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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Giving Points Away: Part II

I never intended a part two to my original coverage of the Canadian Open, but one commentor suggested perhaps I was to lenient in my assesment of these decisions.  It is possible.  As a good Canadian I naturaly avoid confrontation and only bury critism underneath pleasantries like "perhaps they might have" or "possibly she could have considered" instead of just calling out skips for being dead wrong.

Much of my strategy analysis is based in data, but I also believe what my childhood stats hero Bill James would protest

"there are so many things that none of us know, no matter how detailed the statistics".

A skip is always making a strategy decision based on many factors, most of which cannot be analyzed with statistics.  Even stats which are available need to be adjusted based on the conditions, the opponent, their team, and their own skills.

Warning to those right brain thinkers, we're going to dig a little further into the numbers than in our first pass.

Note: if you haven't read the original article, please go there first.  Otherwise this will make even less sense.   I wrote both and am still not sure what I'm talking about.

Situation 1:  Steve Laycock

Steve has a choice between draw to the full four foot for 1 point or a hit and roll for 1 point.  Let's estimate his odds at the draw are 95%.  Let's estimate a steal of 1 is 3% and a steal of 2 is 2%.  We'll use the WE chart for 4 rock FGZ (it's all we have for now) but increase the chance of a team 2 down with hammer to win by 3%.  This is slightly better than just a wild ass guess.  We do have a small sample of data from the 5 rock events which indicate that teams score threes about 3% more often.  We need a couple of years more data to be more accurate but it seems like a reasonable start.  We won't expect 1 down with hammer to change under 5 rock FGZ because thus far ends appear to play out identical as with 4 rock FGZ.

Win Expectancy (draw) = (.95)(.86)+(.03)(.79)+(.02)(.41) = .8489 or 85%

Estimate the hit and roll by Steve is made for 1 point 1/4 the time.

Win Expectancy (hit) = (.75)(.79)+(.25)(.86) = .8075

So these numbers indicate it's a 5% mistake.

What if Steve knows his lead makes the tick shot 80% of the time and when they make both ticks they win 100%.  When they don't make both ticks they still win 70%.  This would channge his WE when tied with hammer from .79 to:

WE = (.8)(.8)+(.7)(1-.64) = .892 or 89%

That's higher than our estimate for 2 up!

Replace .79 above in our equations with .89.

WE(draw) = 85.2%

WE(hit) = 88.3%

What looked originally to be a 5% mistake becomes a 3% advantage, if Steve's assessment of the ability for his team to execute the tick shot and finish the game tied with hammer is correct.  And what if Steve doesn't expect to make the draw as high as 95%? Yes, a lot of IFs, but as we get more recent data on elite teams, we may see numbers which look closer to these results.  Recall the previous chart (with a small sample size) shows recent Grand Slams (from 2012-13 Season to today) WE of 87% for tied with hammer in the final end.

Situation 2: Rachel Homan

Rachel can make the double for a blank (WE=.872) or will miss and give up a steal (.7).

Even more so than with mens data (for an up and coming team like Laycock), I'm willing to give Team Homan credit for having numbers which well exceed these averages for womens play.  It's fair to say Rachel wins much more than 70% of the time when tied in the final end, and higher still when 1 up with hammer.  In fact, Homan is 39-5 (88.6%) tied in the last or extra end and 11-1 (91.7%) 1 up with hammer in the final end. They are 19-1 (95%) when 2 up without hammer in the last end.

We could spend time trying to pull in data from other top teams and then use regression analysis to create a more confident estimate,  But I don't have that much time on my hands.  

Homan lead Lisa Weagle is so good at the tick shot they've started naming it a "weagle".  Using the same formula as above for Laycock: assume she makes the tick shot 85% of the time (Rachel may even have these exact stats).  Assume they also win 100% of the time both tick shots are made.  When one or both ticks are missed, let's guess that Homan wins 60% of the time.

WE = (.85)(.85)+(.6)(1-.7225) = .889 or 89%  

You may notice this is very close to their actual results.

The arguement now boils down to Homan's expected WE for the other conditions (1 up with and 2 up without hammer).  89% is higher than the womens averages for both these situations and if we use them the hit becomes an obvious decision.  It seems obvious that as one of the top 3 teams in the world, Homan is well above the average, but how much?  

It's late and I feel like I'm repeating myself.  I think we get the idea.

One thing we find in both these decisions is it is closer than initially thought and when a team is in this dominant position, the wrong decision won't be that big of a mistake.  Trying to decide whether you chose to have an 88% chance to win or an 90% is not a large error, especially given these numbers are not absolute for a particular team and situation.

I've talked before about the problem with "average" in our data and the elite teams.  When I've run samples of different levels of teams (at least for mens), what stands out is that most numbers look fairly consistent, except for tied with hammer, where the team with hammer has a 4-5% advantge.  The reason is the position of tied with hammer is less influenced by the skill of the opposing team and a large impact based on the ability of the team with hammer to clear free guards and draw for a point.  Given the  improvement by elite leads to make the tick shot most of the time, this gap is only getting larger.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ATH, 12/17/14: Just Before Festivus

Jordan, Gerry and Kevin catch-up just before the holidays to discuss the recent Canadian Open, thoughts on the "tick" shot, the progress of Team Stoughton, report on early playdown results and share news on the new Asian Curling Tour.

Check out this episode!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Giving Away Points at the Canadian Open

Eve Muirhead won her first Canadian Open and Brad Gushue won his second Grand slam of the year.  This year the Open added a women side to the bracket and also had a bracket.  Instead of a round robin format, qualifying came through a triple knockout format.  Unlike in a round robin where an 0-4 team still has to finish all their contests, this ensured no team would be playing without some chance of still winning the event.  By qualifying in the A side, teams were awarded hammer for the quarter finals.  Three qualifiers came from a B event (where teams had lost 1 game) and three more from the C side (teams which had lost two games).  This also meant half the field qualified for the championship rounds (16 of 32 teams).  A small wrinkle that makes the event somewhat different without really impacting the actual games.  

Another wrinkle that continues to introduce never-before-seen strategy decisions is the five rock free guard zone.  The semi-finals were all played during the same Saturday evening draw.  In the span of a few minutes, Steve Laycock and Rachel Homan both appeared to concede a stolen point in the 7th end.  Each of them were one up with hammer and rather than draw to go two up heading to the last end, chose difficult hits which were highly probable to give away points to their opponent.

In the case of Laycock, he had a possible draw to full four foot (blue line) but instead chose a hit and roll that, to score one, needed to land in an area of a few inches (green line).

Laycock is Red

Everyone in the booth was questioning this decision.  His opponent Brendan Bottcher was possibly pleased. Steve is from Saskatchewn and historically teams from that province tend to hit more often than draw (sadly, I could not find a Bob Pickering photo on the internet), but that was in the old days of curling.  These days, most any Grand Slam level skip would draw.  

Rachel Homan had a possible chance at a blank.  Facing a simple draw for one (blue line), she instead chose to try a double (green line) that could result in a blank to hold hammer one up heading to the 8th end, but also could be a likely steal.

Homan is Yellow

Team Homan was being coached by Richard Hart.  He came out and encouraged Rachel to make the call she wanted to make.  They discussed that whether she is down one or tied in the final end, she'd need to make the same draw.

Laycock and Homan ended up with victories and trips to the finals, where they both lost.  So what do I think of these calls?

Looking at 4 rock FGZ numbers (2003 to 2014), in the final end, mens teams win 76% when tied and 90% when up two without hammer.  Womens teams win 70% when tied with and 86% when up two without.  The 76% is deceiving because it includes games including weaker teams.  If we look at only Grand Slams, it's closer to 79%.  Still, not 90%.  Women's results don't show this type of difference for elite play.

So, the question is whether adding a 5th guard for a team down 2 is significant enough to overcome the gap (11% and 16%) in WE.  In the case of a tied game, the rule has no impact.  When up 2 without hammer, a team now needs to decide if they will try tick shots on corners or pile up rocks in the house or even put up a centre guard (common if they are up 1).

There could be some over thinking with both of these shots.  Both Steve and Rachel called shots which if executed would NOT result in a steal.  A made shot by either (however slim their chances) would benefit them. Their calls both removed any chance of a steal of two and in the case of Rachel, perhaps even still get a blank.

We do not have enough data yet to specifically state that the WE of a team 2 up without hammer in the final end in 5 rock FGZ is closer to the 79% or 70% WE of being tied with hammer.  We could start to look at odds to score deuces and threes in 5 rock, but that will take me too much time and I'd still rather wait until we have more data.

