirs out and we’ll score four or five. His first shot was too far to the left, so I adjusted the broom and wouldn’t you know, the next shot he’s too far to the right.

I’ve heard golf is similar to this. Although in theory you’re competing against the other people or teams, you’re really competing against yourself. Against the shot you know you can make. Sometimes I know as soon as I leave the hack that it’ll be a bad shot. Sometimes it leaves my hand and I think, “oh yeah, I nailed it.” Most of the time I sit there and watch it slide down the ice, wondering what in the hell it’s going to do.

  1. Chemistry matters as much as talent.

I started this journey at the same time as a friend of mine, and we have played on each other’s team ever since. Both of us loved the first team we were on (shocking, since we went undefeated) and were not fans of our second team. But it wasn’t just the losses. We never really felt on the same wavelength as the other two member of our team. In fact, when the two of them stopped showing up for the last three or four games, we weren’t all that upset. Except for the fact that we had to forfeit. In a forfeit, we still play the game, because there are always people willing to substitute. The first time it was just the two of us, we were playing against a team that also only had two players show up, so we thought the game would count. In that game, I decided to skip, my friend viced, and we had two subs. All of a sudden, it was like we were back in the undefeated season. I was calling a strategy that he understood. We were  paying attention to how both teams played and pulling points whenever we could. It went unspoken until the three-quarter mark, when we were up by one with a few ends left to play, just how much this game meant to the two of us.

“This feels good,” I said, as we watched the other team deliver its stone.

“Yeah,” he responded. “It’s nice not having the two know-it-alls calling stupid shots.”

“I really want to fucking win.”

“Let’s do it. To prove it wasn’t us sucking this whole season.”

We won, even if it didn’t count in the standings.  The beer we paid for tasted sweet.

That conversation cemented what we already knew. Playing with people we liked, and people that communicated throughout the game, was as important as winning. We formed a team with two others in a similar boat. We’re not supposed to form our own teams in the “B league,” but they allowed it since we’ve all been playing less than a year, so it’s not like we were creating an uber-team to screw the level of competition.

We even tried a crazy idea of switching what position we played every week. Eventually we’ll pick what we prefer or are best at. But in the meantime, we’ll learn each other’s tendencies and what the general team strategies. So if I’m lead, I’ll know what the skip is trying to accomplish with his call, and vice versa. Since we’re all still learning the game, we want to learn it all.

And the result? Three wins and three losses, in a tie for third place. Not bad. Are we going to Pyongyang? No. But there are a few 5-and-under tourneys that we might have a shot at in the next three years.

Even better, after every game, we split a pitcher of beer (half of them bought by us, half by our opponents), talk about how the game went and what strategies we’ll use next week when we have a different order. Something that never happened with my last team.

  1. Curlers are as friendly as they are competitive.

The post-match beer is only part of it. In a year of curling, I’ve only run into a handful of people that weren’t overly friendly. If you make a good shot, it’s likely to be the person on the other team who congratulates you first.  If I’m skipping against an experienced skip, I can ask advice, both before and after a shot. I’ve even had one or two say, “They need to sweep that,” then apologize afterward for “interrupting” me, even though their advice put their own team in a worse position. In a pick-up game, we didn’t have enough sweepers, so we swept for our opponents.

Little things make it feel like a family. When someone shows up with shoes for the first time, everybody stops to watch the first delivery with the new shoes. It is often hilarious because those shoes do NOT work the same way as the sliders. It’s like back to square one. Recently I was looking to buy my own broom, and everyone was perfectly willing to let me use theirs for an end, trading with me for the crappy broom-equivalent of bowling alley rental shoes.

None of this is to say we don’t want to win.  We do, but we want the overall level of competition to improve. We don’t want to beat a subpar team, we want that team to get better, then still beat them.

What we want is what we say at the beginning and end of every match: Good Curling.

Old Year’s Resolutions

This time of year, like many others, I like to take stock of my life and make some resolutions.

Except that I’ve always hated resolutions. My eighth grade teacher used to make us copy a quote each week, and sometimes she made us make up our own quotes, which we were too young to counter with “anything I say is a quote from me.” I remember the prompt the Monday after Winter Break: “This year I will _____________.” I filled in the blank with “make it to ninth grade.”

My teacher responded that that wasn’t really a resolution, as it was likely to happen anyway. Had I more self-confidence or experience in remonstrating, I might have asked why we should only resolving something that is not likely to happen.  Why did she want me to avoid accomplishing my Resolution? Why was she setting us up for disaster? Why did she want a bunch of thirteen year olds to start off a fresh new year by failing?

