A geek’s guide to Curling

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Often misunderstood and unexplainable, curling is a sport where players shout undeterminable phrases yet play an intricate game with deft touches and janitor-like sweeping ability.

The aim of curling

Curling is made up of two teams consisting of four people. Each player is responsible for throwing two stones per their turn. Their teammates then sweep the ice with brooms in the aim of directing the stones to the target at the end of the ice. The goal is for the team to get as many stones closer to the centre target than the opposition.

South Korea Curling Olympic Team and Japan Curling Olympic Team action on the ice during an Olympic Curling Men's Robin Session South Korea Curling Olympic Team and Japan Curling Olympic Team action on the ice during an Olympic Curling Men's Robin Session

Both teams compete against each other, taking turns to alternate their throws. The four players in each side consist of the following positions:

Lead: Will throw first, then sweeps all other team players shots.

Second: As the name suggests, throws the second stone, and then sweeps their teammate's shots.

Vice: Has the third stone and holds the brush for the Skip. The Vice only sweeps the first two stones, and this is more difficult as they have to navigate past the existing stones that have already been played.

Skip: Also, the team captain, always throws last and holds the brush for their teammates and tells them when to sweep, and watches the stones moving direction - the 'curl.'

A brief history of curling

Although not verified, curling is considered one of the world's oldest team sports. Back in 1540, John McQuhin, a Scottish notary observed and wrote down a sporting challenge between two people where a rock was thrown along the ice.

International curling match between England and Scotland. 1962. International curling match between England and Scotland. 1962.

With the first recognised curling clubs established in Scotland, it's easy to see why this story resonates with most within the game. As the Scots emigrated across the globe as part of the British Empire and beyond, those who migrated to colder climates brought curling with him. Hence, curling is popular in Canada, Switzerland, the USA, Sweden and of course the United Kingdom, mainly Scotland.

Curling has been a Winter Olympic sport since 1924 where Great Britain took the first gold.

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Scoring in curling

In curling there are ten ends, similar to an innings where each team throws eight stones each, aiming to get the stones closest to the target at the end of the ice.

Teams obtain points for every stone that is closer to the 'button' in the target than any of the opposing team's stones. Only those stones inside of the 'house' count for points. The 'house' is a section at the end of the ice, containing the 'button.'

An umpire measures the stones in the men's team curling final between the United States and Sweden An umpire measures the stones in the men's team curling final between the United States and Sweden

For example, if the Yellow team has three stones closest to the button than the Red team, then they score three points. Should neither side have a stone in the 'house' then neither team scores any points. Like bowls, only one team can score points.

Playing curling

Play commences as follows; the Lead begins, where the Second and Vice begin to sweep. The Skip always watches the curl. Sweepers judge how far the stone travels, sweeping along the way to ensure the stone travels where they need it to, whilst the Skip hollers instructions. Only when it is the Skip's turn to throw a stone does the Vice takes over the role of the Skip.

Once all the stones have been thrown, the points are tallied and awarded to the team with their stones closest to the target.

What do curlers shout?

Great Britain's Eve Muirhead (left) shouts to her team during their Semi Final against Canada Great Britain's Eve Muirhead (left) shouts to her team during their Semi Final against Canada

As mentioned above, curlers use various terms that make little sense in everyday vernacular, so here are the types of shots they play and what they mean:

  • Come-around shot: Making a stone curl around another one.
  • Draw: A stone thrown in such a way with the intention of finishing at a specific spot at the end of the ice.
  • Flash: A stone that is thrown through the house (collection of stones at the end).
  • Freeze: Trying to eliminate a specific stone from play, so the subsequently thrown stone cannot succeed to the target.
  • Hit: Thrown in a way to hit or make contact with another stone at the end.
  • Jam: Attempting to take out a stone that has been previously thrown but makes contact with another stone and it stops to stay in play (not over the house).
  • Runback/raise takeout: Aim is to hit a stone higher up the ice with it making contact with another stone.
  • Peel: Hitting a stone to remove both it and the thrown stone out of play.
  • Split: A precise shot where the thrown stone looks to hit a guard (protecting stone that has been previously thrown) promoting both it and their own thrown stone into the house, so they both count as points.
  • Tick shot: This shot is used to gently nudge a guard out of the way but keep it in play so that the next thrown stone can enter the target area.
  • Wreck: A lousy shot where a stone accidentally makes contact with another stationary stone the thrower was hoping to avoid.

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Other terms that curlers shout out are related to the “sweeping of the ice.”

The curling brush used is to clear debris from the path of the stone, so to maintain the stone's trajectory when thrown. Stones accumulate this debris from the ice, and this can severely veer a stone off its course when gliding down the ice.

So, you’ll hear the following terms being hollered:

“Hard,” “hard line,” or “go”: The Skip is shouting to the sweepers to sweep harder to maintain the current path of the stone's trajectory.

“Clean”: The opposite to "hard" where the Skip commands the sweepers to lightly sweep instead to ensure the stone's trajectory is maintained.

“Whoa,” “Never,” or “Off”: To hold off sweeping anymore, typically because the stone is heading off trajectory.

Great Britain's David Murdoch (top) shouts out commands to Pete Smith (left) and Euan Byers (right) in action in the Men's Curling against Switzerland Great Britain's David Murdoch (top) shouts out commands to Pete Smith (left) and Euan Byers (right) in action in the Men's Curling against Switzerland

“Looks heavy”: When a stone has been hurled too hard and fast, the Skip tells the sweepers to ease up in the aim that the stone will lose speed and momentum.

“Looks light”: The opposite of "looks heavy," if the stone has not enough power behind it then sweepers will frantically sweep in the hope that the stone will travel further and reach their intended point.

Presently, most curlers are not professional; practising the sport whilst holding full-time jobs and working out at the gym before going on tour globally to compete.

That does not mean curling should not be taken seriously; the Winter Olympics provide an exciting spectacle for the sports enthusiast and punters alike. With this geek’s guide to curling now you can follow the excitement too!

Words: David Bailey-Lauring

Images: PA

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