Let's look at the notion of tied with hammer.  The ability to make the tick shot has improved dramatically just in the past 2-3 years.  Let's look at recent data:

These are very small sample sizes (around 100 situations each) but it is clearly showing a trend for teams at the elite level.  Reason to be wary of small sample sizes: the data from 2010-2012, taken from the most elite events, is actually 10% BELOW that from Playdowns (78% from Provincial, Brier and Worlds), games which include many "B" level teams.  

If these trends hold up for larger samples, it's fair to say, for Laycock the decision was either a small mistake or fairly close to equal (with the 5 rock rule), and for Rachel given some chance at a blank, possibly close to an even decision. Given their proficiency with the tick shot, she likely expects her WE to be above 80% tied with hammer.

Top skips will almost always err on the side of having hammer.  Even when the numbers indicate otherwise, skips will make a decision that includes having the last shot.  I often argue, as in the case of "two-hammers-to-one" its importance is sometimes over emphasized.  Because of our validation of the numbers when 1 up without hammer in the final end (60% to 40%), many teams altered their strategies in the later ends. 

While we're here, let's look at recent results (again, small sample sizes) for these top events for 1 up without hammer.  We see not much has changed and results are in line with historical numbers.

Given a close decision, I understand why an elite skip wants to have the last shot: if they thought otherwise, they wouldn't be the best in the world.  In both of these situations, the odds were probably very close, we can't argue much with their preference to have hammer in the last end.  

As teams improve even further at the tick shot, I expect we may reach a point where elite level games are above 90% for tied with hammer.  There's been some discussion about potential rule changes to thwart this type of result. A "no-ticks-allowed" rule might be just around the corner. 

Of note, at some point during the mens final broadcast we were told Sundays draws were a sell out.  That is nice to hear but the chairs still appeared just over half full.  I have hope that one day a Grand Slam will be standing room only and fans will cheer loudly throughout.

Until next time...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Quick One from the Canada Cup

Why?  My wife asked this question when I told her I was headed 90 minutes away to Camrose, Alberta to watch the 2014 version of the Canada Cup.  I have a longer, more wordy and less Mathy article coming out in the next digital edition of The Curling News that elaborates on this question.  With that effort and the Canadian Open starting this week, I have little time to dig too deep into the play over the last weekend.  But I wanted to touch on the return to 10 ends, the Classic version of a free guard zone and blanking.

Ten ends seemed long.  Am I right?  It can only be a matter of time until the move to 8 ends for all events.  If not for the sake of the players than for the sake of the television viewer.  3+ hours is a long time to sit on a couch.  

The four rock free guard zone was noticeable in subtle and obvious ways.  Teams appeared to be adjusting to a more conservative approach when up without hammer.  Suprisingly, several gambling web sites had the Over/Under Totals for mens and womens games at 12.5 points.  This was a clear betting opportunity as historically we've seen mens games (and Rachel Homan's games) at 11.5 for 10 end contests.  16 of 23 mens games were under.  A $100 bet on every under could have netted around $600 return.  However, I missed out.  I didn't realize until mid-way through the event, then missed betting some later draws because of work and managed to get caught in 3 of the overs with the five bets I was able to place.  I'd be shocked if this type of opportunity comes again.

There were also more blank ends than we've seen recently.  Two in particular where rather dramatic.  During their Semi-Final, both Mike McEwen and Glenn Howard both made what could be considered "risky" attempts at a blank.  TSN announcers Russ Howard, Cheryl Bernard and Vic Rauter all shared their surpise in each case.  Where they correct decisions?

In the 3rd End, McEwen is tied with hammer, 0-0.  Glenn makes a hit and role with his last shot and Mike faces a difficult draw-tap (blue line) to get his one point.  

McEwen isYellow

The guard is long enough that he instead chooses a board weight hit and roll out (green line) to blank.  He makes the shot with a few inches to spare, but it introduced risk that Howard might steal a single point.  At this stage, a blank has a Win Expectancy (WE) of roughly 61% and taking taking one drops McEwen to about 57%.  A steal will result in a WE of 43%.  The decision appears reckless except that the shot for one is no piece of cake either.  Mike added some difficulty to the shot but as long as he get the "right miss" and ensures he removes the Howard stone, the worst outcome is taking the single point.  Hard to estimate exactly the additional risk Mike was taking, but the way he's been playing this season, you can't fault McEwen for believing it's the right call.

In the 7th End, Howard is down 3-1 with hammer and facing a McEwen stone buried in the twelve foot ring out on the wings.  

McEwen isYellow

Rather than choose the simple draw for one point (blue line), they decide to try the soft weight hit on the McEwen stone and attempt to role out for the blank (green line).  This shot does add some additional risk but they only needed to move their opponents stone a short distance, so it appeared much easier than what Mike had tried earlier.  Still, with the corner guard in front and risk of either crashing or sailing wide, it was clearly more difficult than the draw for one.  If Howard takes one their WE will be 16.5%.  By blanking they increased their odds to 19.1%.  A steal and they drop to a dismal 7%.  At first glance it looks like a poor decision but the risk in actuality seemed rather low.  Glenn should be able to remove the stone most of the time and the common miss would be sticking around for one, the same as the draw.  I've also noted before, a 2.6% difference might seem small, but as your odds decrease, every chance to increase WE has a greater advantage.  Similar to how chips in a poker tournament are worth more as you have fewer, the same situation for WE.  Another way to consider the situation.  A 2.6% increase over 16.5% is 16% improvement.  That same 2.6% change in McEwen's WE only amounts to about 3% difference.

I enjoy 5 rock FGZ and 8 end games, but that semi-final (and Howard versus Koe in the round robin) were fantastic games with tension throughout.  Maybe there's room for more than one type of game. Maybe we could even go back to a 3 rock event, or even a no guard zone but all teams need to use corn brooms.  The possibilities are endless.

Next stop, The Canadian Open.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Aggression is the Better Part of Valor

What?  Aggression?  That's not right!  The correct phrase is "Discretion"...yadayada, "Valor" (or, if you're Canadian, "Valour").  Then again, at least one site tells me that Shakespeare was simply telling another one of his hilarious jokes.  Much of Elizabethan literature is lost in translation these days, but it's fair to say that William may have been the Stephen Colbert of his time.

There were several aggressive decisions made during the second Grand Slam of the season, The National, won by Mike "Money" McEwen.   Many of these choices were made by the winning squad, others by their finals opponent, Brad Jacobs.  Perhaps it's the 5 rock Free Guard Zone rule or maybe just evolution by the Next Generation, but there were some calls we may not have seen even 2 to 3 years ago.  Jacobs and McEwen are currently the top two teams in the world and given their level of play, it's difficult to argue with their on ice decisions.  That didn't stop Joan McCusker, Mike Harris and Kevin Martin in the Sportsnet booth from wondering aloud if several calls were correct and it certainly won't stop me from digging a little deeper to see if these squads are winning because of or in spite of their on ice strategy.

Round Robin: McEwen vs Jeff Stoughton
In the Second End, McEwen is down 1 and could play a tap for a single point to tie the game (blue line) but instead chooses to try a double for two or three (green line).

McEwen is Yellow

The tap is not automatic but the double is very difficult.  The rock was almost fully buried and Mike needed the right combination of line and weight to make the shot.  The attempt was missed by a fraction and a steal of one was the result.

Let's use a quick method of estimating this shot. Imagine you are the skip, standing on the ice in a nearly empty arena and watching the time clock tick away.   There is no excel spreadsheet available and you will need to do math in your head, just like in junior high.  With 6 ends remaining, the Win Expectancy (WE) for a team without hammer tied, 1 up and 2 up is 38%, 57% and 75%, respectively. Let's round those to 40, 60 and 75.  If your opponent steals your WE becomes 1-.75 = 25%.

Let's assume you make the tap almost every time.  That leaves you with a WE of 38% (call it 40). Start by guessing an equal chance for every outcome (steal 1, take 2 or take 3).  Multiply each WE by 1/3 (round quickly) and add them together.  7.5+20+25 = 52.5.  Presto!  That's better than taking a single.  Even if you surrender a steal one in three attempts, it's the correct decision, if you can get the full 3 points one in three tries.