Because guess what? I ain’t gonna lose weight or learn a new musical instrument or write a novel or travel to outer space. Some of those might be doable, but January 1 has no bearing on if and when I decide to do them.  For instance, I started this blog in June and didn’t start posting weekly until September.  Had this been one of my New Year’s Resolutions, it would likely be deemed a failure, because we tend to determine their success or failure by the middle of January, not the end of the year.  So they’re really not New Year’s Resolutions, at all. They’re First Week of the New Year’s Resolutions.

You pick something you don’t like about yourself and say you’re going to change it because the calendar switched. But that thing you don’t like about yourself isn’t going to change because of something arbitrary. Willpower isn’t tied to a date on the calendar. Especially if you take something like losing weight, which is much easier to do in April or May, as the days get warmer and longer.

So I’ve decided to switch things up a bit, and instead of a New Year’s Resolution, I’m looking back and making some Old Year’s Resolutions. I am going to take a look back at the cool new things I’ve tried or accomplished over the past twelve months and make some belated resolutions. And, spoiler alert, I nailed every single one of them!

But, Wombat, isn’t that just a Year-in-Review? You may ask.

And my response is…

Shut up! My blog, my rules.

Resolution #1: I will have a wonderful baby girl.

Considering my wife was three months pregnant on January 1, this one might be close to my “make ninth grade” resolution. But a lot can go wrong in the second and third trimesters. Plus we did not know it was going to be a girl until ten days into the year, so had I tried to make this resolution at the proper time, I would have had a 50/50 chance of failing at the very beginning.

Of course, the more I think about it, I don’t have much to add to the whole “have a baby” thing. My part was finished in 2013, and if things go south, there isn’t much my resolve can do. My wife is doing the heavy lifting for the first six months of 2014.

So maybe I should change it to I will begin to raise a wonderful baby girl.

Yeah, I like that better. That’s something I can actually resolve to do.

Resolution #2: Take up curling.

In January, the Winter Olympics were still a month away.

Gosh, I wonder if they are going to be exciting! I’m sure the Russians will have beautiful Sochi in perfect condition for the wonderful athletes who have trained so hard to get there.

Hey, remember when I did that Learn-to-Curl back in 2013? That was fun. I wonder if I can find a place closer to home and recruit some friends to try it in February. If that’s successful, maybe a couple of us can join a league. And if we get paired with some veterans, maybe we can begin learning the ropes and go undefeated throughout the summer season.

Then maybe I can form my own team and skip during a bonspiel against really good curlers. Like maybe even a couple of those curlers that are going to spend February in those swanky Sochi hotels. Then maybe I could win a do-or-die, skip-vs-skip, closest-to-the-button tiebreaker at 2:00 AM for the right to advance in the loser’s bracket.

If all that happens, who knows, maybe I’ll end the year by asking for expensive curling shoes for Christmas and prepping my hand-picked team for an elongated Winter/Spring season in 2015, forcing my wife to coin the phrase “Curling Widow.” But the “Future Curling Star” onesie I would get for my daughter (see Resolution #1) for Christmas would be super cute.

But that’s crazy. I doubt all of that would happen in one year.

Resolution #3: Lose More Weight.

This is always the scary one, right? But let me tell you, it’s a lot less nerve-racking to make this resolution after the fact.

I lost a lot of weight in 2013. A pre-diabetes diagnosis and a new-fangled invention called the Fitbit put my ass (or, more accurately, my legs and mouth) in gear, and by early October, I was down close to forty pounds. Then Halloween hit, followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas. Combined with those shorter, colder days I mentioned earlier, and about ten of those forty pounds found their way back by the end of the year. But that meant I was still down thirty over the course of the year.

Could I repeat that in 2014? Probably not to the extreme I had the year before. After all, there was less to lose. And all those nasty indicators in my blood have returned back to normal levels. But still…

If I can go back to the Spring and Summer routines I kept in ’13, maybe I can take those ten added pounds back off by June. Then maybe I can take another ten to fifteen pounds off before Halloween kicks off Fat Quarter (which extends past the New Year to include Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day) again. That Fat Quarter will be even harder this year, because while I might be willing to go for a jog in the forty-degree dark when I get home from work, I’m not quite as willing to take the baby along.

But, hey,  if I can lose twenty-plus pounds by October, then I can still gain ten to fifteen back and still be weight-negative for the year.

Resolution #4: Win Camptathalon.

Every year amongst my friends, there exists a Men’s Camping Trip. Because when womenfolk come camping, we have to take more than five paces away from the fire before we drop trou and pee, and I’m sorry, but that just ain’t true campin’.

At said trip each year, there is something called the Camptathalon.

