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Monday, June 15, 2020

Episode 67 - Glen Jackson/Doug Wilson


Glen Jackson was young and brash but made a mature decision when it mattered. A coin flip to determine who would be third for Paul Gowsell on their high school rink went to Neil Houston and Glen chose to stay with the team. Joined by Kelly Stearne at lead, the long haired teenagers with their push brooms would go on to win Canadian and World Junior Championships while taking home cash from some of the greatest teams of the era. Glen shares his version of legendary Gowsell stories like the van, the Van Winkle, the dog and the pizza. Before talking to Glen (30:45), I speak with transplanted Canadian living in Scotland, Doug Wilson (4:02). Doug works through his personal psychoanalysis of curling strategy with other curling fans on his Facebook group Daily Curling Puzzle.

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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Episode 66 - Matt Hames/Warren Hansen


Matt Hames was a mad man. Once a copywriter, just like fictional TV character Don Draper, Matt gave up three martini lunches at Bay and Bloor for six packs and road trips to bonspiels in Thunder Bay and a chance to make the Olympics. After falling short to reach the 1997 Olympic Trials with John Base, Matt landed with Scott Patterson and kept pursuing curling for a time, but eventually life took him to Upstate New York. We discuss Matt's journey and also how we met; not on the ice in 1995 when I lived in Toronto, but on his Curling Zoom party, which has become a twice weekly event during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before talking to Matt (40:57), I catch-up with my guest from Episodes 7 and 8, Warren Hansen (14:55). We discuss his new podcast with Kevin Martin, Inside Curling (hosted by Jim Jerome), and delve into Canada's Curling Hall of Fame. We also discuss rule changes, such as freezing a centre guard to discourage the tick-shot. My article that examines this rule (mentioned in the show) can be found at http://curlwithmath.blogspot.com/2020/05/ruling-final-end.html

To find out how to join Matt's Zoom Curling Rewatch, go to https://www.facebook.com/curlinglegends


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Friday, May 15, 2020

Ruling the Final End


There's been plenty of discussion recently on whether the WCF should shorten all events from 10 ends down to 8. But there is another consideration that's floating in the curling ether that could perhaps more dramatically alter the sport. This rule was used in the now defunct Elite 10 match play format for all ends and some people pondered its use in "regular" curling as a change for possibly all ends or maybe just the final end (or extra end). The Champions Cup adopted this version of the rule for last year and would have used it again this spring if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rule allows for a lead rock placed on the centre line to not only be in the free guard zone, but to be considered frozen in place on that line and unable to be moved by the opponent until the 6th rock of the end. Rather than play a tick shot and move the centre guard away from play, a team tied with hammer would now be forced to another strategy, invariably putting more rocks in play during the end. The reason this rule is being discussed stems from the increasing proficiency with which teams can execute the tick shot. With continued improvement in skill the shot will become so routine a team without hammer will never be able to put pressure on the opposition and a tied game in the final end will become an anti-climactic victory for the team with hammer. The fear is dramatic final ends will increasingly become routine, too repetitive and lower competitive balance.

The reasons for tweaking curling rules over the past 25 plus years has been to balance a fair test of competition with an entertaining contest that keeps fans interested in the outcome. When ice conditions, push brooms and skill level surpassed the point at which traditional rules were entertaining, the sport had to shift to a new rule (Free Guard Zone) in order to keep its appeal and continue to grow globally. I sometimes ponder if ice conditions had not improved and mixing broom use was allowed during a game (as seen in the 1980s and early 90s) everyone might have held off on these new rules (though probably not) and the game could have remained entertaining to fans, if partly due to the odd fight between teams over an alleged 7-up dipped corn broom.