Astute readers will notice that there is some chance of a steal of 2.  If Mike hits the guard he'll drop to a 17% WE.  Granted, there is also a risk for a steal of 2 with the tap back.  In fact, given his previous rock appeared to grab, it's the second end and early in the event so ice conditions are still being evaluated, you might argue the hit is the safer shot.  Kevin Martin and Mike Harris discussed the call at the beginning of the next end and both felt it may have been the wrong decision, figuring Mike would make the tap 95% of the time.  Even if Mike does make the tap that often, given his abilities, I believe he chose the correct call.  However, changing the weight from firm board to normal hit (a decision made from the hack) may have been a mistake and decreased his chances of making the shot.

In the Fifth End McEwen now has a 3-2 lead without hammer.   Rather than hitting and possibly rolling to sit two (blue line), Mike choses to attempt a draw to sit one (green line).

McEwen is Yellow

A very aggressive call.  With the amount of curl in this spot, he's able to bury past the guard but the length of the guard and large amount of curl also leaves Jeff a chance to follow him with a soft take-out or attempt a long runback to possibly score two points. Stoughton misses the hit attempt and McEwen steals to go up 4-2.

I'm not entirely certain why Mike would attempt this shot.  It appeared he could get his final rock in the same spot by making a hit and roll, removing any chance for a deuce.  Perhaps he was concerned a failed roll would leave Jeff a possible double for two.  McEwen could have stuck on the nose and a double would not have been possible but a single for Jeff would have been nearly automatic. Mike may have been more comfortable with ice and conditions for the draw vs the hit and roll.  One last, not very likely explanation, Mike had a brain fart and thought he was sitting shot stone.  A surprising decision that worked out in the end. The WE moved from 65% to 81% by stealing rather than forcing Jeff to 1.  If Stoughton had scored 2, McEwen's WE would have dropped to 37%.  Using our head math from before, if Mike is able to steal 50% of the time and Jeff gets two the other half, it's approximately equal to the hit (1/2 of 80 + 1/2 of 40 = 60).  Given that Jeff will sometimes still only get 1 point, The steal chance could be less than half in order to be the correct call.  I appreciate aggressive play but suspect the decision here may have introduced more risk than was necessary.  

With hammer in the Extra End, rather than peel a centre guard, McEwen chose to draw around and sit two in the four foot.  He slipped a foot heavy and actually left Stoughton some hope.

McEwen is Yellow

Jeff's final rock lost its handle, perhaps because of a pick, and McEwen took the win without having to throw his last shot.  The draw around vs peel tied with 3 rocks to go, attempting to get position before your opponent, is a play more often seen in the women's game.  I was surprised at the call, as were the commentators, but Mike may have felt his second shot, sitting top four foot in the open, would provide an angle raise if needed.

Championship Final: Mike McEwen vs Brad Jacobs
This was a fascinating game that was filled with aggressive calls right from the beginning.  In the very First End, rather than draw for a single (blue line), McEwen chooses to try an angle raise for 2 points (green line). Our panel of experts in the booth are surprised by the call.  The result is a missed shot, a steal of one and an early lead for Jacobs.

McEwen is Red

Let's evaluate the risk in this decision and decide if it is the correct call.  Naturally, if Mike expects to make a 30 degree angle raise of 12 feet 100% of the time, it is clearly the right decision.  I expect team McEwen recognizes this is a difficult shot and they are taking some risk at an attempt to gain early control.

How difficult is this shot?  Every curling shot has a margin of error.  For big weight hits, where a rock is moving nearly straight, you can start to examine the margin as a physics problem of angles.  I could not find any studies on the impact of curling rocks (please let me know of any), but I did find this study on pool.  Essentially, the further you move from a nose hit the less margin for error.  Also, the angle of approach (based on the target stone being a centre or corner guard) will also reduce the margin for error.  The final chart (copied below) shows how the margin of error will decrease based on the angle of impact.

From the results they describe two examples:
a straight-in shot is 1.15X (15%) easier than a 30 degree cut angle shot.
a straight-in shot is 1.97X (97%) easier than a 60 degree cut angle shot. 
A straight back raise is generally 80-85% successful at this level.  If we assume Mike is on the higher end, and we estimate an angle of 30 degree, then his success rate will be approximately 74%.   Keep in mind, I have over simplified this for the purpose of discussion and I'm using a pool study to apply to curling, but it does appear to make sense.
If McEwen draws for the single their WE is 61%.  With the raise attempt, three likely outcomes will occur:
Mike misses and Jacobs steals 1 (WE = 43%).  
Mike is able to contact the Jacobs stone and remove it, but also rolls out and scores 1 (WE = 61%).  
Mike makes the shot and scores 2 (WE = 74%).

Like above, let's start by guessing there is an equal chance for each outcome.

WE = (.43+.61+.74)/3 = .59

That's 59% or nearly the same as the WE of a draw for 1.  That's not even taking into account the odds of making the draw to the full four foot in the first end (Kevin mentions it's likely 85 or 90%).  A high percentage shot, but certainly not automatic.

Mike is betting on his odds of hitting and removing the stone in the rings greater than 2/3 the time he attempts the shot, and sticking around half the time he's successful.  Based on a pulled-out-of-my-rear pool analogy, appears to be a reasonable call.

Perhaps team McEwen has been practicing these types of shots, and this is simply an indicator of the future of the game.

In the Second End, McEwen is now one down with hammer.  On his final shot there appears to be a simple draw for two points (blue line).  Instead, Mike chooses a hit attempt on a partially open stone for three (or the same deuce if he rolls too far).

McEwen is Red

The result is a shade light and/or a fraction wide.  McEwen hits the yellow Jacob stone but spins away and sits 3rd and 4th shot by an inch.

At first glance, I liked the call.  There was still a high probability of two and even if you miss (which he did) you're tied without hammer and 3/4 of the game still to come. So what do the numbers say?
Three possible outcomes, McEwen will score 1, 2 or 3.  Each results in a WE for McEwen of 43%, 62% or 75%, respectively.

Let's use thirds again to start the analysis.
WE = (.43+.62+.75)/3 = .6

Low and behold, this is nearly the same as if they draw for two to go one up.  It is McEwen's analysis of the ice (Mike Harris mentions it's a fresh spot) and confidence in weight that will determine his assessment of his chances.  I tend to think he's getting two or three more than 66% of the time and was just unfortunate with the result (missed it by a fraction of an inch).  If we assume that will occur 80% of the time, he only needs to make a trey 20% of the time for the call to be correct.

Announcers Kevin Martin, Mike Harris and Joan MCusker were not as forgiving of this call and all suggested during the start of the next end that McEwen should have drawn for two.  Words like "boost" and "momentum" were used, interestingly just as Jacob's second E.J. Harndon flashed a hit.  
Momentum is one of the most overused word in sports yet has the least amount of measurable impact on a result at a highly competitive level.  I share the same thoughts of Grantland NFL writer Bill Barnwell, who has written often about momentum and discussed it at length following the Raven's Super Bowl win in 2013.  In a non-contact sport like curling, it doesn't fundamentally exist, except related to the movement of the rock down the sheet or transferred during a take-out.  The idea is, given the bad situation that occurred (held to 1 point instead of scoring 2), one team will now rise to the occasion and play better than they had and the other team will be distraught and lose their focus. You could sell me on the idea of the latter under the right circumstance (Olympic Gold Medal game) or era (before curlers became althletes), but to consider that a team suddenly improves from their expected abilities is simply folly.

Sorry, my son's new favorite show is Top Gear and words like "folly", "brilliant" and "rubish" have now taken hold of my internal lexicon.

On the final shot of the Fifth End, McEwen, now tied 2-2 with hammer, chooses to run back his own centre guard onto a Jacobs rock sitting on the pin.  Given the amount of curl, a draw tap for one point would not have been difficult.  Mike Harris and Kevin Martin comment that this is not a common choice and McEwen is keeping a potential blank in play (in fact, his preferred outcome).  Given his abilities to make runbacks (as stated earlier, likely 85% or even higher) it's not a very dangerous call, but it may not be the best choice.  Assuming he'd make the draw for one 90-95% of the time, he's not giving away very much and is adding a chance to blank, which nets him an extra 4% WE (65% to 61%).  He might be anxious to hold hammer in the 6th to have "Two-Hammer-To-One". I've spoken previously about this approach (most notably in my book End Game, click on the link above to get yourself a copy) and I'd suggest most teams at this level against similar competition should not introduce additional risk in order to be in this position.  Harris and Martin are, reasonably, estimating the average skip of this calibre will make the draw tap more often than the raise, so it's usually going to be the incorrect call (though not by much).  If Mike McEwen believes his odds are equal to make either shot, he should play the raise.

McEwen scores one and goes up 3-2 heading to the sixth end.