What is it? Only the most grueling competition of wit, acumen, and bravado known to mankind. Think Triathlon, but take out the wussified events like swimming and biking and running. And add things like Whose Horse Comes in Last at the Kentucky Derby. And the Butter Toss.

Oh, and the whole thing needs to be done as inebriated as possible.

Wait, did you say Butter Toss?

I did. And to find out more, you’ll just have to check back in April, when I devote an entire entry to the 2015 Camptathalon.

(That’s what the promotions biz peeps call a teaser.  “What common household object might kill you? Stay tuned until the end of this blog entry to find out.”)

But this year, I plan to win the competition. I came in dead last in 2013. I think I was second or third the year before. But this year, with the competition being held the same weekend as my wife’s baby shower, I feel it is my time to strike.

What would be even cooler is if it was tied at the end of regulation, forcing us to make up a sudden-death cribbage match to decide it all. And if I could be losing said sudden-death cribbage match going into the final turn before pulling out a 21-point hand and a 24-point hand back-to-back. Why, that would almost be as cool as winning a sudden death draw to the button at a curling bonspiel.

If I could also be the first ever Camptathalon champion to not yack his guts out the same weekend, that might be an added bonus. That’s a tradition that need not be continued. Unlike the Butter Toss, which is a tradition as true as the Tournament of Roses.

Butter Toss? Am I sure I’m hearing you right?

April, dude. April.

Resolution #5: Win in Reno

Every year, I make a few trips to Reno. This year, 2014, I’d like to win there.

To be clear, my definition of “win” does not mean to hit a jackpot or win a car or come home with a duffel bag full of cash. I don’t even define winning as being money-ahead at the end of the year. I know the math – giant resorts would not exist in the middle of the desert if customers won over the long run.

What I mean by “win” is I’d like to take one weekend trip wherein, after paying for gas, food, and my portion of the hotel, I’m still money ahead. Is the forty dollars I might win in October going to offset the two hundred I’m going to lose at March Madness? Of course not. But man, that forty dollars would feel awesome, like I’m a world killer! Something definitely worthy of being mentioned in a Year-In-Review,  Retroactive Old Year’s Resolution.

Here is how I would love for this particular resolution to play out. I’d like to win a little bit at everything I do. Put $20 in a slot machine, turn it into $60. Put $2 on a long-shot horse to show and have him eke out third place. Stick around a blackjack table long enough to get buzzed on the casino’s dime yet still walk away up $10. Actually feel like I know what I’m talking about when all of those sports results go final. That would be nice.

To keep with the curling and Camptathalon theme, I don’t know if any of those games I bet on can go to overtime, but maybe I could squeak out a photo finish on the ponies.

Resolution #6: Write.

I’d like to write more this year.

Maybe I can try NaNoWriMo again this year. Even if I only get 20,000 words into a novel, it would be an improvement over 38 of the last 39 years.

Maybe I could even take part in some flash fiction challenges. Writing an entire story from beginning to end might give me a sense of accomplishment. That way, I could also play around with different genres, different voices, different points of view. Who knows? Maybe after I’ve tried a few safe ones, like a standard scary story, I might even write a story from the point-of-view of a female drug addict.

Hey, remember that blog I used to have? I stopped writing anything on it in 2008. right around the time I joined Facebook, because why write a thousand words when I can write fifteen and get immediate gratifica-, er, feedback?

But seriously, in 2014, maybe I can start that up again. Then maybe after a few flash fictions there, I can start up a new one on wordpress instead. And get back to actual blogging in addition to flash fiction.

Maybe I could even make myself post a new entry every week. Sure, it’s arbitrary, but maybe there will be some weeks I don’t feel like writing, like maybe Christmas week, and then all of a sudden it’ll be Monday, and I’ll be like, “oh shit, I have to post a blog entry,” and then I’ll actually write instead of just putting it off. I mean, it could happen. And even if it only works for, like, the last fifteen weeks of the year, what would that be? Twenty thousand words? Thirty thousand? To add to the twenty thousand in the novel? Throw in some of the earlier flashes and I’d be over sixty thousand words written in a year.

Shit, that might almost feel like an accomplishment. ”Hey,” I’ll tell everyone, “I wrote what Ken Follett writes in his sleep!”

It also might be cool to learn how to hyperlink.

On to 2015.

Wow. If I could have made all of those resolutions in January, and followed through on all of them, what a cool year it would have become.

And if so, what would be in store for 2015? What plans should I make? Only one way to find out – wait until next December.

See you all in the New Year

By the way, it was a knife. A knife is a common household object that might kill you. Thanks for staying with us.

The Roaring Game

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.”