I’ve had requests to look at these puzzles from two perspectives–Improvers and Experts–and with close to 8,500 playing along in our Daily Curling Puzzle group on Facebook, we expect there are curlers of many different skill sets pondering what to play next.

Today I’m going to focus on the Skipping Principles for Improvers. Here’s one such puzzle I gave to the group back in November of 2020.

How the heck did we get here? We’re clear favourites, and we're already down by three. Theyve come out like true thoroughbreds and now we’re scrambling to get back in the game. But how? Here’s the situation:

  • Third end of 10
  • We’re red
  • We’re down by three
  • We have hammer
  • It’s our second’s second shot
  • There’s a four-foot swing on good consistent ice
  • Five-rock rule

What’s your pro call and club (amateur) call – and why?

Strategy Puzzle 132_Jan 16-17

As I revealed a day later, this scenario took place early on between Saskatchewan’s Matt Dunstone and James Grattan of New Brunswick at last year’s Brier. Dunstone (red) had gone down three by the third end and was trying to build something to get back in the game.

What are the key skipping issues at play here?

First, as many Puzzlers pointed out, the score and end situation have to be considered. You’re three down with seven ends to play. No need to panic, but as long-time Puzzler Matt Hames said, “Things aren’t desperate but they are close. If we give up another point, we risk losing all chance in this game.”

Another consideration is how many rocks have been thrown and how many there are to play. If we were down to skip stones, then we’d really need to be thinking about lodging one in as shot rock.

But we still have five stones to play, and the other guy has four more–over half the end. A lot is going to change between now and your last rock, so let’s not get too concerned about lying shot stone just yet. Our key concern with these middle rocks is shaping the end in our favour so that we’re in a good position for our skip to make a couple of killer shots and get a big score. In short, we’re still in the set-up phase here.

Of course, another key factor is the rock situation now. What are the opportunities and threats here?

The opportunities are the corner guards and the rocks behind the tee line. When you’re down, rocks in play are really your friends. A clear sheet makes it hard to score multiples, there’s nowhere to hide. A cluttered sheet makes it easier to find cover and backing where your rocks are harder to remove. We’re down by three; we want lots of rocks in play. One of our expert Puzzlers said “six rocks in play and five are helping me; if I make my next one, all seven rocks are building blocks for red to score a multiple.”

So… we all like the corners with hammer, but should we all like the yellows behind the tee line? Yes, for sure. If we can put reds in front of them, it’s harder for the opposition to remove them.

The other asset you have, depending on your team’s level of skill, is that short red centre guard. It can be used to dig out yellows in the middle, either now or later. Allison Earl, one of our top women’s coaches, makes a point: “(I) think it’s always important to look at the colour and position of the guard! It’s red and tight. Pro team expects to make that runback. And it’s offset.” Which means as things stand now, it can be promoted and the shooter will roll out to the side, creating more of a good red situation.

Curling Canada YouTube

Curling Canada YouTube

So those are the opportunities–the building blocks–with which we can build an end. What about the threats?

Well, that Y1 hovering on front of the button isn’t going away on its own and to score a few, it’s going to have to be moved. Moreover, if yellow gets another guard on it, you’re going to have a tougher time working your way through two guards– the current red one and the one they’ll want to play. In the video below, you’ll see Matt Dunstone decide to make a play on that Y1 now, and you’ll hear the always excellent Cathy Gauthier discuss why.

Now, how to keep that Y1 from becoming a big problem en route to building a good score? I’ll discuss a couple of the more popular options called by our Puzzlers.

The call most favoured was the yellow tap-back, and ideally roll open in front of that wall of yellow behind the tee. That wall makes it harder for them to remove you. And rolling open to that open side means it’s harder for them to hit and roll under cover to cut down your scoring area. If they can get one under a guard at the edge of the eight-foot, it eliminates any of your biters or rocks sitting on the 12-foot from going on the scoresheet. You don’t want them to get one lodged under there and cut down your points, so rolling to the open side reduces that risk.

(Of course, they could always draw there now … but will they? Up three, they’re playing defence, ideally keeping you to a single, so if you played this their next call would almost certainly be to remove your shot rock.)

Another very popular call was the runback to get rid of that centre guard and the yellow shot stone. If missed, it would hopefully clear some of those yellows behind the tee and lie in the eight-foot. The thinking there is to clear out the centre and ensure you can score your single.

But the short guard is yours, and you have five shots to come. It’s a bullet you can shoot later, when you need to. You can deal with that Y1 threat now without using that valuable asset, so why not? For me, there’s very little chance of it still sitting there during the last few shots, and if it is, you can then run it back into any problem yellows. My opinion is that the runback now falls into the category of “not yet.”

Another popular option was the split– open up the shot yellow while hopefully putting a couple in the rings under cover and in front of the yellow wall. Dave Furness and Jerry Archambault made good cases for this call.

Anyone looking for expert analysis can’t really do better than the discussion between Earl, Pendergast, Jamie Sexton and Joseph Brown near the bottom of our comment stream. Allison was now very keen on the draw under cover. And as the cued video below shows, Dunstone opted for the freeze on Y1, which was preferred by only a few Puzzlers. Our experts really do a superb job in considering the relative merits of those options.

At the end of the day, is there ever really a “right” call? Not a chance … this is curling!