Puzzling Over Fresh Ice, Early Ends

Our first in a series of strategy conundrums.
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Here’s a situation faced by Manitoba’s Mike McEwen as he battled Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher at the 2019 Brier, aka the Canadian Men’s Championship. And here’s the challenge I issued to the 7,000-plus members of the Daily Curling Puzzle Facebook group ...

Today’s puzzle is going to be an all-Canadian affair. And it’s a nice easy one involving your skip’s shots, trying to manufacture something out of this topsy-turvy end. You’ve got hammer, but you’re lying one in the middle, he's got a bunch of corner guards and a couple buried under cover. What the heck? Here’s the situation:

• Second end of 10

• Score is tied at 0-0

• You’re yellow

• You have hammer

• It’s your skip’s first shot

• Good five-foot swing on championship ice

C’mon, skip. What’s your call – and why?

What would you do?

What would you do?

In the group, our Puzzlers – curlers from all over the world – stew over the problem for a couple of days, and then comment on what they would call and why. Then I provide a wrap-up that links to the actual game situation and what the real-life skip – in this case McEwen – actually called. I also try to discuss many of the suggestions our Puzzlers made and how they might have played out.

I should say, at this point, that I’m in no way a professional curler or coach. I took up this game in my mid-40s and have progressed to be a competitive curler in Scotland. But after having had two results go against me this past season – losing the final of the Scottish Seniors as a second thrower and the semifinals of the Scottish Pairs as a skip – I decided I really needed to work on the tactical side of the game. I started the Facebook group as a way to do that. Many participants in our group have a lifetime of curling experience to draw upon. Me? I’m still trying to figure this crazy sport out!

So for today’s strategy puzzle, I’m going to work through four questions: What’s the game situation? What’s the end situation? What do we want to accomplish here? Which of the shot options best delivers that?

Game Situation

As many of our Puzzlers noted, it’s such an early end (the second of 10) and the game is still 0-0, so it’s pretty straightforward. A deuce for our team (yellow stones) would be great, a blank would be good, and a force – where you “force” your opponent to take one when he has last rock advantage – is okay if it happens. The one thing we definitely don’t want to do is give up a steal, so that has to be the priority.

The other game situation worth noting is that it’s just the second end, we haven’t thrown down the sheet of ice in this direction yet, and the ice itself is fresh. High-precision shots, in this circumstance, might be tricky.

What’s going on this end?

Well, red has one stone left and we’ve got two. Somehow, he has ended up with two corner guards and a bunch under cover, so our blank is off the table. He's lying fully in the eight-foot rings (Red 5) and, ideally, we’d like to be lying first and second after this shot to perhaps get a crack at a deuce. The corner guards (R1 and R2) could make drawing in for a single a little tricky, so we need to be aware of that.

What do we want to accomplish with this shot?

Since the blank opportunity is gone, our first priority is to make sure we can score with a decent path into the four-foot rings. Our secondary objective is to manufacture a deuce, if possible.

What are the options?

Many of our group members argued for throwing the guard on our yellow counter (Y1). But given our priority of scoring at least one, other Puzzlers argued persuasively for keeping the front as open as possible for our get-out-of-jail draw. They highlighted the element of risk involved with shrapnel out front, on fresh ice, in the second end. 

In the video link below, you’ll see Bottcher’s first draw attempt crash on a centre guard – and that’s with perhaps two of the best sweepers on the planet! It’s our skip’s first time throwing down the ice in this direction, and we’d prefer the least possible risk for our last shot as possible. For many, that means playing into the rings with your first one and keeping the front open. 

A clockwise (CW) draw under the left-side R1 guard into the rings was very popular with our group. For many, the optimal place to finish was level with the yellow shot stone. And with this call, there is a “Plan B” option – into the back eight-foot rings, at about a 45-degree angle to Y1. That would leave a tough double for red and their shooter would definitely be rolling, so there’s a chance to manufacture a deuce that way. Both spots require precision but in the worst case – in which red makes the double – you should have a last-gasp draw for your single point.

The other shot that was quite popular was the freeze to R5 on the right side. It leaves the last-gasp draw and it has a few plan Bs… if it’s short and welds on the corner of R3, that might leave a bump to roll the shooter and this stone into the eight-foot to score. If it stays level with the shot rock, that makes the double very difficult for Bottcher. And if it slides to the corner of R5, Bottcher’s double attempt should jam, leaving you a nice control-weight hit for two. Even if it slides past R5, it might still end up second shot, with a really tricky double to be played by red.

Finally, many Puzzlers called for the split. Personally, I would not want to throw this. It calls for a lot of precision to get past the guards and make contact in the precise spot at the precise weight. Also, there aren’t really any Plan Bs, and there’s a good chance of leaving a double for the other guy. 

But worst of all, it could knock the shot rock to back-tee allowing red, if he's feeling lucky and brave, to freeze and steal. Primarily though, I don't like it because it calls for such a high level of precision on new ice with no Plan Bs.

My call

My problem in creating these puzzles is that I know what is played and the result, and that tends to cloud my decision. But this time, had I not known the outcome, I think I really would have played a freeze down to R5 – primarily because it has a bigger landing area than the draw to the other side. No really, I would. Almost certainly. For sure.

So what happened?

McEwen makes a beautiful freeze to R5, Bottcher tries to hit-and-freeze on to the corner, and comes oh-so-close to making a really nice shot. McEwen draws for his deuce. World-class shooting on relatively fresh ice. Terrific stuff.

My strategic takeaway? Look for shots that accomplish my objective, require the least amount of precision, and have plenty of Plan Bs.

You can see how this puzzle played out below, starting with Bottcher’s first before McEwen answers the puzzle with his next.