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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A More Offensive Game of Curling – Part II

In Part I we looked at the introduction of a 5-Rock Free Guard Zone (FGZ) rule in the BDO Canadian Open. Feedback from some of the players was positive, though one commented it hurt their head (winner Mike McEwen)...

and a few others appeared dumbfounded...

even Olympic champions, looked, at times perplexed.

Now we’re going to breakdown each of the televised games and see how each team adapted to this rule.

Quarterfinal: Jeff Stoughton versus Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin asks for lead Ben Hebert to put his first stone in the top four foot. Rather than place a corner guard, Stoughton lead Steve Gould hits and rolls to the 12 foot. Martin hits and stays. Now Jeff calls for a corner guard, with Martin unable to remove it on his second’s (Marc Kennedy) first rock. Kevin instead calls for top twelve, cutting off the path around the corner. This strategy (cutting off corner guards) was used to perfection by the underdog Mike Riley rink against Werenich/Savage during the 1984 Brier finals and was likely used often during this event. A mistake by Stoughton on a blank attempt and Martin steals one point.

In the second end, similar beginnings, Martin goes in the house, Stoughton calls a hit, Martin hits and now the corner guard goes up. This delay in putting up the corner now means when second Marc Kennedy puts up a centre guard, Stoughton can hit it. This scenario for leads rocks in the first two ends shows how, when their opponent plays into the rings, the 5-Rock rule allows the team with hammer to avoid stacking rocks into the middle around a centre guard and instead get a corner guard in play. This situation alone has me favoring the 5-Rock rule over 4-Rock. In the traditional 4-Rock FGZ, the team ahead without hammer can put their first rock in the rings. Their opponent puts up a corner guard and they now can place a guard in front of their rock, and it can’t be hit. The cost for a team to place the corner is significant and the opposition didn’t actually need to make a draw around a guard. In the 5-Rock rule a team without hammer does not gain this advantage. In retrospect I wonder if Kevin would reconsider placing his first rock out front rather than in the rings.

After a miss by Kevin on his first, Jeff draws to lay 3 in the house and Martin is looking at this:

Stoughton is Red

Rather than hit, Kevin ponders the freeze to the rock on the tee-line. Watching this, Stoughton’s caught on camera saying to third Jon Mead “yah, go for it”.

I was also surprised by Martin’s call. Though it was thin, it appeared Kevin could easily double the two rocks in the four foot and possibly spin in behind the guard. Even if Kevin gives up a deuce he’s only 1 down. By playing the freeze, Kevin increased the chance for Jeff to score three and even gave some possibility of four. Stoughton ends up scoring three when Kevin’s rock doesn’t curl enough.

In the third end, Martin (now two down with hammer) throws a corner up after Stoughton puts their first rock top four. Lead Steve Gould then places his next rock 2 inches from the house, guarding shot stone. Martin elects not to throw up the second corner and instead tries a corner freeze around the tight centre guard. Hmmm, didn’t he follow what Jeff did in the first two ends?

In the fourth end, the rocks look similar to the previous end, but this time Kevin puts up the second corner guard:
 Stoughton is Red

Stoughton’s lead Steve Gould won’t make the highlight reel, but these two REALLY tight guards in the 3rd and 4th end are great shots which had a significant impact on these two ends, or 25% of the game 1

Despite the crowded beginning, by skips rocks everything has been removed and another blank end.

In the fifth end, Stoughton escapes some potential danger by making a run back and Kevin missing his first draw attempt. Martin is forced to one and scores his only point of the game with hammer (recall Jeff handed him a steal in the first). Thought there was suppose to be more offense?

In the 6th end, down 3-2, Martin places two centre guards (just as he would in the 4-Rock FGZ). After some house cleaning, Stoughton blanks (footnote - the third blank end of the game, and there were only 13 total the whole event!).

After a missed triple on Kevin’s last, Jeff draws for a deuce in the 7th end. Kevin could have tried a hit and roll instead, but the guard was so long I’d expect he knew Jeff could get it from either side even if it was perfect.

Ok, three down, time to grab a beer and change the channel, right? Not with the 5-Rock FGZ. Jeff has Gould attempt a tick on his first shot, but he noses the rock through the rings and it is replaced. On Reid’s first shot he calls to come into the four foot rather than attempt a tick. Nearly every shot from there becomes a team meeting to review the options. I can’t recall a game where a team led by 3 coming home and there were this many huddles to discuss strategy.

