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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Brier Notes and Blanking the 7th End

A great Brier.  I had a wonderful time working for CurlTV, playing part-time fill-in host. Paul Flemming, local Haligonian and four time Brier rep from Nova Scotia, including runner-up in 2005, was good enough to join me in the booth for nearly the entire week. Despite our complete lack of professional training and minimal or no experience broadcasting, we’d like to think we did ok. Paul’s father Don joined us for a few ends one game, as did Paul’s teammate Shawn Adams. Naturally I had to ask both Paul and Shawn about the famous 2005 final, where Ferbey chose to remove his own rock and, not only captured his 6th Brier, but launched this very blog you are reading. It was that very game that made me think “why would he do that and….is it statistically the right decision?” For the answer, click to

Incidentally, Shawn and Paul both thought Ferbey’s call was crazy, kind of like throwing your second last rock away in the final end.

Thanks again to Paul and his family for hosting a great lobster dinner mid-week. Also thanks to CurlTV for allowing me to blabber semi-coherently over the web. After 10 days of being immersed in the Brier, should be no surprise it’s taken me over a week of decompression to get back to my thoughts on what transpired….

Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? Is it better to have been to 9, yes, that’s right, 9 Brier finals, even if you only win 3? Would you rather go home early or finish 19-3 in an effort to wear the Maple Leaf in 2010, only to come up empty because two of those losses were final games?

Of course, 3 Brier wins is solace only for Glenn Howard after what must feel a disappointing year. This squad of Glenn, Rich, Brent and Craig has one Brier and World Championship win in 2007. They have been one of the two or three best teams on the planet for the last 5 years, and this year came ever so close not once, but twice, of challenging the rest of the world one more time. I hope they will be back.

The week was disappointing at first, both the attendance and the play was below our expectations. Into the middle of the week, high hopes for colossal clashes between the Big 4 came up short, with no dramatic last shot finishes and, with the exception of perhaps a few ends here and there, average shot-making and little excitement. Then, Thursday came along and we were treated to a Northern Ontario team that showed us all they were for real with a morning draw victory over Gushue. Manitoba then won a nail-biter in the afternoon against the surprising rookies from Quebec, keeping their hopes alive. In the end, Stoughton could only hope for a Gushue miscue in the evening draw to qualify for a tie-breaker. No mistake by Newfoundland and the Buffalo continues its Brier drought, worst in history (11 years). It was, however, the Thursday night game between Ontario and Alberta that foreshadowed what the weekend might have in store. We were fortunate to cover the game on CurlTV and it was clear to me that night that these were the two teams who belonged in the final. When Alberta lost in the last end, on a final draw to the four by Howard, it didn’t seem fitting they would head to a 3-4 game, after beating all the top teams and giving Ontario its toughest test of the week. The play-off games were, with the exception of the Saturday night semi-final, fantastic. As disappointing as this Brier was early on, we were treated to one of the best weekends at a Brier since moving to a play-off format in 1980. The final is already being mentioned with Dacey-Ferbey (2004) and Hackner-Ryan (1985) as perhaps the best ever since the inaugural Labatt’s sponsored event some 30 years ago. Certainly there are others which have been memorable: Stoughton-Martin in 1996 and Martin-Peters in 1997 come to mind, and though I don’t remember it all (I was 9 when it happened), I’d expect Burtnyk-Hackner in ’81 (in Halifax) is not easily forgotten.

Now on to some analysis:

1. Quebec (Serge Reid) vs BC (Jeff Richard)

The BC team impressed early in the week. Jeff Richard had won extra end victories in the provincial semi and final to get out of BC and then took Manitoba to an extra and Glenn Howard to last rock. If not for two half shots by Jeff, Ontario could have had an early loss instead of sweeping the round robin. Quebec was also an early surprise; Brier rookies just like their opposing skip. This game was a turning point for both and some interesting decisions during the End game (final 3 ends) could have influenced the outcome.

9th End: BC is down 6-5 with hammer. Third’s first shot and they sit one and have a centre guard.

