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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Strategy at the Scotties

Finally wrapping up this article as I sit in a quiet Calgary arena, awaiting the historic Brier Pre-qualifier between Yukon and PEI.  One day I can bounce my grandchild on my knee and say I was here. At which point he/she will likely poop in their diapers.

The Saddledome is mostly empty, save for a pre-qual pre-preparation, held by CCA Csar Director, Warren Hansen.

Heeding the advice of Tiger's mom, Warren wears red for strength

Rather than struggle with the decision of whether I can bring myself to bet on PEI at -454 against Yukon, let me get back to the big event last weekend and cover some of the stranger decisions at the Scotties...

Play-off - 3 vs 4: Saskatchewan vs Team Canada

Stefanie Lawton reached this same position in her three previous Scotties as a skip, and finally pulled out a victory.  She took a conservative approach to the week and it enabled her to win one more game than her usual result.  Totals for her round robin games fell below 12.5 points for almost the entire week, leading websites to drop her games to 11.5 points, a number usually seen in men's events.  I'm not going to challenge her strategy, or question her continuing to curl with a possibly passed her prime third, rather than inject some youth like others chasing the Olympic gold have.  She remains a good under the radar gamble, and for that I will keep quiet.

One interesting comment during the 9th end.  Lawton is tied 5-5 with hammer.  Broadcaster Russ Howard mentions Stefanie doesn't want to give up a steal in this situation.  Possibly a slip from the veteran skip.  The end had already developed to the stage that a  blank was unlikely.  At this stage, the team with hammer should be agressively attempting a deuce (Win Expectancy of 86%), even at the risk of a steal.  Lawton will almost always have some shot to score one with her final stone and even if Homan steals, she has hammer in the final end with a chance to score two for the win.

Semi-Final:  Saskatchewan vs Alberta  

Lawton takes on Val Sweeting, who knocked her out of the 3-4 game in last years Scotties.  Unfortunately for the hometown fans in Moose Jaw, it's the same result.  Some odd calls during the game:

8th end, AB up 6-5 with hammer.  

On Lawton second Stephanie Schmidt's last shot they choose to hit an AB rock in the twleve foot to sit 2, open at the back of the rings, rather than put up another centre guard.  This is an incredibly conservative call that I haven't seen since the days of Connie Laliberte peeling guards when behind.  The problem is, a successful hit will leave a simple double, and she's likely to head into the next end with the same score.  Mind boggling.  You don't have to be a master at analytics (like Charles) in order to know this is a bad decision.

Strangely, Sweeting forgoes the double attempt and instead tries a freeze.  She's not risking much, there are no guards and little apparent trouble at this stage.  In the 9th end, this would be a wrong decision.  Here it surpises me but likely not a significant mistake.

10th end: SK down 7-5 with hammer.

On Lawton's first she chooses to draw around the red corner to sit two buried.  Some posters on CurlingZone suggested a split.  Difficult not to leave a double, perhaps even a triple, but good chance of 2.  Val chooses to play a corner freeze rather a runback, and nearly gets shot stone.   Stef still has draw for 2.  She's unable to get a good path and comes up light.

Lawton is Yellow

I don't mind the come around.  I expected Val to play the 6 foot runback on her guard, perhaps so did Stefanie.  The draw was very risky and could have left Stef a chance for the win.  The decision Lawton has to make is whether you want to entice a draw from Val and increase the chance to win the game here or split and more likely score two.  You can make an argument for both.  A great shot by Sweeting that brought greater risk with less room for error, but she was confident in her weight and made the shot.  I expect many mens teams would have played a runback in that situation.

Finals: Alberta vs Manitoba

Val Sweeting incorporated a Lawton strategy in her game with Jennifer Jones.  Conservative.  

In the 3rd end, tied 2-2, MB with hammer, AB sits 1 on the top four foot and Val decides to peel the corner guard on second stones.  She mentions she's guessing on ice.  At this early stage of the end, less critical to put up a perfect centre guard than to, at the very least, have one.  Jennifer then replaces the corner guard.

In the 5th end, AB is down 3-2 with hammer.  Val immediately calls for a freeze/tap with her first shot (green line). Sitting second shot and facing a longish guard, not sure why she didn't look at trying to remove the MB stone (blue line).  She would roll open and Jennifer would hit, leaving her a final shot for 2 points.  She needs to move the MB stone to get shot, might as well move it to the back twelve.  Appeared there was enough curl.