Nerve racking for the team that’s built a 3-point lead and perhaps a whole lot of blabbering to just delay the inevitable outcome, but it made for interesting TV.

Semi-final: Jeff Stoughton versus Glenn Howard

Usually if you give up four points in the first end, all of the air goes out of you. The challenge becomes staying focused, knowing in the back of your mind most likely you’ll be shaking hands soon and throwing back pints before the end of the day.

Curling is a game of mistakes and if you make one early, it can be game over before you even started. Glenn is 4 feet heavy on his second shot of the game and now it’s an uphill climb. But with the 5-Rock FGZ, Howard was never really out of it and, most important, the game was entertaining and made for good television.

In the 6th end, Howard is still down four, now 7-3. Stoughton piles three rocks into the four foot while Glenn places two corner guards. Stoughton ends up in a mess after a missed runback by Jon Mead. On his first shot, Jeff gets lucky and catches a skinny double, not the shot he called but an acceptable Plan B. Howard faces this for his first shot:
Howard is Red

He’s four down. Three has to be the play, even at the risk of not scoring a deuce. If Glenn draws to the open side and splits the house, what would Jeff do? He could guard, and Glenn may need to play a difficult double raise, on his opponent’s stone. Playing the scoreboard, it’s more likely Jeff hits an open Howard rock and sits first and third and Glenn needs to hope a double is available to get three, if not he plays the same run back for a deuce. Running short of time, it seemed Team Howard was looking for something else but defaulted on what was perhaps their best option, raising their own stone to remove the Stoughton rock and sit three.

After Stoughton misses his double attempt, Howard gets three and heads to the 7th end one down. After forcing Jeff to one in the 7th end, Howard has some potential to score not only a deuce in the 8th end to tie, but possibly a three for the win. Jeff and Jon both attempt doubles but instead stick to lay two. Jeff makes a double with his last and Glenn has no chance to score his deuce. Game over. The outcome is what we expect from a 4-0 start, but the storyline was very different.

Championship Final: Jeff Stoughton versus Mike McEwen

Three Stoughton games in a row? Ok, I know that Team Stoughton is current Brier and World Champions, but did they really deserve all that TV time? Granted, ladies love a strong sweeping front end that can throw a little weight around (how's the Olympic training program going?).

...but doesn’t CBC think the ladies at home might want to see the young Euro-plumber views of Team Edin 

In the final we are treated to the stylish ball-caps and quality whisker rub stubble of the Mike McEwen rink. Provincial rivals in Manitoba, these teams are no doubt going to clash again in their attempt to qualify for the 2012 Brier.

Stoughton starts off calling a center guard by lead Steve Gould. Unsure if he wanted it tighter but note it’s out of the house (unlike Martin’s play into the rings). Mike calls for a tight corner, rather than the come around, but they slip into the rings. Some talk early by the commentators that skips were uncomfortable with the format. Then again, they’re in the final. As I mentioned above, Jeff outsmarted Kevin Martin in their quarterfinal contest. After 13 hit and sticks, Mike hits and rolls out for the blank.

Second end, another centre guard by Stoughton and Mike calls for another corner. Sloppy start as they figure out the ice, Gould comes light then McEwen lead Denni Neufeld raises it into the rings. Sloppy finish too as Mike comes heavy on his first draw but Jeff makes a terrible error in coming light and leaves McEwen a simple draw to the eight foot for a deuce. Jeff could have thrown his draw as much as 8 feet further and forced McEwen to a single. An early Christmas gift.

Third end, Jeff elects to play into the rings rather than throw up a second corner guard. I suspect being the third end he didn’t want to risk the game getting out of hand too early. Eventually he’s forced to one and now is down 2-1.

Fourth end. Some more sloppy play and McEwen is facing more guards than a team one up with hammer needs. Unfortunately, his front end put them there. Third BJ Neufeld cleans up the mess but then gases his last shot through the rings. Stoughton is able to force Mike to a difficult draw for one.

Mid-game break and the 5-rock FGZ rule has had no effect on the game thus far. It has essentially been played out as a 4-Rock FGZ game.

In the 5th end, Jeff uses his extra guard to guard his own guard, which had slid a little too close to the rings. They have a chance to create some offense but second Reid Carruthers slips too deep on his draw attempt. BJ is able to cut-off the corner guard and McEwen sits three. Stoughton third Jon Mead attempts a hit that just clips the McEwen stone. Mead makes a nice come around on his first, Mike draws and Jeff faces this on his first:
Stoughton is Yellow

It looks ugly, but there is still possibility. Jeff makes a soft hit and roll and sits second and fourth, leaving McEwen with this:
 Stoughton is Yellow

A difficult shot to run his own back and not leave a chance for Jeff and, ultimately, he does. At this point we expect Jeff to make the double for two and tie things up, but he noses instead and he’s now 1 down without hammer entering the "End Game".