BC is yellow

Time out, as Jeff’s first inclination is to peel. His thinking is he’d rather blank than score two. If you’ve read my blog before you know two is better than a blank, roughly 60% Winning Probability (WP) for the team 1 up without hammer. However, if BC is held to one at the risk of trying to score two, that is not a desired outcome. The team discusses their chance at 3, assuming Quebec will hit the open rock if they play a come around. More on that in a second.

With one end remaining:
Tied without hammer WP=.25
One up without hammer WP=.6
Two up without hammer WP=.88

Essential question for BC is: Do we try for 3, maybe get 2, but risk being held to 1?

If they do blank, BC’s WP = .40. Let’s suggest they get one 40% of the time, get 2 50% and get 3 only 10%.

.25(.4) + .6(.5) + .88(.1) = .49 

Nearly 10% higher than a blank and that assumes being held to one 4 in 10 times. There is also some chance of a steal, which we haven’t taken into account, but in my mind the aggressive play is preferred. The interesting question may have been, if BC draws around the centre into the four foot, should Quebec hit the open stone or draw around the centre and freeze? Alas, that didn’t happen – a missed peel and a possible force looked eminent. Serge had the opportunity to force BC to one with an open hit on his final shot:

Quebec instead elects to try a guard and, leaving the shot stone partially open, surrenders a deuce. I don’t mind the call in some cases, a force is great (.75) but a steal is also fantastic (.88). Two things would lead me to not try the guard here however. The rock was only biting top four foot and, given the draw weight we’d seen from Jeff, I’d expect he makes that draw 80% of the time, if not more, so you are going to likely surrender one anyway. The significant amount of curl, especially around the centre line, made throwing the “perfect” guard somewhat difficult. Also, if it was too long, the large swing would allow Jeff to get a piece of it and possibly score two, even if only a sliver was open. BC gets the deuce they didn’t want.

In the 10th End, BC attempts a guard on Jeff’s last and, as with Serge’s in the 9th, it’s not placed where they want it and a draw for 2 gives Quebec the win. Both teams were 2-2 at this stage and afterwards BC dropped two more fall to 2-5 and Quebec went to 5-2 and kept them in contention until Thursday.

2. NL (Brad Gushue) vs NO (Brad Jacobs)

It is the 6th End. Gushue has just tied it up last end with a deuce and they are about to start third stones. Brad faces this:

NL is red

He elects to have third Mark Nichols play a draw around the corner guard and sit third shot. This is an interesting call. I’m not certain what Brad’s thought process is here. Worse case scenario, the 5th end break took too long and Brad forgot he doesn’t have hammer. More likely, he is expecting NO to hit the open rocks, allowing NL to hit and stay and eventually force a single. NL could have hit the open yellow, though would be difficult to stay. They could have chosen to hit their own and drive it on to the NO rock, though both NL rocks likely spin to the back tee behind the corner. They also could have played a tight centre guard, even into the rings. Peeling the corner may appear conservative, but it is another choice in this scenario. Not an easy decision here and an indication of how dangerous corner guards can be when you do not have last rock and are unable to plug up the centre and force play into the four foot.

The draw stays half open, NO hits and rolls into the two rocks in the four foot, now sitting second and third.

Brad chooses a freeze to the two rocks in the four foot. Now we are really wondering if he knows he doesn’t have hammer. Mark actually makes a perfect shot. Brad then also makes a good shot. Jacobs makes a thin double and rolls out with his first, Brad is left with a difficult hit. He elects to play it soft and leaves a draw for three to NO where a bigger weight hit may have removed both NO rocks.
It appeared as they were starting thirds rocks, play was already in favour of NO, having no center guards and a corner. I like NL playing the end for a blank and not trying to create a force in a difficult situation. A strange end that I’m certain Brad will want to review and analyze if it could have been played differently to avoid giving up the big end.