Sweeting is Red

The end result, Val's draw over curls and sits second shot.  Jennifer draws on top and Val attempts a flat double off the MB stone at 9 o'clock, moves the shot stone far enough for one, almost scoring two.

In the 6th end AB is tied 3-3 without hammer and again thinking of peeling corner guards (green line).  Third's first and sitting three.  They correctly decide to play a guard (blue line) instead.  Why peel a guard that is not likely to come into play this late in an end and which also may be cutting of a potential draw to the button later on?

Jones is Yellow

7th end: 4-3 for MB, AB with hammer.  This end may have decided the winner.  AB third Lori Olson-Johns is an inch short on her draw earlier in the end, now sitting second at 2 o'clock.

Sweeting is Red

Val plays a freeze to the open side and Jennifer decides to freeze again (green line), rather than peel the rock out (blue line).  Even if Jen looses her other rocks, Alberta is left with a draw for 1.  As it turned out, Jen's didn't curl enough and Val had a makeable shot for 2, but she missed it again by a fraction of an inch. AB takes one.

9th end. AB down 5-4 with hammer. Val seemed to be playing runbacks (green line) with the intention of blanking, but it was unlikely that late in the end.  Rather than running back the MB stone on Lori's first shot, to try and sit two, (which was more difficult than it appeared) perhaps they could have tried a soft weight tap and would have sit frozen on two stones (blue line).

Well done Jennifer.  Team Canada again and Sweeting a bridesmaid for the second straight year.

Friday, February 20, 2015

ATH, 02/20/15: Heather Nedohin Returns

Kevin and Gerry are joined by 2012 Scotties Champion Heather Nedohin to discuss pre-qualifiers, Nunavut's no show, and the soul of curling.  Heather shares her new experience running a curling club and playing pickleball.

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Jones vs Homan XV

An epic battle was waged on Monday Night Scotties that could be a deciding factor in who gets to the 1vs2 game and who has last rock.  Ok, not earth shattering consequences, but it did matter for something.  Jones won in an extra end and quickly comments were populating on CurlingZone that Homan coach Richard Hart made mistakes, that Hart imposed his opinion, that Hart allowed Rachel to decide, Canada didn't deserve to lose, Manitoba played better, Jones was lucky to hang on, etcetera.

Let's have a look at several scenarios that were debated:

5th End: Homan down 2 with hammer

On her final stone, Rachel calls a time out as they discuss whether to attempt  a double for 3 (blue line) or soft hit for two (green line).

Homan is Red 

Coach Richard Hart's demeanor seemed fine to me.  He calmly explained which shot he preferred but left Rachel the decision to chose what she felt comfortable playing.  The risk of the double attempt seems quite high to me at this stage of the game.  Part of their reasoning for the double was because of the difficulty of the shot for two.  This is an interesting situation that often occurs, the "easier" shot is actually more difficult than you'd like, so you chose an even more difficult shot for more points.  So what does the math look like?  I'll summarize:

Win Expectancy (WE) with 4 Ends Remaining (4 ER)  

Tied without hammer = 40%

One up without hammer = 60%

One down without hammer = 23%

Down 3 with hammer = 12%

The shot for two could result in a single or create a steal, but so could the shot for 3.  The shot at 3 could produce a deuce, single or steal.  Based on WE, Rachel does not want to score less than two in this situation as it reduces her WE below 1 in 4 tries.  Ok, prepare for a lot of estimating...

Let's estimate Homan attempts the tap for two and gets a deuce 70%, one 20% and a steal 10%.  WE = 34%

If she attempts the double, and we estiimate she scores two 20% or one 20% of the time, Rachel needs to score 3 greater than 30% of the time for it to be the correct decision.

Plenty of what-ifs and different guesses will produce a different analysis, but in the end I think it was the correct call.  In this case, the reward didn't appear to out-weight the risk associated.

This is a situation where, given a close decision, teams will often choose the option with a lower variance. Given the equal capability of these teams, it makes sense.  In the same situation, a weaker team may benefit by choosing the riskier shot. 

9th End:  Jones is tied with hammer.  

