Here’s a conundrum we recently faced at the Daily Curling Puzzle, the Facebook group I started to try and improve my tactical skills. 

I should make clear at the outset that I am no professional skip. I didn’t really play the game until my late 30s and didn’t take it seriously until I hit the seniors at age 50. I have had a couple of successes since then–skipping my club to win our province, skipping my partner to the semifinals of last season’s Scottish pairs, and playing second on our team that made the final of this year’s Scottish seniors, one small, agonizing game away from the worlds.

And it was these last two games that convinced me that I needed tactical help, getting beaten in both because our strategy was second-best.

And that’s why the Daily Curling Puzzle was born–me trying to piece together the tactics of our sport. So what you read below may not be the answer (as if curling has “an answer”). What they represent is one fellow travellers’ thoughts as he attempts to move towards curling enlightenment. I hope they help you on your journey.

And so to today’s puzzle, this time involving Alberta’s Team Kevin Koe and Team Brendan Bottcher (Wild Card) at the 2019 Canadian men’s championship–The Brier. Many of our group’s Puzzlers recognized that being one down in the ninth end, Kevin Koe (red) needed to either score two or more, or blank to keep hammer in the 10th end. Conversely, Brendan Bottcher (yellow) wants to force Koe to a single to get the hammer back, or better yet, steal to go two-up playing the tenth. So we expect yellow to play to the middle, get one or two under cover and make it hard for us (red) to squeeze in there and score. That’s pretty much where the puzzle finds us.

Curling Canada YouTube

Curling Canada YouTube

It also finds us just halfway through the end. One thing I’ve learned during many past puzzles is not to panic. We are not in the “cash out our chips” phase of this end where we need to deliver one final blow, but instead are in the “building blocks” phase, trying to manoeuvre things to our advantage so that when we do go for it with our skip’s throws, we’re going for a bunch.

So what building blocks do we have? As many Puzzlers noted, there’s not much of a foundation for a blank, with rocks scattered all over the house. We’re going for two.

Is that guard helping us? Not really–it’s guddling up the middle and making it hard for us to score. But it is sitting pretty high up and with a good Brier ice swing, we should be able to make some play on the yellows in behind.

A number of Puzzlers suggested peeling the guard now. But would they then replace it a little closer to the house, making it that much tougher to get around and play on the centre yellows? We’d be forced to playing a runback, and on one of their stones–never good. Let’s have as few yellows entering the house as possible.

Another popular call was the hack- or board-weight hit on the top yellow and roll under the red guard. Kevin looks at it during the timeout but says it’s not an easy shot and that Bottcher will ignore any rolled reds and keep guarding the middle. So that shot would leave the end in pretty much the same position: Yellows protected in the centre that are hard to remove, albeit with a few nerve-jangling reds over to the side. If they trade these shots for a bit, Koe will eventually have to play the long runback for all the marbles in the game. Miss it and Bottcher steals two … and it’s over. Koe would be betting everything on one shot.

Having said that, many Puzzlers liked the runback. For Russ Howard in the commentary booth, the problem is that they only make it “once in a while.” If it’s a low probability shot for these guys–the best throwers with the best sweepers in the world–then what chance for the rest of us mortals?

Moreover, B.J. rightly points out, “If I don’t make it, we’re dead.” His shooter would be out in front somewhere, and those two yellows would still be sitting in the middle waiting for Brendan to throw another guard on them.

The last type of call that Puzzlers liked was a tap or freeze in the middle, trying to move the yellows behind tee line and set up a pocket, or nestling a red in front of the yellows and giving it backing. These are pure setup shots, putting a red in there now that can be used with the skip’s last or second-last to try and get two. Listen to Ted Appleman, Kevin’s fifth during the time out: “I liked your first call (tapping the front yellow into a triple position), see what he does, and then run that (the yellow guard) in. That way you’ll have a control rock in front of those yellows.”

Sadly, it didn’t come off. B.J. throws it heavy or wide or maybe a bit of both, it hangs out and it bounces out in the open. All that planning for nothing!

Which brings me to my final point. It never, ever ceases to amaze me at the high percentage of shots that aren’t made–even by these guys, the best throwers with the best sweepers on the planet. In searching for puzzles to put to the group, I spend most of my free time looking for good calls that are then made by the player. I’m beginning to think they don’t exist.

This makes me think it’s impossible to predict three or four shots ahead. There is simply too much variation in our game to play tic-tac-toe. All we can do at this stage of the end is set up good conditions–rocks under cover, rocks with backing, rocks split around the house–that allow us a chance to cash in our chips when the time comes. In this case, Ted was calling for a rock with backing that might give them a chance to cash in later.

And it makes me think that a key to skipping is choosing shots with the greatest number of good Plan Bs. Here, the runback triple would be ideal … but will almost certainly miss and its Plan Bs suck (i.e. another high centre guard). And a hit-and-roll will very probably roll out, leaving you no further forward. The tap on those centre yellows is high probability in comparison to those calls, and it had a decent Plan B if missed the right way (light, not heavy.)

So what am I taking away from this puzzle? I can’t play tic-tac-toe–there’s just too much variation. At this stage of the end, I’m looking for good setups that create good conditions for scoring. And ones that have lots of Plan Bs.