3. ON (Glenn Howard) vs AB (Kevin Koe) -  Round Robin (Draw 17)

Fantastic game which, shot for shot, was the best of the week (in my opinion). Doubles and nearly triples by both squads. Alberta gets down 2 in the second but bounces back with a 3 in the third and it was back and forth all the way until the 7th and 8th…
Scenario in the 7th End which occurred again in the 7th end of the final, though the hammer was reversed. Howard is up 5-4 without hammer. Ontario lead Craig Savil puts his first rock in the rings and Alberta, rather than placing a corner guard, hits and stays in an attempt to play the end out as a blank. Blank is successful and Koe goes to the 8th end one down with hammer. What was interesting is Ontario at this point was 4-5 minutes behind Alberta and by Koe playing the end this way it allowed Howard to bank time for the later ends. It also sounded as though Koe and third Blake MacDonald were concerned about their time and felt the quick blank would be helpful to them. I think it would have done more harm to their opponent, but the thinking also prevails that a blank here gives AB hammer in the 8th and 10th ends (assuming no steals or further blank ends). In the final, Howard chooses the same tactic. AB gets a 3 to go up 4-3 in the 6th end and places lead Nolan Thiessen’s first rock in the rings. Ontario hits and the blank is on once again.

What does the math say about this strategy?

Down one with hammer and 4 ends remain, WP = .404
Down one with hammer and 3 ends remain, WP = .390

It appears that playing for a blank is not supported by these numbers. Certainly not a large mistake (1.4%) but no advantage is gained other than clock management. Let’s look at it another way:

Most likely outcomes if we chose to play aggressive with hammer instead of playing the blank: take 1, take 2 or a steal.

Take 1:
After 7th end, tied without hammer and 3 ends remain = .359
After 8th end, tied without hammer and 2 ends remain, WP = .329

Take 2:
After 7th end, one up without hammer and 3 ends remain, WP = .610
After 8th end, one up without hammer and 2 ends remain, WP = .634

Steal 1:
After 7th end, down 2 with hammer and 3 ends remain, WP = .193
After 8th end, down 2 with hammer and 2 ends remain, WP = .150

Astute readers will notice that a steal is bad in both cases; our opponent is in Dominant position. The opposite is true if we take 3 and go 2 up, in either the 7th or 8th end.

An advantage is gained by scoring a deuce in the 8th versus the 7th end (2.4%), however a 3% drop if we are held to a single point.

Given that the numbers don’t appear to warrant this call, why do it? The thinking is, 3 ends leave me “two hammers to one” and I will likely have hammer in the last end. The result is you can limit the number of times your dangerous opponent will have hammer and give yourself the last shot at the end of regulation. This theory is supported by the confidence and the importance skips place on the hammer, especially towards the end of the game. Intuitively this thinking makes sense, but is not yet supported by statistical analysis. Further work is needed to examine this area if we are to defend what appears to be logical thinking, but currently is not supported by the numbers.

What about the decision by the team without hammer to throw the rock into the rings? If you know your opponent is going to blank, why let them? If you support the “two hammers to one” argument, then you should place a centre guard without last rock. By not doing so you are supporting your opponent’s strategy and giving them a perceived advantage. Though it should be noted, the stats don’t indicate any real advantage.

So what do I think? It is an interesting decision which is not likely a mistake either way.

8th EndAn exciting end that unfortunately for Koe ends in a Howard steal and becomes a critical shift in the game, going from Close to a Dominant position for Howard. On Kevin’s first rock he faces this:

ON is yellow

Kevin elects to try a run back on the tight Ontario guard in the top twelve foot. Nearly makes it but leaves Howard sitting one. An alternative play was a difficult hit and roll through the tight port that Glenn had just come through with his first shot. The second option could leave them sitting two but leaves the Ontario rock in front and a miss could be disastrous. Kevin’s thinking is logical, and he does open up the in-turn side of the house. Ontario attempts to draw around to the button and rubs second shot belonging to Alberta. Fortunate for Glenn that they miss the sweeping, get a rub, but the shot sits in a perfect spot and Kevin has virtually no shot to score. An example of how curling can surprise you. The shot played by AB to open things up was intended to ensure Kevin would have a shot; ironically Glenn misses and still leaves Koe nothing.

Stat note: During the 1-2 game between Ontario and Northern Ontario, Linda mentions the team scoring a deuce in the first end wins 70% of the time. I believe these were numbers taken from the last 10 Briers. Our stats, which incorporate a much larger sample size indicate WP = 73% for men and WP = 72% for women’s teams in this position.

All of this and I haven’t even gotten to the weekend games yet! Page Play-off analysis will have to wait for another time.

Congratulations again to Team Koe and good luck in Italy at the Worlds.

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