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Thursday, February 20, 2014

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.


  1. Edin's mistake in the 10th was not peeling the red corner when he had the opportunity,instead electing to try and draw around it himself. That guard was the only way that Murdoch could score a deuce.

  2. I think you mean third's final shot when they had their tight guard (which was later runback) and chose to draw around. Very good point. Sweden saw an opportunity to end the game by staying aggresive, but gave GB an opportunity they woulld not have had otherwise. He likely felt it was his rock and tight enough that he could make a runback if needed. He didn't.

    1. The problem with that draw is that even if made perfectly, it only makes Murdoch's eventual draw for one marginally more difficult. I don’t think that play "ends the game" at all.

  3. If you mean drawing on Sweden third's last stone rather than peeling, it's difficult to determine exactly what final draw Murdoch will have at that point, several rocks still to come. If you instead mean Edin drawing (rather than runback) on his final shot, than I believe Murdoch's draw could have been much more difficult. The runback won't usually stick the promoted guard on the nose and with a draw Edin could nibble the button and make David need to get close to the pin.