In the Seventh End it's Brad Jacob's turn to try the "risky" shot for two rather than draw for one point (blue line) to tie.  Down 3-2, rather than be forced to a single and face an unlikely steal in the final end (20% WE), they choose the runback attempt (green line).

Jacobs is Yellow  

Brad chooses to play control weight and the result is a soft glance on the shot stone but they fail to move it far enough and McEwen  steals 1 point.  This appeared to be a difficult shot. Jacob's rock sitting top eight appeared to almost and reduce chance of hitting the red stone on the inside.

Two down playing the last end, WE is 11%.  Tied without hammer is 20%.  One up without hammer is 58%.  I'll spare you the formulas, but if Brad can get a deuce even 1 in 5 tries and only gets a single 2 in 5 (a steal happens 40% of the time), then it's clearly the correct call (WE=24%).

It's important to mention that these Win Expectancy numbers are based on over a decade of 4 Rock Free Guard Zone.  The 5 Rock Rule that is now being played during Grand Slams does not have enough data to be meaningful, but we can expect some adjustment in favour of the team that is down with hammer in all situations above.  This should give even more support for some of what appears to be "riskier" decisions.

One more great aspect of the 5 Rock Rule. Just as I was about to turn the channel after the 7th end, I couldn't.  Jacob's odds to win aren't much better than 11% (even if they take two they are in the same position as the 4 Rock Rule in the extra end).  However, 5 Rock FGZ final ends play out dramtically and there always seems to be something to watch.  In this case, Brad had an angle raise double to tie the game and barely missed it.  Entertaining.

All this discussion of aggression and risk got me to thinking about some new statistics.  If the data was captured, it would be fairly simple to track the risk factor of skips.  In ends where a decision on the final shot will determine 1,2 or even 3 outcomes, vs a simpler shot that will likely be a single outcome (usually a force to one), a measurement of the difference in WE could be calculated to see how much "risk" a particluar skip is willing to take on.  I'll ponder this one a little more, talk with Gerry at CurlingZone and come up with something for another day.  For now I'm tired and need to get a good nights rest to prepare for a full slate of NFL Football during U.S. Thanksgiving (minus the Turduckin).

Until Next Time...

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Grand Slam Season Begins

The days are growing shorter, the trees have gone bare, my golf course has closed, my hammock has gone back in the garage, and the first of the season's Grand Slams has ushered us into another Canadian winter.  Sure, the snow has held off for now, much to my snowboarding son's disappointment, but without baseball playoffs or quality Sunday night TV to distract me, there are no excuses for not producing another CWM article.

It will take me some time to get interested in curling again.  Olympic years seem to barrage us with copious amounts of on and off-ice activity.  It's the part of the roller coaster when you've left the highest point and are heading at top speed towards the first double loop.  The year-after-the-Olympic year becomes that point where you've reached the end of the ride and are deciding what to do next.  Should you get back in line? Move to a ride that moves at a more reasonable speed for your age?  Or maybe take a break and gorge yourself on the enourmous leg of a holiday bird?

This year seems even more strange.  Kevin Martin has left the ice and slid into a rather crowded broadcasting booth.  Glenn Howard was not in the playoffs at this week's Masters, but instead had his new "old" team likely at the chiropractor following their exit from the event.  Jeff Stoughton has a new team, including a front end that is too young to even remember when their skipper had hair like the Andy Travis character on WKRP.  They likely don't even know what a WKRP is for that matter.  

All other photos of this quaff appear to have been deleted from the internet 

We could even say that Brad Gushue, winner of his second Grand Slam, has ascended to become one of the old guard on tour.  He still looks young enough to be the guy that comes once a week to mow your lawn.  Ok, maybe the guy that collects the money for the guy that mows your lawn.  Gushue's opponent in the finals of the Masters, Manitoba's yes-they-stayed-together McEwen squad, failed to win their 5th straight event to start the season, losing only their third game in the process.  They look like the guys that are too cool to mow lawns.  

On the women's side, the finals between semi-finalists Homan and Jones that sponsors and SportsNet likely wished for, did not take place. Instead we settled for a Val Sweeting victory over that Swedish team with the long name that can be trouble pronouncing (Margaretha Sigfridsson).  Sweeting was assisted by late pick-up Cathy Overton-Clapham, who happened to be in the neighbourhood.  

As mentioned earlier, Rogers coverage now includes Kevin Martin in the broadcast booth.  KMart seemed to do fine but I'm not a fan of all four personalities involved with the same game at once.  Often the commentary became crowded and on various occaisions, each of Mike, Joan and Kevin took turns being the Ed McMahon character, re-stating what had just been said.  

I had mixed impressions of the attempt to cover four games at once.  Jumping to the last few shots of an end was like televised poker and only watching races between a middle pair and Ace-King.  In order to create drama, it's necessary to watch how an end develops, and not simply skip to the action at the end.  Where's the tension? Where's the build up?  Perhaps they'll get better over time but I'd prefer to see SportsNet use some of those extra channels to show more than one game per draw.  And while I'm complaining, why is it, despite a dozen sport channels, Canada did not broadcast Ole Miss vs Auburn last Saturday?  And another thing SportsNet, why were several baseball playoff games only broadcast on the MLB channel and not available in Western Canada!?! "Every inning" my a....  

Whew. Deep breath. Ok, that's enough of that.  

Before we get any further, if you haven't already done so, please check out the link above to my book "End Game: An Olympic Viewer's Guide to Curling".  Available at many fine online retailers.  

On to the games.

Men's Semi-Final: Mike McEwen vs Brad Jacobs

The critical second end was interesting as it demonstrated how misdirection can create opportunity.  McEwen is down 1-0 with hammer.  With third B.J. Neufeld's last rock of the end, rather than make a play onto shot stone (red line) they chose to play to the opposite side of the sheet and sit second or possibly third (green line):

McEwen is Red

There was some discussion, so it didn't appear that Mike had a clear motive with this call, but the result tempted Jacobs to play down with his first skip rock and try to freeze onto third shot.  Brad may have been better off trying a hit and roll on the red stone covering his shot rock.  It was difficult and he may have moved his shot stone, but the result of a freeze keeps two McEwen stones in play.  Brad makes a decent shot, perhaps bumping the McEwen stone too far but no one seemed concerned at the time.  Mike then plays the tap back onto shot stone and now sits first, third and fourth:

Jacobs is left with a draw around centre or a hit on third shot, in an attempt to remove shot stone. They choose the draw and fail to bury, leaving a thin double for four points.  Surprisingly, McEwen intially considers a nose hit for two, but elects to try for the big end and makes it.  I'll spare you the math but needless to say the hit for four is almost automatic in my assesment.  McEwen sat second so even a poor shot could result in one point.  The advantage of four is significant and the hit for two was not so certain.  Any roll either way would result in only one point.

How could Jacobs have avoided this end?  The freeze initally appeared to be a good shot but in fact landed in a poor spot.  Looking at a double on his last, Jacobs could not play the easier double on the high side as it would likely jam and leave McEwen a draw for three.  If Jacobs had played a hit on second shot initially, it could remove a red stone but still leave them in some difficulty.  It would have been easier for Brad to bail out and surrender a deuce however, rather than face a possible four spot against.  His final draw, even if made, could easily leave a shot for two or possible double for three.  I may have preferred trying to double the two red on the inside but they seemed reluctant, perhaps because of concern with the ice.  Not a clear decision and pressure on Brad to be perfect, otherwise risk a big score for Mike, all started by McEwen playing away from the shot stone.

I don't want to pile on SportsNet, they have made considerable investment in curling (despite not including it on their mobile app) and I want them to succeed.  But one of their video staff needs some additional training.  In the second end, the score is displayed as 0-0 when it is in fact 1-0.  Later on, McEwen is shown in a smiling photo as playing against Gushue, rather than Jacobs.  Perhaps less announcers and more graphics people? Ok, I'll stop now...

Men's Semi-Final:  Brad Gushue vs John Epping

In the first end Epping has hammer and after a roll-out on Gushue's first stone, is able to draw and sit two.  Both Kevin Martin and Mike Harris comment that it is perhaps a risky call to go around centre (green line) rather than draw to the open one final time (red line).