In the sixth, McEwen is able to clear up the guards but his rocks are behind the tee-line and Jon and Jeff are able to maneuver two of their rocks into good positions. There’s a team huddle over Mike’s first shot, facing this:

McEwen is Red

They first discuss picking it out, forcing Jeff to try the same shot again. They reconsider and make what I agree is the much better shot; hit the yellow stone in the four foot on the nose and sit in front of it once it jams on the back red. The result however, is not quite what he hoped and Jeff is left with a hit to sit three. No triple in play and McEwen is forced to a single.

In the seventh end, another miscue by Stoughton on his final draw attempt. Trying to touch the four foot, Jeff is Light by 3 inches; McEwen steals and leads 5-2 going into the last end.

Again, normally time to change the channel but much drama still to come. McEwen’s squad plays the final end well but Jeff has this opportunity with his first:
 Stoughton is Yellow

Jeff makes the double to sit three, but his rock rolls towards his other stone and leaves a double for McEwen. No mistake by Mike and it’s game over.

So to re-cap, it was the 5th, 7th and 8th ends where 5-Rock FGZ came into play. Surprisingly, if Jeff had made his draw in the 7th end it would have only been used in the 5th and 7th end.

It did not take long to convince me (and usually it does), this is a rule that should be adopted. Sorry to those players or fans who think it’s “unfair”. It is a minor tweak that will only adjust play in a few ends of each game, but clearly keeps a team that is down two points “in” the game, and keeps me interested to watch. It makes for better TV; what those of us on the couch and behind the glass want to see.

1 Two out of 8 ends = 25%. it’s been a while since we examined any actual math, I don’t want to disappoint my loyal followers. Either of you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A More Offensive Game of Curling – Part I

The BDO Canadian Open has come and gone, but we can only hope its new version of curling is not forgotten.  Mike McEwen and his rink from Winnipeg won the event, the cash and the somewhat controversial CTRS (Canadian Team Ranking System) points,1 which move them further ahead in their quest for an Olympic Trials berth.  What the fans won was a possible glimpse into the future of the sport. 

To the best of my limited knowledge, use of a 5-Rock Free Guard Zone (FGZ) rule in the BDO was the first for a Grand Slam, WCT, CCA, ICF, WCF, or any other sanctioned curling event.  This rule prohibits a team from removing an opponent’s rock in the FGZ area (between hog and rings) until the 6th rock of an end. 

I initially felt the 5-rock FGZ rule would have a minimal impact.  Looking at outcomes based on scoreboard, with an albeit small sample size, it appears I was right.  5-Rock FGZ had minimal impact on outcomes, but what it did have was entertainment impact for the fan.  For those who missed the televised games, the archived video can be seen at  I have only to draw your attention to the final end between Howard and Stoughton in the Semi-Finals where, leading by 2, Stoughton needed to make a double on his first stone to ensure a victory.  There was some risk during the end of Jeff possibly surrendering a three to lose.  It didn’t happen, but the drama was much higher than that of a 2 up final end in a 4-Rock FGZ game.  During Stoughton’s Quarterfinal and Final game, where the winning team was up three in the final end, you’d think twice before turning the channel.  At this level of skill, this usually is not the case.

Some players may dislike the 5-Rock FGZ because it doesn’t reward a team’s good play.  Make all your shots, solid play for 7 ends to build up a two point lead, then one critical miss in the late stages and you could give 3 back and lose.  I can empathize with this point of view.  A team holding a two point lead without hammer in 4-Rock FGZ wins 85% of the time with two ends to play and 88% with one to play.  A visiting baseball team leading by two runs in the 9th inning wins 86% of the time and 89% when at home.   Strong play through 8 innings (similar to 7 or 9 ends) is rewarded with a high probability of success.  5-Rock FGZ feels like the team behind is allowed to put a runner at second base before starting the inning.  I agree, it seems unfair.  But it is fun to watch and I’ll argue the other side.

