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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2002/02/20
by David Steinberg

The Sport With a Curl in Its Name

Ever since the 1992 Summer Olympics, I have made a point not to watch
the United States’s coverage. It started then when I was living in
Las Cruces. With NBC focusing on the triplecast, I got bored waiting
for the taped delayed versions of the Dream Team games. I switched
over to Univision; they were showing them live. Of course I don’t
speak any Spanish so the commentary sounded like, ‘Blah blah blah
Michael Jordan blah blah blah blah The Mailman blah blah blah.’ Even
with the language barrier, it was still preferable coverage.
When I moved to Seattle, I started watching the CBC coverage. Sure I
learned all about the Canadian athletes and nothing about the US
ones, but getting live event based coverage in English made it
worthwhile. In 1998, I didn’t even think about watching anything
else. As a result, I discovered a new love – curling.
1998 was the year of Sandra Schmirler. As she led the Canadian
Women’s team to the gold medal, her personality shone through.
Like most curlers do, she wore a microphone; you could hear her
comments to her teammates. It was that that caused me to start
watching. Then I began to catch on how the game worked, and I was
really hooked.
Curling is a simple sport to describe. Each team gets 8 shots in an
end (think of an inning in baseball). For each shot, they slide
42 pound granite stones down a sheet of ice. The ice is ‘pebbled’ by
spraying water on the ice so the rocks will curve (or ‘curl’) as they
move down the rink. Teammates can sweep the ice with brooms. The
friction from the brooms cause the pebbles to melt, making the stones
move faster and straighter. At the far end of the rink is a series of
rings. The goal is to have the stone closest to the center of the
rings at the end of the match. The team with that stone scores one
point for each of their stones that is in the rings and closer to the
center than any stone of their opponent.
Somehow, I doubt the above paragraph will cause people to demand that
ESPN get curling rights. What makes the game interesting? Curling,
more so than any other sport, is about strategy. Most of the time
during an end happens between shots. The players discuss what shot
they want to take next while the commentators critique the decision
making. Ultimately then, what makes curling great is what makes
baseball great – not to mention most Phish jams – tension and release.
In baseball, the biggest excitement happens before the play. Bases
loaded, Frank Thomas at the plate. Will it be a fastball or a slider?
Which would you throw? The tension builds up until finally the pitch
happens and the result is known. Curling is like that too. However,
the tension builds even more. Imagine how much more tense baseball
would be if every pitch took about 20 seconds to happen. The tension
builds in curling until the rock gets near the rings. Only then will
you know if the plan they have created is going to work. There even
is some visceral pleasure in the sport. There always is a joy in
watching a well angled shot happen. When a player can knock out two
or three of the opponents stones at once, even non fans look up and
say, ‘Cool.’ It’s like watching a great pool shot.
Until the 2002 Olympics, being a curling fan in the United States was
like being the fan of an extremely obscure band. Sure it’s fun
turning friends onto the sport and it is great that the pressure on
the game is relatively low [1], but it would be nice if I could see
more of it. Other than the occasional match on CBC, most curling is
only shown on Canada’s TSN and – due to contractual obligations – that
network can’t be picked up by any US cable company. The Salt Lake
City games are bringing the sport more attention. CNBC and
MSNBC have been covering some of the games, and they’re been
a hit. Columnists on ESPN and Slate have written mini odes to the
sport. As this column is being written [2], the US Women’s Team needs
only one more win to advance to the medal round. If the US gets a
medal out of this, let alone if they manage to somehow upset Canada
and get the gold, curling could be a mainstay on cable sports
channels. Surely, there must be more of an audience for curling than
the Fireman’s Challenge and the other random stuff that ESPN2 airs
during the day.
Curling will always be somewhat of an acquired taste. I don’t ever
expect to see curlers get million dollar contracts – indeed, part of
the charm of watching curling championships is seeing the graphic for
each player that says what their real job is. All I’m asking for is a
little more coverage. Come on small sports networks. What else are
you going to show – the Lumberjacks Championships? Give us the
hammer! [3]
For more information on curling, see:’
[1] In the wake of the figure skating debacle, it’s a relief to watch
a sport in which – in almost all cases – the teams get together at the
end of the round and decide what the score is. ‘Yeah it looks like
your rock is closer, it’s a 2.’ Only in extreme cases does the
measuring device come out.
[2] 7 PM PST, Sunday Feb 17
[3] The hammer is a curling term for the team that has the final stone
thrown in an end. If you think about it, you’ll see that there is a
huge strategic advantage to having the last rock. You can use it to
knock out your opponent’s stone and they can’t do anything about it.
Most of the strategy in curling revolves around who has the hammer.
If no one scores, or if the team that doesn’t have last rock manages
to score, the hammer stays with the same team. As a result, the
strategy for the team with the hammer is always to try to score more
than one point (It’s easy to use the last rock to get the one point,
so that’s just a waste of the advantange), or zero so as to keep it.
The goal of the other team is to try to score a point or two or force
the other team to score one point. Curling is one of few sports where
a goal of the game is to force the other team to score.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at
and he was the stats section editor for The Phish Companion.

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