Gushue is Yellow

Which is the correct call?  A deuce will give Epping a 74% WE with 7 ends remaining.  If they are able to score three it increases to 85%.  If we assume a draw to the wings will nearly always result in a deuce, and the draw around centre will result in a force 1 in 5 attempts, a three needs to be succesul 30% of the time for it to be the correct call.  Even with a perfect come around, Gushue has a good chance to runback his own centre guard and take away the three ender.  Granted, a draw to wings will not always score two, but the draw around centre can also introduce the chance of a steal.  These Win Expectancy numbers are based on over a decade of 4-rock rules and this event is being played under the 5-rock rule, as will future Grand Slams.  We'll have to wait on the data but I'd suspect a score of three this early has slightly less significance under the new rules, as a team will have a better chance to come from behind.  If Epping feels that Gushue is the stronger team, this risk may still be correct, but I'd suspect they would be considered close to equal and the alternative decision, to draw to the open side, was likely the better play.

Women's Semi-Final: Val Sweeting vs Rachel Homan

Sweeting is tied 1-1 without hammer in the 5th end, facing the house below on thirds final shot. Joan comments that it was a strange decision for Val to hit (red line) rather than draw to sit 2 (blue or green line).  

Sweeting is Red

The mistake with hitting is perhaps more a fault of playing to the side with the corner guard.  Even if succesful, Rachel will be playing around the corner guard and now have a potential catcher at the back of the rings.  I prefer Val to play away to the open side (green line).  With only 5 more rocks to come they are more likely to keep a deuce out of play.  Granted, Homan may choose a draw any way, but the back yellow will not come into play in that case.

Cathy rolls out with the hit attempt and Homan calls for a draw around the corner (blue line).  Third Emma Miskew comes light with the attempt and eventually Rachel is forced to a single.  Kevin Martin suggests Rachel should have instead tried the runback, to increase the chance of a blank, giving them hammer with 3 ends to play.

I've written before on the dangers of over emphasizing the benefit of two-hammers-to-one.  Looking at Win Expectancy for Womens teams, it is only a 3% advantage for Rachel to be tied rather than up one without hammer in the 6th end.  At this late stage of the end, Rachel should consider if she has a reasonable chance to score two.  If a two is unlikely, it is clearly better to blank than to be forced to one and the likelyhood of a steal also is minimized if not eliminated.  Let's expect the runback to be succesful 2/3rds of the time, and assume this always results in a blank.  If we assume a come around never results in a steal (ie. Rachel will always make her draw to the open four foot for 1 point) then she only needs to get a deuce 1% of the time for the draw to be correct.  Even if we add in a 5% chance of a steal and increase the runback odds to 80%, she only needs to score two 7% of the time for the call to be correct.

Based on the numbers, I believe Rachel made the correct call. 

Men's Finals: Brad Gushue vs Mike McEwen

Gushue manages to score 4 points to go up 6-2 in the 5th end.  The 5 rock rule comes into play in the 6th end and Brad has to decide what to do with his teams fourth stone.

Gushue is Yellow

There is some discussion and Gushue finally decides to put up another guard.  Recall, they have a 4 point lead and less than 3 ends remain.  With the 5-rock rule, teams should be aware of this situation and better prepared on how they want to proceed.  In Brad's case, an ugly mess is the result and eventually McEwen is able to score a miracle 4 to tie the game.  Team Gushue does a great job of regaining their composure, rebounding with a deuce the next end and holding on for the victory.  Next time, I suspect Brad may choose to peel the guards instead of adding to the pile up front.

Next stop: The National, in Sault Ste. Marie

Saturday, March 29, 2014

ATH, 03/27/14: Between Two Worlds

Jordan is joined by Gerry and Kevin just after the Women's Worlds and before the start of the Men's World Championships.  They discuss Rachel Homan's surprising loss and the process of World and Olympic qualification in Switzerland and other countries.  They cover some of the changes and challenges in USA Curling. Note: Due to technical difficulties the podcast was cut short and discussion on team rumors and Brier relegation were lost.  The boys hope to be back next week with those topics and more.

Check out this episode!

ATH, 03/27/14: In Between Worlds

Jordan is joined by Gerry and Kevin just after the Women's Worlds and before the start of the Men's World Championships.  They discuss Rachel Homan's surprising loss and the process of World and Olympic qualification in Switzerland and other countries.  They cover some of the changes and challenges in USA Curling. Note: Due to technical difficulties the podcast was cut short and discussion on team rumors and Brier relegation were lost.  The boys hope to be back next week with those topics and more.

Check out this episode!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ambition and Achievement

I just finished watching the first season of Showtime's "Masters of Sex".  It follows the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and their ground breaking research on human sexuality that began in 1956.  It's been renewed for a second season and I highly recommend it to most people over the age of 21.  I just listened to a recent Andy Greenwald podcast from Grantland with show runner Michelle Ashford.  With about 9 minutes remaining, she talks about Virginia Johnson, her motives and a major theme of the show.  From the interview:

"It's about ambition and the notion of a woman being ambitious is horrifying in the 50s and even very uncomfortable today.  The idea of a woman being sort of nakedly ambitious kind of sets everyone's teeth on edge.  In men it can be considered attractive and viral while in women it's kind of considered gross or unbecoming"

Michelle's words immediately hit me. Jennifer Jones.  Not just Jennifer herself but the perception of her by media and fans.  Why is an ambitious women so clearly attacked and scorned while an ambitious man is seen as driven and determined.  Over the years, Jennifer has removed players on her team, including popular third Cathy Overton-Clapham.  These moves have met with outrage, some of which continues today, yet Jeff Stoughton dismisses his long time lead Steve Gould and there is no more than a murmur, which goes quietly away within a short time.  Brad Gushue drops players as often as Bill Belichik, but their goals are the same, to win. A gold medal in Turin with Russ Howard was met with cheers rather than jeers.  Kevin Martin has a few bumps in his legacy (just ask Randy Ferbey).  Personnel issues,  financial dealings and even being booed at the 1991 World's in Winnipeg, all incidents of the past that aren't part of the current conversation.

Jennifer is still disliked by some who think her treatment of Cathy was unfair.  They forget that sport is about winning and the decision was likely harder for Jen than they realize.  I'm not saying I agree with Jennifer's moves or the manner in which she dealt with her decision, but why should I hold it against her more than I would her male counterparts?  That is her business and the effects on her relationships with friends and peers are hers to deal with. But it's clear to me the opinions of Jennifer, and their strength and longevity, are influenced by the fact "she" is not a "he".  

Why can't we be comfortable with a woman who is driven to succeed?  Does society really feel this way about women?

Colleen Jones, announcing the non-Canada semi-final, remarked on Jennifer's change in demenour after having given birth.  Would she or anyone else make the same statement about a man?  The comments were meant to be positive but why do we consider Jen's transition from cold hearted competitor to nuturing mother to be worth discussing?  Does it make us like her more to imagine her as caring rather than driven to succeed on her own terms?  

I see Rachel Homan at an early age coming under similar scrutiny.  Before she entered the media scrum after the Trials semi-final, someone made an off-hand joke about Rachel that was (to be honest, funny), but rude and thoughtless (something about strangling kittens maybe, but I don't recall exactly).   Doubtful anyone would make a similar joke about a man in that situation.

Congratulations Jennifer.  You worked hard for this achievement. You have earned it.  Your effort, determination, and ambition is admired.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is a bitter, sad little troll who requires counselling for their inability to deal with their own regrets in life.

Other teams and countries still have ambition to claim medals.  What a single game can mean...

Bronze medal for Rui Liu, or even a close contest against Sweden's defending World champions, will show the world the Chinese men's program has reached a different level and this week was not just a fluke.  It may also help spark actual participation in a country with 1.3 billion people but only 5 curling clubs and 300 teams.  

Gold for Canada will silence critics who say the grassroots of Canadian curling is in decline and it's unable to nuture new champions to rival the country's aging stars. It could also mean future curlers will look more like hockey players than school guidance counselors. 

Gold for Great Britain will end the not-so-silent whispers about a sinister backroom program with too much money and power.  It will justify the act of players being chosen and slotted in by coaches and sport managers, the way Tywin Lannister controls his own children.  What if Thomas Ulsrud makes the open hit on his last shot in the 10th end?  Murdoch most likely loses, fails to medal, and the decisions and structure of the Scottish program would be under scrutiny.  Instead, a silver is assured and a gold will silence the critics who believe curlers should establish and develop curling teams.

A bronze for Sweden will be a nice consolation prize.  They may have been the best top to bottom team this week and like the Swedish womens teams who've been in the last 3 Olympic and World finals, they will return.

A few game notes from today:

1. Tied without hammer, Sweden chose not to play a centre guard in the 6th and 7th ends of their game against Canada.  Apparently they were running into clock trouble, but to allow them both to be blanked, even hitting a tight guard late in the 6th, was dumfounding.  Sweden might point to the pick or key misses late as the difference, but strategy didn't help their cause either.