I wrote years ago about curling as a Battle for Hammer.  What I discovered was, the great play of forcing a team to one was, statistically speaking, no big deal.  In every case (except the last end) in which a team is tied and forces their opponent to one point, the team (now one down with hammer) has increased their chances by no more than 4%, and usually 3% or less.  Similar numbers for being down two with hammer versus one down without hammer (0-3.5% difference). This is why comebacks in curling can be difficult; you eat up ends just trying to get the hammer back, and give up a point to your opponent in the process.  Let’s look at a common scenario in an 8 end game:

First end, you miss a half shot and give up two.  Second end take 1.  You’re down one without hammer and only 6 ends remain.  You are able to get a force in the 3rd end and now are back to two down.  In order to get back into this game, you must score two in 4, force one in 5, score two in 6 and force in 7. That gets you tied coming home.  To get this result you must play extremely well.  However, even if you play well but your opponent matches you, this outcome is not likely to occur.  This is how down two after the first end against the best teams in the world usually leads to a loss.  Going back to our baseball comparison, teams up two runs after the 2nd inning win 66%.  In curling its 74%, and for the top teams its 85-90%.  Even allowing for a large portion of these wins coming against weaker teams, when watching a curling game we may want to flip the channel after the first end deuce.  I wouldn‘t leave a 2-0 baseball game in the second inning, though I may grab an extra beer and try to take a nap

I’m the first to admit one event produces only small sample sizes and we need further games to provide more analysis, but I did compare the numbers from this weekend’s 5-Rock FGZ BDO event to the previous Grand Slam, the GP World Cup.  What did I notice?

  • Teams score more (duh).  10.4 pts/game versus 9.85.  1.42 pts per end versus 1.31
  • Less blank ends.  Only 36 total blank ends in the BDO (9.3%) versus 61 (15%) in the WCGP.
  • Teams are forced to one the same amount of time.  Teams scored a single point with hammer 35% in the GPWC and 34% in the BDO.  For as often the extra guard provided more opportunity, teams likely had to bail out and score a single at risk of a steal.
  • Teams don’t score more deuces, but deuces turned into threes.  Teams with hammer scored two or more 33% of the time, same in both events.  However, deuces occurred 25% of the time in the GPWC and 21% during the BDO.  Four or more was still a scarce event (2% GPWC increased to 3% BDO), and threes increased to 9% from 6%.  Note that in both cases the increase is 50% and, though the sample size is small, we should expect an increase in scoring for teams with hammer.
  • Teams steal more points.  Teams stole 1 point 14% and two or more 3.5% (total of 17.5%) in the GPWC and 17% + 5% for 22% steal percentage in the BDO.  The 5-Rock rule doesn’t give any extra advantage from the 4-Rock rule to a team without last rock.  One likely reason for the increase is that teams, knowing they can’t keep the end clean, become more aggressive without hammer and steal more often.  This leads to the next effect…
  • Fewer close games.  During the GPWC, 19 games decided by one point, 9 extra end games and 89% of games went to the 8th end.  Granted, not all one point games are close (some have a team down three score two in the last end), but we can gain some comparison to the BDO with 13 1-point games, 81% reaching the 8th end and only 1 extra end game.  However, stats can’t tell us that
  • The 5-Rock games were more exciting. 
It wasn’t just the novelty and it wasn’t my imagination.  Giving the team with hammer an extra guard, which is most often used when that team is down, creates more excitement.  Period.  Two and three down are no longer reasons to change the channel.  The trade-off could be more games which don’t reach the 8th end, blow-outs after 5 or 6 ends. However, many close 4-Rock FGZ games are, both statistically and in my viewing opinion, not a close as they appear.  I think 5-Rock FGZ would be a rule that improves the game for the fan and would benefit the sport.

The next question to examine is, does 5-Rock FGZ change Win Probability?  Sample sizes are way too small to give us any real insight.  For example, teams leading by one and two in the late ends (6-8) won more often (75%/93%) in the BDO than in the GPWC (61%/80%).  Given the advantage of the extra guard, we’d expect these numbers to be the opposite.  When 3 or more down, teams in the BDO were able to come back, at any time in the game, 3 times out of 72 (4.2%). In the GPWC , teams only led by 3 or more 44 times, but 4 times a team actually came back (9.1%).  More data is clearly needed to provide a proper comparison.  Based on what we saw in all of the televised games, we could expect to see an increase in win percentage for teams down one or two with hammer in the late stages, but I will hold-off judgment until we see more data.  To get more data, we’ll need to adopt the 5-Rock FGZ rule at more events in the future (yes, please!).

So how did teams handle this rule during the event?  I’ll dig into the three televised games and take a look…in Part II.