But here we are. Three rock (in Canada) went to 4 rock and now 5 rock and it appears we have a great game that is enjoyed by many and growing around the globe. So, the first question to be asked is why change?  Firstly, I don't want to disparage the consideration. It is good practice to continuously consider how change can improve a sport. The three-point line, changes to the hand-check rules in the NBA and various NFL rules starting from the mid-70s in order to increase passing, have changed these sports for the better and improved their entertainment value. Any debate on the dreaded neutral zone trap in the NHL has hopefully disappeared. Sometimes mistakes are made (see late 90s NBA shorter three-point line), but in general I applaud sports attempting to improve as its athletes, fans and conditions change. In the case for curling, the part of my brain that yells at kids to “get off my lawn” thinks the sport has experienced so much change in the last 30 years that we've become addicted to thinking it constantly needs altering for the sake of change rather than just enjoying it for what it is. If people spent more time on growing the sport by getting more people to "play it", rather than focus ad nauseum on changes to make to it, in their perspective, "better", the sport would be further ahead. Instead of arguing for further on ice changes, could we possibly improve the arena and live viewing experience and get more butts in seats?

Perhaps part of this behaviour is simply because curling has changed so much over the past few decades that we all feel a need to constantly tweak and alter its form out of habit. We live in a sports world where the audience doesn’t simply watch games but derive pleasure in becoming an agent, general manager or owner while tweeting from their couch. In a culture of daily fantasy sports, fans are programmed to analyze who should be traded and what contract a superstar should receive in order to meet complex salary cap rules, most of which they understand. Perhaps talk of rule changes can garner attention in a crowded sports and entertainment landscape, but part of me wants some of this debate on what's wrong with curling to take a backseat for a while.

I heard someone ran a bonspiel in Switzerland in which blanking meant losing hammer the following end. This is one of a few concepts thrown around over the years to reduce zeroes on the board and generate more scoring. This nonsense needs to stop. If you want to create a different version of the sport (a la Mixed Doubles), fine, but you cannot remove blank ends without fundamentally altering the standard format of the game. The very nature of a blank end is what provides a subtle but very significant strategic attribute to curling not seen in other sports. Curling has never been a game where scoring the most matters or provides the greatest entertainment. Curling is a game of point differential. Each contest is a drama that unfolds over several ends, with every story looking very different than the last. Sure, an end in which a team puts their first rock into the rings and both adversaries decide to hit through to a blank is not entertaining. But find me a game in the past decade where two teams have done this for 3 ends, much less 8 or 10. The blank ends I've witnessed in the free guard zone era involve intricate shot decisions and execution throughout, often including a double take-out, sometimes on the final shot. At each stage of these ends, a team needs to contemplate whether to focus on offense with aggressive shot selection in an attempt to score two or more (risking a force or steal) or shift to a defensive strategy despite their opponent trying to create the opposite result. I've seen top teams in a Grand Slam call a timeout and discuss whether to peel or add another guard, and then watch their opponent do the exact opposite of what they had expected on the very next shot. If a team cannot blank, all of this disappears and we are left with a modified scoring version of skins curling, except the team without hammer has no incentive to force a single point from their opponent. Now the team without hammer will play defensive and instead of zeroes on the board we'll see a row of ones. The score might be higher, but the entertainment value will not. The very nature of curling is a battle for the hammer and if that aspect disappears, the game is no longer the same. Luckily, as I understand, most involved in this Swiss bonspiel did not find the new rule to be of interest. The next time someone complains about too many zeroes on the score sheet, ask them if they watched the game. I'm certain there were rocks in play, great shots to admire and enough tension to keep them from changing channels.

Back to our original debate on outlawing the tick shot in the final end. Rather than remain a cranky old codger, I'll keep an open mind and examine the data. Looking at major league baseball results since 1957, the home team wins a tied game starting the 9th inning 52.07% of the time. In curling, a tie score in the final end is simply not close to a "tied" likely outcome. Curling is closer to a tied ballgame in the final inning when a team is behind by one point with the hammer. The general rule of thumb is the team ahead one point without hammer is 60% likely to win (58.7% for men and 57.1% for women over the last 4 seasons). This is actually very close to baseball odds for the home team to win with one out and no runners on base at the top of the 9th inning (57.9%).