2.  Kaitlyn Lawes first shot in the 9th end received cheers and high fives all around, but it was likely not the best call.  Rather than peel out the Swedish shot stone (green line), Jennifer could have attempted to hit and stay, while doubling off her own stone in the back four foot (blue line).  

Canada is Yellow

After Swedish third Christina Bertrup makes a tap back,  Lawes hits and rolls away, leaving another catcher back four foot, failing to block the draw path or to remove that same catcher.  If Bertrup had made the freeze on her last shot rather than sailing between the yellow stones and through the rings, the end and game could have been very different.

3. Worst line call of the Olympics.  Sweden's double for four in the 5th end was easier than it appeared and actually overcurled, with the sweepers held off until nearly the hog line.  

4. In the 7th end, 1 up without hammer, Switzerland benefits from a miss by Scotland third Anna Sloan (her draw sails through the house). Ott decides to peel the corner guard while sitting one top eight foot.  In fact they double off their own rock by accident.  Not certain I like this decision.  The Swiss are choosing to allow a blank rather than go for a force, but they may not have as good an opportunity later.  In fact they end up in a mess next end and Scotland gets a key deuce on their way to the bronze medal..

Congratulations to all the medal winners and good luck to the men tomorrow (or is it today?).

Curling's Final Eight

It's not really the semi-finals as much as two final fours, played out to determine who gets the top prize (gold) and who gets nothing (loser of the bronze medal game).   The advantage of being 1st place is not much better than the otehr three teams in your bracket.  There is usually little difference between the quality of the third and fourth ranked team and all your hard work has given you hammer, which heps, but doesn;t give you an extra life should you stumble.   

Niklas Edin of Sweden lost just one round robin game only to match-up against a scrappy Scotland Great Britain squad that has more pedigree over the last few years than the third place team from China.  Jennifer Jones of Canada went undefeated and her gift was last rock against Eve Muirhead and her defending World Championship team. 

I think the page system is a more equitable process but you can't knock this for excitement. Who said the Olympics were fair?  I watched Snowboard Cross with my son and every other heat the guy in second or third got knocked out by another rider and last place boarders snuck into the next round.  No recourse for the guy who was caught up in the collision, just a high five hand slap at the finish line, if he makes it there without a stretcher.  (Reminder to self, need to get my son to the curling rink and away from his snowboard).

Let's get to it:


1. Sweden (Margaretha Sigridfisson) vs Switzerland (Mirjam Ott).

These two teams met in the 2012 World finals with the Swiss winning gold.  It was the third ever win in the event for Switzerland but first in 30 years.  The only word I can use to describe this game is four letters, begins with "U", and comes before Betty  in the title of an ABC dramedy from the late 2000s.
Tied 3-3 in the 7th end.  Sweden has hammer and Ott has to decide what to do with her first sone, sitting one back button:

Sweden is Red

They decide to play a guard (green line).  The come around (blue line) is another option, though it's a difficult shot to not leave a raise double.  The in-turn draw was also an option, for Ott and for Sweden on their next shot.  It was difficult to guard the raise and the draw.  The actual result, the guard over curled and left a draw.  Sweden was able to move the Swiss stone off the button and eventually left with a draw for two, but Prytz was heavy and Sweden only gets a single point

Sweden, down 1 with hammer in the 9th end, looks to be in trouble but Ott misses a double on her last and allows the Swedes to get their deuce.

The final end had some wild swings with several missed shots.  Ott ends up with a possible split to win but she is wide and heavy and actually slides through the hosue and hands Sweden the win.

A sloppy game that didn't give anyone the impression Canada's gold hopes are in jeopardy but anytthing can happen in a single game. Speaking of Ms. Jones...

2. Canada (Jennifer Jones) vs Great Britain (Eve Muirhead)

Jennifer receives an early gift when Eve's open hit attempt picks and Canada takes an opening deuce.  Difficult to overcome, especially with Canada playing so efficiently, stealing a single in the second end to go up 3-0.

After a deuce to bounce back, GB had a chance to possibly steal but Eve opens up shot stone while attempting to come through a port and Canada is able to escape with a single.

Down 5-3 with hammer in the 7th, second for Canada Jill Officer misses and GB decides to try and hit to sit two with their final front end stone (below).  Second Vicki Adams rolls out of play and the end is eventually blanked.

Canada is Red

This is a poor decision.  It is too early to come into the rings, unless they chose to try a freeze, but the best call is likely a corner guard.  Perhaps this decision is driven by a Great Britain coaching influence to have hammer in the 8th and 10th ends (see men's game below).  If so, they are overdoing it and might want to read my ebook for a second opinion (web links available at top of page above).

In the 8th end, they again hit in the rings early on Vicki's first when they could have chosen to place corner guards, a freeze or some other type of draw-tap to keep rocks in play.  They actually get another open hit miss from Jill Officer, and, rather than play out of the rings, tap or freeze, they decide to runback their own with take-out weight.  As announcer Mike Harris says, GB is not being patient and though they sit 3 now, there is plenty of time for Canada to make doubles and escape from danger.  Which they do and the result is a blank.

Again in the 9th end, Muirhead has opportunity, but on third Anna Sloan's first they chose to hit to sit first and third rather than freeze or even guard their own rock.  Canada third Kaitlyn Lawes makes the double and Great Britain is left with attempts to freeze on a single rock and eventually Eve is forced to one.  Up 1 with hammer in the final end, Canada makes no mistake (two tick-shots by lead Dawn McEwen), and Jones remains undefeated, heading to the gold medal game.

Over three ends (7, 8 and 9) while down 2 with hammer, Muirhead was unable to create guards or freezes in order to score two, despite two open misses by their opposition's second. Canada played well but this was a game where poor strategy may have played a part in Great Britain not putting themselves in a position to potentially win.


3. Canada (Brad Jacobs) vs China (Liu Rui)

I wonder how many million people watched this game right and what percentage actually knew what was meant by the "hammer".  First end, China goes in to the top four foot and Canada puts up a corner guard rather than the customary settle-our-nerves-and-hit-out-first-end-for-blank.  Nice.

In the 3rd end, Rui makes a freeze on his last but a runback is available and Canaada scores a fist pumping, Austin Powers scream worthy "yah-baby" two points.  Canada leads 3-1.

Plenty of poor shots by China but they hang in and are tied without hammer playing the 7th end.  China has a guard attempt come into the rings on third's first rock and eventually it sets up a difficult position on skips first shot:

Canada is Red

Rui decides to draw down to the Canada stone (green line) but as announcer MIke Harris points out, most any location will leave a double.  Rui is 6 inches short and Jacobs makes the double.  Not an obvious decision, but China could have avoided this by trying a split on their own rock and roll into the four foot (blue line).  A very difficult shot but perhaps the only way to avoid a deuce by Canada.  

The original mistake was playing a hit and roll behind with their previous rock.  A shot they high fived.  An example of not seeing the potential danger two shots ahead, though many teams (including top Canadian skips) would have missed this as well.

On Rui's last we get to hear China's coach, Canadian Marcel Rocque, and I like how he doesn't tell them what to do, he helps them decide what decision to make.  He sounds just like a grade school teacher.  I wonder what he did before coaching, or his days of tossing lead stones for the Ferbey Four?  

Unfortunately for China they miss a double attempt to cut Canada down to two.  The result is three and after a deuce by Rui in the 8th end, Jacobs cracks another three in the 9th to seal the victory.

4. Sweden (Niklas Edin) vs Great Britain (David Murdoch)

I really enjoyed the announcers on the BBC feed, broadcast online by CBC/TSN/SportsNet. It's a universal truth that, for those in North America, British accents make something sound more important, perhaps more regal.  That's why historical dramas always work better using British actors, even if they're playing Italians.

The Ray Turnbull role is played by Jackie Lockhart, Women's World Champion skip in 2002, and also inventor of the term "boob weight" (yes, wikipedia has everything!).  Her colleague Steve Cram, a former runner who won silver in the 1984 Olympics, plays the Vic Rauter role.  At one point Steve suggested Edin might actually allow Murdoch to steal and take a 2 point lead in the 7th end, so they could have hammer in the 8th. (What?)  Jackie was very polite and suggested not a pertinent move.  I even heard a couple of Duguidisms from Steve (he's off....he's missed, he's made it! a great shot!).  Cram became more emotional as the game wore on and his national pride could be felt as he gave up being impartial (assuming he ever was) during the broadcast.  I loved it.  I might have to watch the BBC coverage for the finals and record Mike and Joan for later viewing.