1 Yes readers, CWM is going to start using footnotes, in order to segue into information which I’m too lazy to thread into the main article. Similar to the process used by the fine writers at In this case, it should be noted that all teams participating in the BDO had to agree to the 5-rock rule in order to allow CTRS points to be awarded. Perhaps surprising that no one opted out, but I expect any team voting NO would go years without anyone buying them a round of drinks.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Clash of (Curling) Titans

Sometimes in life, we are surprised.  The gift we receive not for a birthday or Christmas, but because someone was thinking of us.  The girl we thought never noticed us actually flashes a smile back.  Adam Sandler makes a movie which is entertaining and aimed at an audience over 14.  Most often, however, we are not surprised. The gift only comes at Christmas, and it’s socks or an itchy sweater.  The girl is actually smiling at the guy standing behind you.  And Adam reaches new lows in his latest rankings.

The first Canada Curling Olympic Trials spots, given to the winners of the 2011 CCA Canada Cup, provided little in the way of surprises. 

Jennifer Jones produces a deuce in the final end of the final round robin game to slink into the last play-off spot with a 3-3 record, and then proceeds to dismantle the competition in her next two contests.  The Jones rinks’ mediocre play followed by a dominating play-off performance is no longer a surprise.  The Chelsea Carey team by way of their 5-1 record will no doubt be a team of the future, and they will likely learn from the poise seen in the Jones rink for that final game.  Jennifer has been there before and it showed.  Congratulations and good luck in two years!

The Men’s Canada Cup final also left no surprises.  Martin versus Howard in an epic battle with Kevin the victor and Glenn, once again, falling just short.  Team Howard, the Buffalo Bills of curling these past few years, took early advantage of some Martin misses and appeared to be in position to shake their recent past. But a key deuce in the 5th end followed by a Howard single in the 6th gave Martin control and he held on for the win.   A very entertaining game which included many interesting moments.

In the first end Glenn elects to draw into the rings and Martin forgoes the corner guard to hit and stick on the nose.  Seriously?  The end produces a blank and if you just arrived from a tropical island and were watching the first game of curling in your life you’d wonder what all the fuss was about.  Was Kevin trying to establish hammer in the “even ends” (a theory which is not supported by statistics)?  Was Glenn expecting Kevin to hit out the first end?  Do these two teams really still get butterflies in a big game and both skips wanted to work them out by playing it simple?  Should I really be spending these many words discussing such a boring end?  Probably not.

In the second end, Glenn brings his first rock again into the rings and Kevin throws up the corner guard.  Game on.  Some great shot making until an uncharacteristic miss by Martin third John Morris on a possible corner freeze allows Glenn to jump on the offensive, and he comes heavy.  Glenn makes no mistake on his final shot of the end however, able to corner freeze perfectly and produce a steal of one.

In the 3rd end, John Morris is six feet light on his final shot and we wonder if that is the same stone that was light in the last end.  Glenn makes a great shot and Kevin is heavy on his next.  The Howard Team gathers to discuss Glenn’s final shot and third Wayne Middaugh immediately identifies that if Kevin raises the red guard perfectly and catches his red stone in the top eight foot, he can score two.  

Martin is Red

This decision on this shot is so riveting that Martin coach Jules Owchar pulls out super spy binoculars to see what is happening.

They decide to leave Martin the difficult shot for two and instead block off the draw.    Kevin doesn’t hesitate and immediately calls for the run-back, which he makes.  Commentator Russ Howard agreed with his brother Glenn’s call, stating that if Kevin can get two out of it he deserves it.  So is it the right call?

We can attempt to determine the odds we believe Kevin needs to be successful in order to choose guarding the raise over the draw.

Let’s assume if Glenn doesn’t guard the centre he simply guards the raise. Kevin still has to make a draw on very swingy ice to get a piece of the button.  Let’s estimate a 90% success rate by Kevin to score one.

Martin Win % = .9(.39) + .1(.26) = 41%

Let’s assume if Martin plays the raise (as he did) he either takes 2 or Howard steals one.  There appeared a small chance that Howard could steal two but Kevin would need to make a very poor shot and get unlucky.

Martin Win % = 41% = x(.57) + (1-x)(.26)

x = .48

Kevin needs to be successful more than 48% of the time to make Howard want to guard the raise.  What would we expect Kevin’s chances in that situation to raise a rock 5 feet and hit between ¼ to ½ a rock?  I would suspect it is close.