Looking at the last 4 seasons of world ranking events, men’s teams win 75.2% of the time starting with hammer in the final frame of a tied game while women’s teams win 70.5% of their contests. At the higher levels (Grand Slam and Canada Cup data specifically, excluding Tier 2 and the 2019 Champions Cup), over that time frame the results are 84.4% and 73.2% respectively.


Back to our baseball analogy; if we begin the 9th inning with the visiting team ahead 1 run, odds for victory for the home team are only 15%. This appears worse than that of a team tied without hammer. No one is suggesting that the team that's one run down should be given a free runner on first base to start an inning, so why provide an advantage to the team that's behind at this point?  One argument is that a team which starts the game tied without hammer has not lost any position on the scoreboard but is now at a greater disadvantage. That is true, but as stated before, curling is a battle for hammer. This is specifically why teams now compete to determine hammer in the first end rather than have it decided by a coin flip.  However, major league baseball results are consistent from 1957 to 2018. You can choose any 5, 10 or 30 year stretch over that span and it's roughly within one percent. Curling teams keep getting better and the hammer advantage appears to be increasing in this tied-at-the-end situation, at least for the top teams in the world.

One further consideration that cannot be measured in math (yet), is the fan aesthetic. A baseball team starting the last inning one down can lose many ways. A runner could reach first and steal second, a bunt, maybe a double play, anything is possible.  Even striking out the side against the top of the batting order can be thrilling. In curling, the broadcaster may come back from a TV commercial, both tick shots have already been made, and any further dramatic tension has been taken from the contest, like the air from a balloon. A baseball team down a run in the 9th inning may lose more often than the team starting the final end without hammer, but the potential for entertainment value is significantly higher.

Under the 5-rock free guard zone, when top teams have an option, some are now choosing to be 2 down with hammer in the final end rather than tied without. At first this appears to be an error as the odds to win have only improved slightly since the end of the 4-rock rule (about 11 to 13% for men and 14 to 16% for women). These results still appear to be worse than a 25% or 30% chance to win when tied. The real scrutiny comes for the very top teams. Looking at more recent data, in the toughest events, men’s teams have gone 73-7 (91.3%) since the start of the 2018-19 season when tied with hammer in final or extra end.  

Given recent results, it's no wonder Kevin Koe prefers to be 2 down with hammer rather than tied without at the end of a game. Grand Slam women teams in 2018-19 tied at the end with hammer reached a record of 46-5 (90.2%). However, this past season teams were 34-15 (69.4%) which is in line with the broader series of world ranking events and historical results. Always the danger of small sample sizes, we see women were 91.3% in the 2014-15 season, but this came in a mere 23 situations. Women’s teams should nearly always prefer to be tied without rather than down 2 with hammer in the final end, but for how much longer?

It's fair to say these recent numbers are a concern and something to keep a collective eye on. To be clear, I hate the idea of changing a basic rule at the end of a game. I'm at a loss finding a comparison from elsewhere in the sports world, other than perhaps regular season NHL overtime. Everyone has an opinion on the various changes this century (shoot-out, 3-on-3, 4-on-4) but most would concur that when the play-offs arrive, when it really matters, these tweaks are thrown aside, and the game is played on. Though recent results could be an indicator of an undesirable future, concerns appear to be only with the very top men’s teams over a short period. I'd not suggest we change a rule for all because of results from one small group, but the data should be tracked and as teams improve, further scrutiny given to the results. But for now, when the games matter the most, curling should just play on. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Episode 65 - John Ferguson


John Ferguson developed management skills from behind the tee-line.  Dealing with a contentious boardroom seemed easy after numerous years as vice for two of the most eccentric skips in curling history. As third for Paul Gowsell, John won the 1977 Canadian Juniors and 1978 Uniroyal World championships. He eventually teamed with Ed Lukowich and joined by Neil Houston and Brent Syme, they won the 1986 World Championship and captured the bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. John shares stories from across his curling days and gets to reminisce while watching a clip from Fast Eddy Curling Tips.