In the 8th end, tied 3-3 without hammer, Edin faces this with his first shot:

Edin is Red

Niklas tries to hit his stone directly on the nose and leave his two rocks one on top of the other (green line).  This is a very difficult shot that will leave Murdoch with a double nearly every time.  If made well it could require Murdoch to roll out rather than give him a chance to roll behind the corner guard.  As it was, the right side to miss on was the corner guard side so the roll would have to go to the open.  I prefer trying to roll the shooter and split the rings (blue line).  This is not as simple as it looks however.  If not perfectly placed, you still could leave a chance for GB to hit and roll behind cover and be shot.  Also likely you will leave a double in many cases as well.

A couple of shots later, Murdoch has an open hit that will allow him to blank the end.  After deliberating with his team, they decide instead to hit for a single point and head to the 9th end up 1 without hammer.  Another application of the "Two Hammers to One" theory.  I recently wrote a research paper for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference which examined this theory and plan to include an excerpt in a future article.  For now, I'll give you the quick summary.

Great Britain made the wrong decision.

I always clarify that statistics are a baseline to begin your analysis.  Other factors and conditions can lead you to make various decisions, some which aren't supported by the numbers.  In this situation, I am 99.99% certain it is the wrong decision.

For historical data, looking at over 20,000 games from all teams, the numbers show taking 1 dropped GB Win Expectancy (WE) from 66.4% (with a blank) to 62.9%.  This data has a 95% confidence interval of +/- 1.4%.  That means 95% of the time we expect the results to land within 1.4% of that number.

But this is data for all teams and Edin and Murdoch are elite level teams, much better than average. 

The recent study showed that elite teams (using Martin, Stoughton, Howard, McEwen and Koe) resulted in a difference of 6% (.76 vs .7).  This was a fairly large sample size. But that is against all competition.
For head-to-head between these 5 teams, it is actually a difference of 8.3%! (.643 vs .560).  This is still too small a sample size to believe the specific results, but it appears clear that Murdoch made a mistake.

It's important to note the mistake is still small and Edin's mistake in missing the shot for 3 in the 6th end shifted the game much more significantly.  If Edin takes 1, his WE becomes 60% instead of 40% and if he scores 2 or 3 it goes to 80% or 91%.

Interestingly, if this same scenario occured in a women's game, the decision to take 1 is defendable and in fact may be correct.! Historical results in women's show a 1% advantage (.625 vs. .615) for a team up 1 without in the second last end. 

If you want to see the charts of this data, they are available in my new ebook.  Simply click on one of the links at the top of the page to buy a copy.

In the 10th end, Niklas attempts a run back (green line) rather than following Murdoch down with a draw (blue line).

Edin is Red

I don't disagree with Niklas call.  This shot is his strength and he likely makes it greater thn 85% from that distance.  The advantage of the draw, however, is you may leave a more difficult shot for one and win the game right there, rather than going to the extra end.  It's a delicate draw and it can go terribly wrong, but some skips may have chosen it over the runback.

Good luck to all countries during their medal round games and for those two teams who lose the bronze game, we feel the most sympathy for you.  To make it that far and go home without a medal...stinks.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Late Night Olympics

Sochi 2014 will possibly generate more petabytes of recorded Olympics than any in history.  I'm not a morning person and generally function better as a night owl, but from 2 AM - 7 AM I still need to sleep, as do most people without insomnia.  Turin was in 2006 and though Tivo had strong market penetration, the PVR was still in its early days.  Come to think of it, I might have just been laying my VHS to rest about that time.

I hope that curling is taking up a good size chunk of recording space on American devices.  It's been a struggle for the US teams, a 3-15 record is not going to generate much buzz south of the 49th parallel. Just imagine the numbers for ratings if the US was winning. Curling has an opportunity every 4 years to gain exposure and hopefully one of these Winter Olympiads a US team will have make a run and curling will get an even bigger boost than Vernon Davis can provide.  The United States men won 3 world championships during the 1970's, but haven't reached a final since 1981 (but did pick up a bronze medal at the Turin Olympics). USA Women appeared in 6 finals from 1992 to 2006, winning once, but have failed to medal at an Olympics.  With Olympic funding and a history of the game across most Northern states (and some Southern), it's surprising that the US appears to be falling behind the rest of the world.  They better hurry hard up (sorry) and improve their game because the country that owns most of their currency appears to be sweeping ahead (sorry, again).

The China women's team won a bronze medal in Vancouver four years ago and their mens team impressed in Sochi with a 7-2 record and are poised to add to that collection.  After a great start (4-2) the women's team dropped 3 in a row to fall to a 4-5 record, just one win out of a tie-breaker playoff game.  Bingyu Wang did win a World Championship in 2009 after making China's first finals appearance in 2008.  The 2009 finals drew 54 million viewers in China.  If Rui Liu wins his semi-final against Canada, that record will likely be not just broken, but annihilated during the gold medal game.  

On second thought, maybe the PVRs of the world get a greater workout when the Olympics are held in North America and the Chinese are sleeping.  

The Sochi curling fans don't appear as rowdy as those in Vancouver.  I'm not certain if this is due to the distance between the seats and the ice, the organizers asking for more decorum and having security toss unruly fans out of the building, or the fact vodka is not being served at the venue.  The home town squads didn't qualify for the medal round, both teams finishing 3-6, but coverage of the Russian women's team should encourage tremendous growth in the Russian junior men's programs.

Maybe the play-offs will bring a little more noise than we've heard up till now.

I'm going to try and provide analysis for all the play-off games, including the one tie-breaker, Tom Brewster David Murdoch of Scotland Great Britain versus Thomas Ulsrud of Norway.

Both teams had a chance to avoid this match-up.  Heading into the final draw, a win by either team would have secured a play-off spot and only by both winning (or losing) was the tie-breaker required.  GB had a tough loss to China, with David coming light on a critical draw in the 8th end.  Norway lost to rival Denmark (yes, they're rivals, who knew?) in a low scoring affair.  

The tie-breaker was a hard fought (if somewhat sloppy) battle with Murdoch making a spectacular shot on his last to score 2 points.  

Murdoch is Yellow.

Rather than draw for one and head to the extra end (blue line), David chooses a runback double for the win (green line).  Some would consider the call risky, but it's riskier to head to an extra end without hammer and only a 20% chance to win. If David figures to make the runback double more than once in 5 tries, it's the right call.  Some other interesting decisions:

3rd End.  Tied 1-1 and Norway with Hammer.

Murdoch decides to try a more difficult shot to generate nearly the same result.  Rather than pick out the shot stone (green line), they decide to play a thin hit on the high red stone (blue line).  

Murdoch is Yellow

Great Britain were perhaps hoping the yellow stone top four foot would sit top button but it instead spins out to the wings and leaves Ulsrud an easier draw than he would have had with the other call.

Murdoch is Yellow

The only reason they may consider this shot rather than the pick (green line) is possibly jamming the shot stone on their yellow at the back twelve foot (5 o'clock) and the fear of Norway then playing a long raise double on the GB centre guard for a possible four points.  It would be an extremely risky double with a miss resulting in a steal and I can't imagine Ulsrud attempting it.  A more difficult shot to garner the same likely result, one point for Norway.   

5th End: 2-2. Norway with Hammer.

On third's last, Murdoch chooses to draw around the centre rather than making a play on the Norway stone.

Murdoch is Yellow

If you were watching the CBC/TSN/SportsNet coverage, you heard commentator Mike Harris discuss the risk of this call. In most positions, GB will leave a chance for Norway to sit two.  GB comes to the tee line and Norway does make the nose hit double and sits two.  Murdoch fails to make a double on his next and the result is a deuce and 2 point lead for Norway at the break.

8th End: 4-2 Norway.  GB with Hammer.

Sitting one in the rings, rather than draw to the open side, GB decides to put up a corner guard. Norway considers their options on third's final stone, facing this:

Murdoch is Yellow

At first they consider picking out shot stone (green line) but reconsider and decide to peel the guard (blue line).  They could have also tried to hit and stay (black line, could also have been attempted with other turn).  This example shows just how dangerous a corner guard can be.  Murdoch has a good chance at scoring two and, after a missed double attempt by Ulsrud on his final shot, succeeds in tieing up the game at 4-4.  You can make a case for each of these calls but I might have preferred taking a chance to create a force.If they hit and stick, GB will ignore the rock and try to come around.  Any mistake and Norway can hit and possibly sit two.  Even if made perfectly, Norway can corner freeze and either create a force or  surrender a deuce.  It seemed unlikely GB could score three points given the situation, the only thing Norway should consider a problem.