The other potential shot was for Glenn to play a soft raise hit on his own rock in the top eight foot, removing the Martin stone, and lying first, third and fourth.  I like this shot as an attempt to remove the raise and block the draw.  The risk is that the rocks roll into a favorable position for Martin.  In hindsight (with the advantage of time and slow motion video to examine), this appears to be the preferred choice, but I don’t fault Glenn for the original call.  His objective is to try and steal, take control of the game, at the risk of a Martin deuce and being one down with hammer.

It’s the 4th end of a ten end game and somehow the sense is we’ve only just gotten started.  An eight end game would seem more urgent.  Numbers show that Glenn has a 43% chance to win and if in the 4th end of an 8 End game, it would decrease to 40%.

Tied 2-2 in the 5th and Howard gets into some trouble.  Wayne misses the raise double take-out, leaving his shooter as a center guard.  Kevin elects to have third John Morris draw to the side, to sit two.
Martin is Red

There are 6 rocks still to come and Glenn has to decide how he wants to approach the rest of this end.  They discuss a runback but recognize if he makes it perfect they aren’t shot.  I don’t like trying to remove the center, it may be needed later on.  Another option could have been a freeze to the back stone but to be shot they would have to be very precise and would likely leave a simple hit and stick double to lay two.  Glenn could also try to draw to the centre, even perhaps back four foot, in an attempt to move play back to the centre and create a force or even a possible steal, but at the risk of giving up a big end.  They eventually choose to hit the Martin stone and try to roll towards the middle.  Wayne unfortunately rolls out of the rings.  John makes the draw again, and Glenn chooses to again try a hit and roll on his first but noses.  Kevin now is able to play a freeze and make Glenn’s final decision even more difficult.
Martin is Red

Howard decides to play a hit and stick (the roll attempt would have jammed the Martin stone on the back yellow).  Kevin is left with a simple hit and stick for his deuce and a 4-2 lead.  Kevin is now 76% likely to win the game.  Could Glenn have taken a different approach to the end?  If Kevin scores three, Howard drops to an 11% average chance to win and likely suspects it is lower than this “average” statistic in this situation.  The hit and roll attempt by Wayne is attempting to bring play to the centre while also removing a Martin stone as an “in case” scenario (such as, in case we give up more than one it will not be three).  If this is the 5th end of an 8 end game I don’t believe the decision is nearly as close, he has to draw.  A deuce with 3 ends remaining would drop Glenn to 19%.  Even here in a ten end game, I would prefer Glenn tries to draw on Wayne’s last or on skips first, to the back four foot, to bring the play to the middle.  Possibly while trying to tap the Howard rock, Martin would leave more rocks in the area which could help Glenn later in the end.  The question to be answered is, would you rather accept being 2 down to Kevin Martin with 5 ends to play or aggressively try to force or steal at the risk of ending things right now.  Howard decided the two was acceptable.  Here’s the troubling statistic: Martin is (in his small sample size) much higher than 76% when leading by two after 5 ends.  In the range of 95%.  Glenn is a much stronger team than the average competition and should rightfully consider his chances are better than 5% against Kevin is this situation, but by how much?

After not playing aggressive in the 5th end, Howard goes all out in the 6th attempting a bounce back deuce.  The look on Glenn as he and Wayne discuss their options during third stones tells it all.

Here is what they are facing:

Martin is Red

Howard brings their next rock behind the corner (see below).  Martin throws centre guards and Glenn peels with Wayne’s last shot and his skips first.  It felt like they could have perhaps played a hit off their own rock partially behind the corner and roll into the four foot and disrupt the pile.   Kevin realizes the possibility and guards it on his final stone. 
Martin is Red

Glenn is left with an attempt to raise the Martin shot onto the yellow in the eight foot, attempting to spin it in for two.  He instead takes one and the fans, if it were crowded, may have considered leaving to beat the traffic rush.

In the 7th end and John Morris makes a double peel on his final stone.  Howard, down 4-3 without hammer, is facing this before first shot:
 Martin is Red

Clearly set on trying to force Martin to a single, they elect to hit the back red stone and sit two.  They discuss that even if Kevin manages a double, he likely rolls out and they have a chance to come around and still force a single.  I didn’t agree with the “roll-out” double.  Appeared many ways Kevin would have a double to sit one and likely blank the end.  However, the numbers show that a force is only 2% better than a blank (19% if down two with hammer and 17% if one down without with 3 ends remaining).  My first impression was Glenn should have played a guard on their shot stone.  It could be the extreme curl made guards less effective and Howard’s team felt a steal was not likely.  Quickly looking at the numbers, if Glenn expects Martin to get a deuce 1/3 of the time he throws the guard, he needs to steal greater than 20% of the time to make it the correct call.  