Strangely, on Dawn's second shot, Jennifer asks her to freeze, leaving 3 rocks in the four foot, when she could have instead played a hit and roll to sit two.  Not sure what Jones was thinking. Seemed like a strange call when you benefit from keeping a potential blank in play in this situation and you don't want to create a pack of rocks in the middle of the sheet to get 2 points.  Oh, and then Manitoba plays a freeze on Jill's first rock.  Five rocks in the four foot now.  Not for long. After Joanne's shot, there is now six.  

On her last shot, Jennifer tries a double to take 2 points (maybe she saw a 3?) when all she needed was a draw to the full eight foot.  Supposing both shots were equal odds of being made, I can't argue with her assessment of her chances with the hit, but if they knew they were shot, drawing the full eight foot seems the preferred option.  There didn't appear to be any chance at 3 and at this late stage of the game, there's zero reason to take any additional risk for a trey over a deuce.

10th End: Homan 1 down with hammer.

On Team Canada third Emma Miskew's last rock, Homan calls a time out to discuss whether to double peel the front stones (blue line) or to draw around centre (green line).

Homan is Red

Coach Richard Hart sounds more committed to the draw and appears to be less interested in the peel, something many internet posters claimed "lost Rachel the game".

Firstly, there are still 4 rocks to come and this one decision, though it appears critical, will not decide the fate of Team Canada.  At first, the double peel seems like a good decision, it allows play away from centre, increasing the chance of scoring at least one.  But keep in mind that teams don't try to score one in this sitiuation, they will increase risk in order to score two points, rather than face a likely defeat in an extra end.  This risk is often seen on the last shot but also occurs earlier in an end.  If Miskew peels, and Jennifer makes the corner freeze, Rachel will need to hit and hope the angles are in her favour creating an advantage when the dust settles.  It's anyone's guess on what the end result will look like, but I can see several situations, both good and bad for Rachel, depending on where Jennifer's rock settles and if she taps anything back, changing the set-up.  It's also important to note than Emma was heavy with her draw and the great raise double made by Jennifer would not have been as accessible if she was top eight rather than top four foot.  At this stage, Rachel still has two rocks to get her deuce and several guards and rocks in play.  

Russ Howard's comment "rule number one, control the front", seems so obvious in hindsight, after the shots are complete, but I don't agree.  In this position 1 down with hammer in the final end, scoring two is the priority and teams should adapt to the situation to give themselves the best opportunity.

I'm not completely agreeing with the decision, but I am certain it was not as clear as Russ or some internet skips would suggest.  

Extra End: Jones tied with hammer.

Homan has a rock half in the top four foot but Jones sits second off to the side. Coach Hart clearly leaves the decision to Rachel to decide what shot they want to leave Jennifer on her last, draw to full four foot or a double.  Even with a tap, Jennifer still had an open path to the button and may have chosen to draw, depending on the position of the rocks.  Rachel may have been able to tap her rock into a position where a double might jam on the Jones stone, but very difficult to tap to the perfect spot and even so, to create that possibility, Jen's final shot likely noses for the winning point anyway.  A case can be made for both options.  In the end, Jennifer draws for the win. (At least I think she did, my PVR ran out at a whopping 3 hours 31 minutes.  Another vote for 8 end games).  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What Colour is Your Purple Heart?

Long before Scott Paper held a tournament for them, curling hearts were purple and awarded to mens teams who fought their way from local club, through tankard playdowns and a victory in their provincial championship, to particpate in the Brier.  For a brief period when Labatt took over sponsorship, Purple Heart crests disappeared, only to be quickly re-instated after the curling community made clear to the new sponsor their historical importance.

Some of these are extremely hard to get.  Several Brier champions have only 1 or 2.  Other players have a jacket full of them, yet languish at the bottom of the standings every visit.  This crest is the dream of every boy that hangs out at the local rink, waiting patiently for a team to shake hands early so they can get 10 extra minutes to practice.  

And it means just as much to those who have none (Mike McEwen) to those with 15 (Glenn Howard).

After losing in their zone playdown, Team Howard chose to play in the Challenge Round in a final attempt to qualify for the Ontario Provincial, rather than a sponsors paid trip to the lucrative Skins game.  Despite falling short, I'd expect none of them regret their decision.

Mike McEwen fell short in his 5th Manitoba final, and after a brave face with SportsNet immediately following the loss, disappeared from view while his three teammates stood in agony, watching the winners ceremony.