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Friday, March 20, 2020

Episode 64 - Guy Hemmings


Guy Hemmings found curling by accident. Having moved to Montreal for University, during a Sunday morning walk he saw a sign to try curling at the Outremont Club. This chance encounter would eventually lead him to skip Quebec to the Brier finals. Twice. Guy, along with Pierre Charette, Guy Thibaudeau and Dale Ness, won over the crowds in Winnipeg (1998) and Edmonton (1999) with their play on the ice during the day and in the Patch each night. Guy shares his passion for the sport and describes what it's like being a celebrity in Western Canada while going unnoticed in your hometown.


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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Semi-final Finagling at the Brier

As I begin, the 2020 Tim Horton’s Brier Semi-final just ended and only a few hours to go ahead of the Final between Team Gushue of Newfoundland & Labrador and Alberta’s Team Bottcher.  The Semi-final included several interesting decisions faced by both Gushue and Team Dunstone of Saskatchewan, and three in particular have inspired me to post some analysis.  No further time for preamble, let’s get to it…

1st End.  Dunstone with Hammer.

It’s NL third Mark Nichols first shot and there are several choices Brad considers. 



They could blast and likely kill all 3 reds, keeping a possible force in play but also a likely blank.  They also consider drawing around behind everything (where Brad’s broom is placed in the photo) but ultimately decide to place a guard on the centre line.
  
No math to examine here, just an interesting decision with 3 options that came up in the very first end.  

Some fans lament low scoring games and multiple blank ends.  Even during this Brier, which had plenty of thrills (perhaps more final big shots than any in my lifetime) a few posted on twitter that some games have been boring because of too many blank ends.  “If you blank you should lose hammer” has been thrown about before and surprisingly still is heard now, despite the 5 rock free guard zone (FGZ) rule in effect across all competition.  

This first end situation is an example of why a blank allowing the team to retain hammer is essential to curling.  Gushue, with no pressure to force in order to get hammer, would simply blast all the rocks.  No options and less strategy, THAT makes the game boring.

6th End.  Gushue (NL) leads 5-3.  Dunstone (SK) with Hammer

Saskatchewan is looking at either a nose hit for 1 point or a possible double and roll out for the blank.  


You can hear Team Dunstone on the broadcast discuss their options.  Not sure if Matt did an actual calculation, but he could have determined the likelihood of making the shot required based on probable winning percentages.  

With 4 ends remaining, we need to consider only 5 rock FGZ results.  Side note that it is possible in late game situations (tied or one down) to disregard 5 rock FGZ because it makes no difference to the play, but not in this case.

For all World Ranking events in this season and last, teams down 2 with hammer and 4 ends remaining will win 21.6% of the time (344 out of 1590 situations).  One down without hammer in this spot is 19.4% Win Probability (WP) (224 out of 1157).  At first glance, the choice to try a difficult blank seems unnecessary for only a small increase (2.2%) in WP.  The risk of a steal (WP=9.1%) is too high and no math required, the choice is clear to take one point.  

However, this game is being played against Brad Gushue. Brier, World and Olympic Champion.  If we look only at Grand Slam events for the past 6 seasons (all 5 rock FGZ contests), two down is the same (WP=22.8%) but teams 1 down without hammer drop to 13.7% win probability.  Granted, the sample size is much smaller (25 out of 183 situations) but it’s safe to assume that the best teams in the world are much better at protecting that 1 point lead with hammer, even against competition as strong as Team Dunstone. If we use 13.7% as their expected chance to win, then Matt should try to blank if he figures to make the shot 3 times in 10.  This assumes he either makes (blank) or misses (steal), which is not exact because sometimes his shooter won’t roll out and Saskatchewan will be forced to a single anyway.  In retrospect, I believe attempting a blank would be the better decision.