Uncharacteristically, Kevin hits and rolls out, leaving Howard sitting one.  John attempts to have a brief chat with his skip, but it ends abruptly as Kevin slides away leaving his third in mid sentence, mouth still open.  This is what curling needs to increase its fan base, more coverage of players feuding.  Like this recent first end chat between Randy Ferbey and John Morris.

Martin draws for one and Howard is now down two with hammer and 3 ends to go.  The 8th looks like a possible blank until Kevin makes a great draw out to the wings, corner freezing a stone, and Glenn is forced to take one.  His chances go from 15% (blank) to 14% (force). 

In the 9th, Howard is able to put his rocks in good positions and Martin needs to throw big weight on his final stone to take one.  His shooter hits over 15/16ths of Howard’s rock in the top 4 and actually spins forward a half rock to beat out another Howard stone by a measure.

Now two up without hammer, Martin makes an interesting call on his final stone in the 10th.  Kevin’s squad has been able to clear the guards and Glenn is forced to draw around a single Martin stone in the top eight foot.

Kevin could attempt a 6 foot raise to remove the Howard stone and win the game immediately.  He instead chooses to play a freeze to the back stone.  He comes short and leaves Glenn a chance with a double to tie the game and send it to an extra end.  I don’t disagree with Kevin’s call. The large amount of curl should enable them to bury right to the back rock and essentially end the game, but Kevin Martin is known for laser precise hitting and given a chance to end it that way, I’m surprised he didn’t chose that option.  Ultimately Howard is unable to make his final shot and Martin wins the Canada Cup and first Canada Olympic Trials spot.  Something tells me Glenn will qualify soon enough and perhaps in another 2+ years we can watch these guys do this all over again.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Battle for Canada’s Cups – Part 1

Thank goodness for PVRs (Tivo specifically in my case).  If not for pre-scheduling recordings of all things Curling I would have completely missed this past weekends’ games.   This humble little event, historically known as the CCA Canada Cup, is played each year with a small select group of teams whom you’ve heard and seen many times before.  This year teams squared off not only for a few sheckles but for the right to play against other teams in 728 days, for the right to represent Canada at the Olympics in 796 days.  Kevin Martin’s win in this Canada Cup felt a little like Tiger’s big comeback win this past weekend at the Chevron World Challenge, a silly season exhibition where only 18 players contended.  Was it surprising to fans that some of our best curling teams this season were not competing?  Notably absent were Sherry Middaugh, leading the Women’s CTRS (aka, Canadian Team Ranking System) and John Epping, ranking third in the Men’s.  Wasn’t the CCA going to give teams a break in Olympic qualifying, making it a 2 year effort instead of 3?  Yes, you could argue, this Canada Cup is in the 2011/12 season, but in order to qualify to play in it, you needed to succeed LAST year.  Hence, this first Olympic spot was only open to teams who started their Olympic Quest the season following the last Olympics.  I’m getting a headache.

With all this at stake, it would have been nice to see more coverage, televised or even via internet.  I expect we’ll see extended coverage of the Pre-Trials (like we did in 2009), despite the fact the top teams will have already qualified and be watching in the stands. 

So how do you feel about 10 ends?  I remember when 8 ends felt short, now it simply feels normal.  Based on previous analysis: Is curling a battle for hammer?, I supported a theory that an 8 end game is competitively equal to a 10 end game, given the percentage chance to win based on the scoreboard stays fairly constant until 6 ends remain.  Essentially, an 8 end game is a 10 end game where the teams are tied after two ends. Because we’ve been watching for shorter time, the 8 end game may appear to be different, but in effect the teams are likely playing as they would later in a ten end game, because strategy should be based on ends remaining, not ends played.  For example, if a team seems overly aggressive in the 4th end of an 8 end game when down two, it’s the same approach they would take in the 6th end of a ten end contest.  The debate will continue and I will stay on the fence for now….and on to the games.

Haven’t we read this book before? Jeff Stoughton versus Glenn Howard with the winner to play Kevin Martin.  This scenario occurred at the 2009 Brier and Olympic Trials, and feels like it happens nearly every major event.   So how will the story end this time? 