I don't begrudge Mike for his actions.  In most sports, his team could quickly leave the proceedings and share their emotions in private.  I understand in Manitoba the ceremonies have stretched to over 45 minutes, requiring the losing team to sit or stand through all of it.  I suppose if it's your first wedding as a bridesmaid, you might savor some of the experience.  If you find yourself wearing the same seafoam dress rather than white for 4 of the next 5 years, it's likely you won't be smiling in every photo. 

For a guy that has won more than most the past few seasons, especially where dollar signs are concerned, this little purple crest shaped like a valentine shouldn't matter so much.  But it clearly does.  Maybe too much, and that's why it's becoming so elusive.  

Perhaps not all Purple Hearts should be the same.  Maybe a Manitoba or Alberta heart should be larger, or a darker shade of purple.  The "ahem", easier provinces (and territories) could be more lavender than tyrian.

Then again, every kid that grows up in Manitoba knows how scarce the purple heart attached to a Buffalo can be.  Every father tells their son of the legend of Gary Ross.  Gary had 6 cracks and never finished the job.  Mike McEwen is on his way to breaking records that were never meant to be broken.

Kerry Burtnyk only managed to get 3 Purple Hearts in his first 19 years.  Yes, the game has changed, conditions are better, the pool of talent isn't as deep and the gap between elite and club curler is further apart than ever, but Stoughton's 11 Manitoba titles as a skip is one of the most impressive records in Canadian curling, and may never be surpassed.

Mike would be happy to get just one at this point, thanks. Phil Mickelson finally shook off the title of Best Player To Have Never Won A Major (BPTHNWAM) in 2004, and he's managed four more since then.  Curlers, like golfers, can have a long career and find success deep into their forties, and beyond (as long as they don't have to sweep).  Mike may be the BPTHNWAPH, but as long as his health and his passion remain, I believe the moniker will one day be lifted and passed to another team.  Most likely to one in Manitoba, Alberta, or Ontario.

No offense to other provinces or territories, but these champions actually have to qualify for their provincials, rather than sign-up. There also is little chance of a 2 team, best of 5 series to determine a winner.  I don't mention this as a knock at these other world calibre teams who have an easier entry to the Brier.  It's not Gushue's fault he just happens to be in Newfoundland rather than Manitoba.  However, teams that are fortunate to escape these deeper provinces usually have greater success once they arrive to the Brier.  Might not be a coincidence.

I estimate McEwen's odds of NOT winning Manitoba these past 6 years to be just over 3%.  Yes, that's a low number, but stranger things have happened, like Kevin Martin's miraculous run to the play-offs in the 2013 Olympic Trials.  His odds to beat Howard and Koe in the round robin were less than one quarter of one percent.

The crop of young talent in Manitoba is going to be a challenge but if the McEwen rink stays together they still have another 15 plus years to nab at least one of these little hearts.  And make a pile of money or perhaps even finagle an Olympic gold medal while trying.  So many heartbreaks in the provincials could tear this team apart, but I hope it doesn't.  It's rare the sport where you can be #1 in the world and win nearly half the events you enter, but your team unravels because of a loss in a single event.  Mr. Hansen might argue McEwen's win in the Canada Cup should mean more.  But we all know it doesn't.  Not yet anyway.

I'll refrain from a deep analysis of the final game, but I should mention one choice to be conservative seemed out of character for McEwen.  With hammer in the 5th end, rather than come around their own off-centre guard with BJs first, they chose to hit a rock in the 12 foot.  I only hope this wasn't an attempt at blanking odd ends.  As I've written before, this consideration is over emphasized to a fault.  During the 7th end of the semi-final, Ray and Jennifer had a mild disagreement over an intentional blank by McEwen, who was 1 down to Stoughton at the time. Though I enjoyed their playful spat, the correct answer is somewhere in the middle of their arguement.  I wrote about this exact situation in my e-book and in a paper submitted to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  To summarize, if we assume McEwen and Carruthers to be fairly equal teams, McEwen reduced his win expectancy (WE) around 2-5%.  In effect, both Jennifer and Ray were both right, and wrong.  At least that's the way I heard it, before hitting the skip button on my remote.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ATH, 02/04/15: Tankard Talk with Chris Hodges

Jordan, Gerry and Kevin are joined by Chris Hodges of CTV in Regina to discuss the recent Canadian juniors, faulty hogline technology and the various Provincial Playdowns taking place across the country this week.

Check out this episode!