Ulsrud has two key misses on his final shots in the 9th and 10th ends.  In 9, he misses a double that could have resulted in a blank (assuming a GB nibbler near the back rings was not in the house).  In the 10th, as great as David's winning shot was, if Ulsrud hits and sticks rather than roll out on his last, Murdoch's shot isn't there and David instead would have a difficult shot just to tie the game aand send it to an extra end.

So the final 8 are settled.  Unlike the Brier, Scotties, Worlds (and many other major events) the Olympics continue to be a one game knock-out rather than a Page system.  In the Page, the team in first or second is rewarded with a second chance should they lose their first playoff game.  In the Olympics, a loss means  you have to hold back the tears and disappintment then compete in a winner-takes-bronze-loser-gets-zilch medal game.  The semi-final is perhaps equal to the intensity of a gold medal game as a win ensures a medal while a loss and you could leave empty handed.

For those in the Western Hemisphere, you can stay up all night and watch back-to-back-to-back curling.  For me, I will have my PVRs and Tivo working overtime and enjoy the games with my breakfast.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

EBOOK NOW AVAILABLE! End Game: An Olympic Viewer's Guide to Curling

It's finally here. End Game: An Olympic Viewer's Guide to Curling

You can find it for Kindle at or Amazon.(insert country code here)

You can find epub version at 

It will soon be available at other online retailers like Barnes&Noble, Sony, Kobo, Apple, and others.  If you get it and enjoy it (or at least don't hate it), please post a review at the web site where you purchased.  


The essential guide for watching curling. From the basics and a brief history lesson to detailed explanation of strategy so you can watch from home as the ultimate couch skip. 

Curling meets Moneyball with advanced statistics applied to the popular Olympic sport. Includes diagrams, charts and over 30 analyzed situations to make you more prepared than the players on the ice. All lightly coated with the same humour found in the author's award winning articles for The Curling News.

And, from the Introduction:

This book is an attempt to do several things. One thing it won't do is teach you how to curl.

This book will be of interest to curlers, but my primary goal is to educate the television viewer on curling and its strategy. This book is for someone who lives in Florida, Texas, Brazil or South Africa, and may have never seen snow much less a curling club.  Curling has a need for physical skill, but the real fan interest lies with how the play develops into a multitude of options, presenting many strategic decisions that can be analyzed and dissected from your couch. 

You could watch or curl in thousands of games and the very next contest will present situations that you have never seen before. This variety and constant challenge to work out a solution is what makes curling interesting to anyone; player, fan or occasional observer.  If you are a casual viewer, this book will help you understand the game well enough to question the decisions you see on the ice. If you are a fan, you will enjoy the brief history lesson, written with limited knowledge, even less research and a dash of humour to help it go down smoother. If you're a player, a serious fan, or enjoy analytics in sports, the charts and analysis, some of which have never been seen before, will drag you into the book, the same way you're pulled into a game, to challenge my judgement and claim that I am wrong.

I await your challenge.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Howard Dethroned and Virtue Deposed

What a weekend.  Seattle took care of business, while Peyton Manning was left with a story to kibitz with his boss about (Elway and the Broncos were trounced 55-10 by the '49ers in 1990 and 42-10 by the Redskins in 1988).  What were the odds they were going to show that Montana highlight yesterday?.

Howard Streak Ends at 8!

Glenn Howard was shockingly upset in the Ontario provincial final, ending a run of 8 in a row.  The previous streak was 4 by Glenn's brother Russ between 1991 to 1994 (which included Glenn at third, of course).  Prior to the 1990s you have to go back to the 40s to find a team that won more than 2 years in a row (Percy Hall, '44-46).

Without spending an inordinate amount of time finding the correct data, (ok, I spent more time than I should have considering I'm about to release an ebook this Thursday!), I thought I'd try to estimate the odds of 8 OCA Tankard wins in a row.

I did a probability calculation estimating Glenn beats 7 teams in the field 90% of the time and 3 teams 75%.

Assumed 7 wins gets in playoff and 6 does 2/3 the time, but no tie-breakers (not time for that).

I realize they only had 10 teams in the field for 2006, '07 and '09, but I'm not adjusting for that.

Assumed the other 3 teams in a playoff all will be the harder competion (so Glenn is only 75% against them).

Added a hammer factor in the page playoff (not RR), where team with hammer has added 5% and without subtracts 5%.

If 10-0, Glenn has hammer in 1-2 game

If 9-1, Glenn has hammer 2/3 of the time in the 1-2 game

If 8-2, Glenn has hammer in 1-2 game 1/3, no hammer 2/3 (we assume he always make the 1-2 game at 8-2.  Yes, this is flawed.)

If 7-3, Glenn makes 1-2 game (without hammer) 1/3, has hammer in 3-4 1/3 and no hammer in 3-4 game 1/3.

If 6-4 Glenn makes 3-4 with hammer 1/3 and without 1/3 and misses play-offs 1/3.

The calculation results in Glenn making the playoffs 98.1% and winning a single event 69.4% and probability to win 8 straight is 5.4%

If I adjust the win probability against harder teams to 80%, it still only goes up to 13.3%

An impressive feat that may never be duplicated and Glenn, Richard, Brent, Craig and Wayne should be extremely proud.

Saskatchewan gets Spicey!

Brock Virtue was ejected from the Saskatchewan Provincial final game.  In the 8th end, Brock expressed some frustration, by doing what many past players have done, scolding their broom.  Unfortunately, Brock decided to do this in front of the official, apparently while looking at them and smiling (ok, I might have added that part).

Recall, this same team had a player (Chris Schille) removed from a playoff game last provincials.

I wasn't there so I prefer not to judge the specific situation or the actions of either side.

However, curling needs more colour, more character, and more life.  If you are going to cheer on Brad Jacobs fist pumping the crowd (and possibly disrupting another sheet, yes I saw his Justin Leonard at Brookline display at the Trials), then you also need to allow the negative emotion to burst out.  It is sports people, not lawn bowling (oh wait, is that a sport?).

I'm not condoning Brock's actions, as I said, I wasn't there to judge.  From what it sounds like, it was likely not a pertinent action.  But wasn't curling always a sport policed by the players?  If Brock did not disrupt the opponent or put anyone in harm, what is the issue?  Decorum?  Please.

In defence of the official, if Brock did actually perform this broom mutilating act while looking into the whites of their eyes, I suppose I also would have tossed him (or put him across my knee for a spanking), but perhaps it should never have gotten to that.

I would suspect (again, not in Saskatchewan and haven't talked to the team so I don't know the whole story) Team Virtue is starting to feel the spotlight is on them, rightly or wrongly.  The problem with a spotlight is that sometimes those who want to perform will put on their best show.

Manitoba Eludes McEwen Again

This might have been the year that the majority of Manitobans were rooting for Mike McEwen.  Jeff is a great winner and the team is dearly appreciated by everyone, but you'd have to think the empathy for Mike is starting to tip tthe scales in his favour.  I haven't watched the 1-2 game yet (it's sitting on my Tivo), but it looked like a great game.  Yesterdays final however must have left the fans feeling more saddness than joy.  At some point even Jeff must start to feel even a little sympathy for his provincial opponent in 3 of his last 4 finals. But he's also whispering, "your time will come lads, but not just yet".

As impressive as Glenn's results have been, Jeff's must be considered nearly equal.  Or more impressive if your a Manitoba supporter who claims the Safeway Select is harder than the OCA Tankard round robin format.  I don't know if the Manitoba modified double-double knockout (should be sponsored by Tim Hortons maybe) is harder to win than Ontario, but it is harder to understand.

Since the end of the boycott in 2003, Stoughton has won 7 of 11 Buffaloes.  Sorry, no time for the math on that but as someone who grew up in Manitoba and never thought 7 in a career was impossible, Jeff has done it in half a career. 

Congratulations to all provincial winners and good luck next year to those who fell short, including the Lobel brothers in Ontario.  My good friend Steve Lobel (third) and brother Rob (skip) had a terrible start at the Ontario Tankard but managed to defeat Epping and Rumfeldt (keeping both out of a tie-breaker), they lost in an extra-end to eventual winner Bice/Balsdon and even stole in 10 and 11 for a nailbiting win against  Team Canada, Rachel Homan Mark Homan.