The Glenn Howard rink have hammer in the semifinals by virtue of their win versus Stoughton during the round robin.   Why is the Howard rink dressed in basic navy blue instead of lime green or shocking pink?  Oh, I forgot, it’s a CCA event.  The teams are all wearing single colour form fitting shirts, complete with racing stripes along the shoulders, no doubt to show off the athleticism of men in their mid to late 40s.

A wonder the stands aren’t more full to see this show.  If only we could bring back The Wrench, sporting a tight fitting gem with his  Olympic Shape.   

In the first end Stoughton lead Steve Gould draws completely around a centre guard, peeking over half out the other side, showing the ice has the same swinging intensity of Plato's Retreat.  Glenn later uses that swing to make a fantastic hit a roll on a stone buried in the four foot to lay two.  Jeff  faced several key decisions early.  On his first shot, Howard sits one behind a corner guard.  

Howard is Red

Stoughton could attempt a peel on the outside of the rock or a difficult corner freeze, but instead chooses to draw around the centre.  Jeff makes a perfect shot.  The large curl however makes Glenn’s shot, though difficult, not impossible and Howard manages to sit two after his first shot.   Rather than risk another draw that can be removed for three, Jeff chooses to remove the open Howard rock and surrender an early deuce.  The decision is sound in that a deuce leaves him with a 27% chance while a three drops their chances to 14%.  In retrospect, Jeff may have been better to peel out Howard’s stone, let Glenn attempt a come around, then use the massive curl to take out Glenn’s shot and likely induce a blank or possibly a force.  It appeared no rock was safe from being removed, but perhaps ice conditions were not identical across the sheet.  I still like Jeff’s aggressive call on his first and Glenn simply made a great shot.

In the second end, Glenn and Wayne are discussing Wayne’s second shot but we can’t hear them because the TSN commentators are fixated on discussing Jon Mead cleaning the sliding path.  I understand commentating on curling is not easy (I learned it first hand during the 2010 Brier working for CurlTV).   I also realize Jon looks handsome in his tight fitting CCA jersey.  But there is enough silence during a game for plenty of playful media banter that when the players are actually discussing a shot, keep quiet!

The 6th end shows both the incredible action from the rocks and ice conditions.  Jeff Stoughton is down 4-2 with hammer and attempts a double on two close Howard stones. After removing both, his shooter backs up and nearly fires across the house to be removed from play.  The shooter bites the edge for one.

Howard is Red 
Don’t try this shot at your club at home.  Jeff’s chances go from 21% if a blank is successful to 20% when he stays for a single so in effect, his mistake has no real impact on his chances.  In fact, he didn’t need to try the difficult double and roll out at all and was fortunate not to hit the first rock too thick, roll across the top and surrender a steal, which would have dropped their chances to 9%.  You could argue his accuracy is such that Jeff would not make this mistake often, but why take on the additional risk with no benefit?  During the 2011 Brier Stoughton played flawlessly with the exception of a brain fart against Brad Gushue during the round robin.  Leading 5-3 he tried a more difficult shot which the odds did not require to be attempted and surrendered a three in the 8th end. Check out Jeff's comments on his Friggin' Bonehead Shot

The loss gave Newfoundland hammer in the 1-2 Page Play-off game which Team Stoughton won with a key steal in 9, on their way to winning their third Brier.

In the 7th end, leading 4-3 with hammer, Glenn chooses to split the Stoughton centre guard with his leads first rock.  Craig Savill executes perfectly, but Howard then chooses the come around on Craig’s next shot.  I'm not certain what Glenn’s thinking is there. Either he wants to eliminate Stoughton having two guards (but is happy with one) or just realized it was a 10 end game and he had 4 more ends to go.  Jeff ends up facing several red rocks and discusses a hit and roll versus a draw, contemplating whether they could give up a deuce, three or even four.  

Stoughton is Yellow

Realizing a deuce puts them 3 down with 3 ends to play (7% chance to win), they correctly choose to draw.  To no one’s surprise however, like several shots before, Glenn is able to remove the fully buried rock and take three, nearly assuring victory.  Jeff made a good shot with his final stone but may have been trying to come deeper, curl across the guard and place it where a possible jam would occur.  Is it possible there can be too much curl in curling?

Another rematch.

Glenn Howard again battles Kevin Martin in a final game on the path to Olympic qualification.  Granted, this game is only to qualify for the Trials but it still has the intensity and drama you would expect from these two teams.  This game was so interesting; I’ve decided to break this article into two parts.  Join me tomorrow for Part Deux.