This is yet another example where the choice to blank provides a second option and adds more strategy to the sport.  

9th End.  Gushue leads 6-4. Dunstone with Hammer.

Only two rocks remain and Gushue is facing this...


Traditional thinking would have Gushue nose hit the Saskatchewan rock, likely leading to a blank and two point lead in the final frame.  Instead, Gushue decides to play a freeze-tap on the stone and leave Dunstone a delicate shot for two points.  


Matt makes his final shot for two points and it’s all tied at 6 ends heading to the final end, Gushue with hammer.

Go back 5 or 10 years, under 4 rock FGZ, and Gushue is making a poor decision.  Now, with 5 rock FGZ and improved level of play, it’s not as clear.
I understand the desire of top skips to always desire hammer in the final end.  Nothing must be more helpless than standing at the boards and watching a shot like this.  


Or this...


Or this...


With all that in their memory bank, I can understand the desire for skips to prioritize hammer in the final end, even if the data may support the opposite.  Under 5 rock FGZ for World Ranked events, the odds to win down 2 points with hammer in the last end have only improved slightly (about 11 to 13% for men).  In fact, for Grand Slam events it’s actually 11% WP, indicating the best teams (no surprise) hold the lead better than the broader field of competition.  In this case, Gushue should expect to win 89% of the time if he hits.  But it’s that 11% and what it can feel like that I’m certain is sticking in his mind.  

Win probability when tied with hammer, the result of Brad’s shot decision in the 9th end, is what we want to examine.  The ability for top teams to execute the tick shot and finish the game in this spot has dramatically increased in recent years.  While world ranked events continue to indicate a roughly 75% WP (much lower than 89%), in this season and last, Grand Slam events (minus Tier 2 and Champions Cup results) have men’s teams winning 73 out of 80 chances or 91.2%.  If we consider Grand Slam data going back to 2011-12 season, the larger sample size is 338 out of 409 (82.6%).  Recency bias for Brad is clearly at play.  Having seen wild shots all Brier (and likely in recent Grand Slams) in which a team comes back to win down 2 points, combined with his belief that tied with hammer will win over 90% of the time, the choice appears to be correct.  

It’s also not certain Matt will score two points.  If Brad had thrown his last one through the rings and surrendered an instant deuce, that would be very strange (even if the math, per above, might be a wash).  But with the added chance to possibly steal or force Saskatchewan to one point, the decision to freeze-tap appears correct, largely based on Gushue’s world class ability to win in the final end if tied up holding hammer.  

Further analysis on this type of situation, and consideration of a rule change to freeze guards to the centre line (a la Champions Cup and Elite 10 rules) is examined further in the upcoming April issue of The Curling News.

Enjoy the Finals!


Sunday, March 1, 2020

Episode 63 - Alison Goring


Alison Goring likes to be around people. Socializing was also a form of sports psychology. She couldn't face the alternative of quiet solitude in a hotel room the night before a big game.  Alison won the 1983 Canada Winter Games and Canadian Juniors with Kristin Holman (now Turcotte), Cheryl McPherson and Lynda Armstrong.  Seven years later, with Andrea Lawes at second, Kristen, Cheryl and Alison would breakthrough, winning Ontario and the Scott Tournament of Hearts. Her last Scotties ended with a finals loss to Sandra Schmirler in 1997. That team included Kim Moore along with Lori Eddy and Mary Chilvers of the 2 Girls and a Game podcast. Alison shares stories across her career including her greatest miss, how to over manage a time clock and tips for getting bar service at the Welton Beachamp Bonspiel. Cheryl joins for a brief cameo at the end as we try to recall who they beat in the final of the 1990 Ontario Tankard.

Sparked by Alison's lesson from Ed Werenich at the 1990 World Championships, the episode begins with an inquest into the history of drag effect and this fascinating last rock from the semi-final of the Moncton 100 Bonspiel.
 

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