Here’s a puzzle I posed recently to my Daily Curling Puzzle group on Facebook, before revealing what actually happened using the real-game video a couple of days later:

How many chances are we going to get to win this one? We’d better cash in while we can. We’re favourites, but the other guys have been perfect so far. Here’s the situation:

End three of 10

We’re Yellow

We’re up by one

But Red has hammer

It’s our third’s second shot

We have a four-foot swing on good ice

Five-rock rule

What’s our call? 

What were Team Canada’s women facing as they battled Team Korea in the championship final of the 2020 World Juniors, a competition they’d have few opportunities to win before they age out? 

Strategy Zacharias 137 puzzle

Well, it’s only the third end of 10, you (Yellow, or Y) are up by one, and Korea (Red i.e. R) has last rock advantage, aka the hammer. Ideally, you’d like to steal but that’s going to be tricky with one single centre guard, not many rocks in the house for freezing or backing, and they have lots of runback material if you do get anything in behind.

Failing the steal, a force would be good, and giving up a deuce wouldn’t be the end of the world. But giving up three here would be ... not preferred. 

The calls our Puzzlers made fell into two broad categories: Play defensively and clean up the front, or be aggressive and play into the rings. The benefit of the defensive play to clear the guards is that, if we did it well and eliminated most of the cover, we would reduce the chance of Korea scoring a disastrous-for-us three. They’d have less places to hide two rocks and score a third with their hammer (last-rock) throw. 

The downside is that if we choose to peel guards, Red probably loops another one in to split the house. Unless they leave us a double (unlikely), they’re almost certainly going to score two. 

But say we start to play aggressively now and come into the rings, perhaps drawing behind the centre guard or even freezing to their shot rock. If we execute well, we’re keeping the pressure on them, forcing them to play tough runbacks or delicate chips to dig us out. If we make our shots, we could force them to one.  

But playing aggressively is a tad risky. If we bump a freeze or rub a guard, we’ll be letting them chip us out and sit more red stones in the house. That could earn them a three really quickly. 

So the choice here is play defensively, clean up, simplify and increase the likelihood of holding them to two - or play aggressively, come in, complicate, try to earn the force but risk mis-executing and cough up three.

But why not peel now, let them loop another in and freeze with your skip’s last stone? One big problem with that is that it is indeed your skip’s last stone and if you miss the freeze (maybe the toughest shot in curling) with Red lying two, then they’re taking you out and scoring three. 

So for those Puzzlers playing defence and more-or-less conceding two, there were lots of good options called for the double-peel and even the triple. Look at the L-shape between R2, R3 and R4. The triple might be there. 

WCF YouTube

WCF YouTube

But Canadian skip Mackenzie Zacharias has a good team in front of her, wants to play for the force of one and is willing to risk things getting messy if they misfire. What are her options?

Many Puzzlers wanted to play the chip-and-roll on the shot stone and, in watching the video outcome below, you’ll see that it was probably there. 

Many other Puzzlers called for the corner freeze, but freezing to lie shot on a rock that’s above the tee line behind a guard is tricky, tricky business. The shooter has to put it in ‘the window’ and the skip and sweepers need to be millimetre-perfect. If you rub the guard, Korea puts one in the top four-foot rings to lie shot with hammer. If you slide too deep, Korea puts one top-four to lie two with hammer. Either way, not good. 

Another option that one or two expert Puzzlers suggested is the ‘almost-freeze’. Leave it just in front of that R4 shot stone, ever-so-slightly buried under the guard and Korea won’t be able to remove it without sacrificing their shot rock. More importantly, you can use it later to remove that R4 and roll your shooter across, splitting the house and maybe earning the force. I like this set-up shot. 

The most popular call if playing aggressively is the draw around the centre guard. It requires much less precision than the freeze so it has a greater chance of putting pressure back on the Koreans. Secondly, it has some decent Plan Bs ... rub the centre guard to leave more centre shrapnel out there for your skip to hide behind, and even go deep toward your own back yellow to lie shot with some backing.

Finally, it leaves Korea an always-tricky runback if you make it well. Many talk in our group as if runbacks are automatic, but even the best pro teams on the planet struggle to make these shots on a regular basis. Sure, if the Koreans stuff their guard straight back and leave it guarded, that would be bad. But that’s a one-in-50 shot for even the best. Chances are they make a glancing blow and roll away or miss entirely. You chip their R4 to clear all the reds in the house and the end is going your way.

What did Mackenzie play? Watch the video and find out. Did she make the right call?