Curling: Quirky, Cordial...and Period

To many Americans, the sport of curling is a mystery of complex scoring and opaque strategies. A deeper look reveals a sport that dates back to the later SCA period and whose participants have much in common with SCA martial competitors.

Curling is a gentle sport in which one slides a 17-20 kg (38-44 lbs) granite stone, roughly spheroid but flattened on the top and bottom, along a sheet of ice 45-46 meters (146-150 feet) in length, aiming to score by having the stone come to rest as close as possible to a target -- called the "house" -- near the other end of the ice sheet. The game has ten "ends" in which each of the four players on each of the two teams gets to slide two stones (they call them "rocks") along the ice sheet, for a total of sixteen rocks in play per end. If the game is tied at the end of the tenth end (pun intended), then the teams keep playing until someone breaks the tie.

It sounds simple so far, but it gets complicated after that. First of all, the scoring isn't just based on which circle of the house you touch. In fact, the circles are mostly just a visual reference -- only the absolute distance to the center of the house actually matters, though stones completely outside the house are not counted. After all stones have been played for an end, the stone closest to the center determines which team will score. That stone scores one point. Any other stones that are within the house but which are closer than the other team's closest stone also score a point. Any of your stones that are further away than the other team's closest stone are not counted. Thus, only one team can score in each end.

There are some moderately-complex rules about intentionally knocking away an opponent's stone with yours, though mostly it is permitted. As one would imagine, being the person with the very last stone -- called the "hammer" -- in an end is an enormous competitive advantage. An important rule is that the team that does not score in an end gets the hammer for the next end.

The value of having the hammer, and how it is bestowed, leads to the game's intricate strategies. For instance, many teams will intentionally force the other team to score exactly one point in an end, just so they can have the hammer next end. If you have the hammer but only are able to guarantee one point, it is sometimes worth the gamble of intentionally knocking away your own scoring stone with a shot that also sends the hammer stone itself away from the house. When this happens -- a "blank end" as they call it -- no team scores, but the hammer stays with the team that had it before. In other words, you give up a guaranteed one point and loss of hammer in exchange for the chance at two or more points the following end.

Curling strategies are every bit as complex as chess, but with the added challenge of needing physical dexterity and precision to accurately slide the stones. The ice sheet is not perfectly smooth. In fact, it is intentionally dusted with water droplets before the game to produce an effect called "pebble" on the surface. And the behavior of the pebble changes as the game progresses. As each stone slides along, team members with small brooms sweep ahead of the stone to remove or redistribute the pebble, thereby changing the stone's path. The stones are slid along with a slight spin -- generally about 2.5 rotations over the length of their path -- to cause them to "curl" as they move along and interact with the pebble. This, of course, is where curling gets its name. Teammates get to sweep to guide your stones for the first part of their journey, but then opponents can interact with your stone and any it has impacted after a certain point.

Between the difficulty of accurately sliding the stone, the challenge of coordinating efforts among one curler and three sweeping teammates, and the complex rules of scoring, curling presents a challenge worthy of the most skilled player. The very best, such as those who play in the Winter Olympic Games, plan their strategies three, four, or even more stones ahead.

What makes curling interesting to an SCA audience are two things: First, it is period! A curling stone marked with the date 1511 was found in Dunblane, Scotland, and paintings from the mid 1500s depict either curling or something very much like it.

Second, the etiquette of curling is very much like the best etiquette found on SCA martial list fields. Players generally score their own matches, with team members mutually agreeing which stones are closest to the center of the house. Occasionally, a foul occurs when a player accidentally touches a stone in play or bumps one that is stationary. In these cases -- even at the world championship levels of play -- the participants are expected to call their own fouls, rather than to try to avoid being spotted by a referee. Disputes are rare and are usually politely resolved.

There is a very cordial atmosphere among curling teams, and a very high standard of conduct. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, curling fans who were new to the game actually caused concern and distress to some of the players, because they cheered enthusiastically as they would for other sports. In curling, that is just not the way things are done, though the fans were generally well-intentioned. It is considered rude in curling to cheer for mistakes by the opposing team, as well. And, as in SCA combat, there are certain times when it is proper to yield the bout, as it were. In curling, if your team has no reasonable chance of winning, it is not only allowed but expected that you will offer the other team a handshake and thereby gracefully concede. This honorable defeat allows everyone to enjoy more games and helps preserve the general congeniality of the contest.

Although its rules are not at all trivial, the sport of curling offers a highly challenging game that is accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. It combines dexterity, precision, and intricate strategies in an atmosphere of good sportsmanship and comraderie not unlike SCA martial activities. For SCA folk interested in a period and courteous pastime, it may be worth watching a curling match on the Olympics TV coverage or a sports channel, or reading up on the sport online.

Author's note: This article is purely based on research; I have never actually tried curling. I first saw it played live while visiting Scotland, but didn't have the time to give it a try or even to really learn about it. Seeing it on the Olympic TV coverage, I became fascinated because of the courteous attitudes of the players, and I decided to do some background reading so I could understand what I was watching. Learning that curling is SCA period, and that its players have so much in common with our fighters when it comes to codes of behavior, I wanted to share an introduction to curling with our readers at SCAtoday.net.

And, now that I've learned a little bit about this fascinating game, I can't wait to give it a try!