For the players in our Daily Curling Puzzle Facebook group, I posed the following conundrum back in July – not the normal time of year to be thinking curling, but in this crazy year, why not?
Well, better late than never, and this game provides ample proof to back that up. It’s a game you’d rather win, but you’ve left yourself a bit of an uphill struggle - especially against a team whose tails are up. Can we pull this one out of the bag? Here’s the situation:
• Eighth end of 10
• Score is tied
• You’re red
• But yellow has hammer
• It’s your third’s/vice's first shot
• About a five-foot swing from edge-to-centre
What’s your call - and why?
This was, of course, the legendary eighth end of the 2018 Olympics men’s championship match between the USA and Sweden ... the end where the Americans scored a massive five points and sealed the gold. At the time, of course, our Puzzlers didn’t know that.
What’s the game situation? Well, as the title says, it’s a game you would rather win. It’s about the highest stress any curler is ever going to experience - especially the Swedes, who were heavy favourites. The Americans looked virtually lackadaisical compared to their opponents ... almost just happy to be there.
A complicating factor here is the four-rock Free Guard Zone rule. If you get down in this (eighth) end, it’s going to be that much harder to chase and come back.
For Sweden (red), giving up two here gives them just a 14% chance of coming back; forcing or blanking keeps them alive at 35% chance; and getting a steal means they’ve got a 64% chance of gold. Since stealing and forcing are pretty much the same game calls – clog up the middle, keep the scoring area small and maybe find a steal - that’s what Niklas Edin, Sweden’s skip, appears to be gunning for by throwing centre guards.
From the American (yellow) point of view, a deuce pretty much seals things with a 86% chance of winning gold. But a blank gives them a 65% chance, and a force only marginally lower at 64% odds of victory. Giving up a steal, however, drops them to just 36% chance of gold, so that’s what they’ll be going flat out to avoid.
What’s the end situation? As red, none of our Puzzlers liked it, with just one lonely rock sitting against three yellows. Yellow is looking pretty good for a multiple count here, unless you can clear them out or bury one in.
On the plus side, you have a centre guard, you have the next rock to play, and things are focused in the middle. The force is still available, or maybe even a steal with good execution and a bit of luck.
What are the options? The Puzzlers made three popular calls: Play defence now by cutting the number of yellows, stick some more reds in the centre to make it tough for the Americans to get two, or guard now and draw with your last one or two to squeak out a hugely advantageous steal.
Playing defence, one of our U.S. Puzzlers wanted to hit-and-roll off that Y2 out on the side to cut the number of yellows in play and try to lodge another in the centre rings. “Limit some of the potential counters, get more rocks in the rings. Set up the end to look more favorable,” was the comment.
Another agreed: “I don’t think you can let them sit two, three, four; remove Y2 with hack weight, slide toward Y3 and hopefully freeze but be sure to sit first and second.”
For me, the problem with this shot is that hitting and rolling from the edge to the centre requires a high degree of precision. The odds are against you and you could leave a double to let the Americans lie three buried. If you don’t make it, the American deuce – and their gold medal – starts to look much more likely. This is a high-risk, all-or-nothing play with not much room for error.
The second option our Puzzlers liked was to get some insurance in the scoring area now by freezing, drawing or even tapping back the guard – playing into the rings with a half-end to go. One longtime member liked this call. “I’m thinking of freezing to R3. We obviously know the weight for that line, but the pro miss is to be a bit heavy because there is backing.”
The downside to coming into the center now, as Puzzler and two-time defending Canadian Masters champion Mickey Pendergast explained, is the risk of grouping the red rocks too early in the end. “It’s too early to come around the centre; our stones are grouped and they could run R2 into Y1 into ours in the four-foot,” said Mickey. Leaving a clump of your rocks together makes it easier for your opponent to clear them out and stick to lie even more yellows. Quite risky.
The final option our Puzzlers called was the guarding up the middle and having the U.S. team burn some matches, peeling off the centre guards (because leaving them risks a great draw under those guards and the resulting steal by us) until we’re ready to make our final play in the middle, and go for the steal or force.
One Puzzler argued for a high guard. Another liked the guard but wanted to place it differently.
So what happened? Well, there are not many times you’re going to find four-time world champion Niklas Edin make an outright skipping mistake, and in my opinion... he didn’t do that here. Edin didn’t really consider the options of playing into the rings now, or clearing out yellows. He was all-in for a gold-medal-preserving steal. He played the centre guard – lined up on the centre line so that any double peel would leave some cover around the middle, certain that John Shuster would peel the guards and eliminate the risk of a Swedish steal.
But contrary to what almost all Puzzlers expected, Shuster rolled the dice, came into the rings and went right after R3. With those double guards remaining, Sweden spent the next three shots trying to put one under cover in the four foot, and missed, meaning the U.S. boys dug them out for a golden score of five. With John Shuster’s decision to leave the guards, any one of Sweden’s last three shots could have tilted the gold medal their way. But Team USA gambled big – and they won.
My takeaway on this puzzle is actually not really about tactics, but instead about pressure and its effect on execution. The Swedes looked visibly stressed while the Americans were incredibly loose. Their play reflected it. Of course, the context didn’t favour the Swedes - they were supposed to win – and in these Olympics, we’d already seen favourites from Canada perform below their standards. It seems to me that having ways of diffusing pressure in tough situations can be every bit as important as tactical and technical proficiency.
What’s your call?