Chess on Ice; Chess Board on Pants

Posted on February 28, 2010


There’s an irresistible cliché for broadcasters of many sports: the “chess match.” Often an announcer is simply pointing out that there’s a tight back-and-forth battle going on. But to make sense of the metaphor there has to be some strategic rationality, where player A tries to predict what B will do before A makes her move. Bowlers, sprinters, and biathletes with staggered starts, among others, do not engage in strategic rationality; but it is a big part of what makes truly-interesting sports interesting.

But for a sport to be like a chess match it also needs a clear alternation of turns, with both players aiming for a similar objective, and a blurring of offensive and defensive roles and strategies. So tennis can be like a chess match — especially during long rallies — but the strategic matchups between pitchers and batters, or quarterbacks and middle linebackers, don’t really qualify.

But surely no major (or Olympic) sport is more chess-like than curling. Not only is there strategic rationality in spades (where teams are strategizing several rocks ahead, taking into account how they expect their opponent to counter) and a clear alternation of turns; there are standard openings with the first 6 or 8 rocks thrown, and a general battle for control over the strategic geography of “the board” (or house). The timing rule is exactly like in chess, where each team has its own clock counting down their total allowable time for the entire game. There is even an expectation that one side will concede the game before the bitter end when they recognize they have been “checkmated.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that curling has become a favorite sport on Wall Street during the Olympics. This is in part because their TVs are soldered onto CNBC, which is showing the curling right after working hours. In part because stock trading is also a strategic game. And in part because many of the curlers look like they could be traders or bankers in their day jobs. (Although on Wall Street you never concede defeat — not if you can ask for a bailout.)

Every Winter Olympics, since curling returned in 1998, people around the US and elsewhere find themselves strangely drawn to the sport. Usually as a kind of goofy eccentric game played by strangely ordinary-looking folks. As Eric Dash put it in the Times article, “To the uninitiated, the game seems like horseshoes combined with housekeeping. One team member slides a 42-pound stone toward the target zone, or “house,” while two “sweepers” guide it along by frantically sweeping the ice with brooms.” And then there’s the Norwegian men’s team’s pants, which have over half-a-million fans on Facebook.

But it’s not clear to me how many of the viewers of CNBC’s coverage in the US have any idea how complex, challenging, and dramatic the sport is. And this is not because the rented Canadian analysts (including two former Canadian national champions who are polished, experienced broadcasters) are dumbing it down. But the reverse: they make almost no concessions to the uninitiated.

I’ve had the advantage of watching these games with my wife, who curled competitively for years. I am constantly calling on her to interpret the rich vocabulary of jargon used by the announcers. The jargon almost always sounds like ordinary English, but it means something very particular. They refer to the “weight” of the rock, but what they are talking about is its speed. They about “drawing” (throwing the rock so that it lands in a particular place without touching any other rocks), about rocks “freezing” to other rocks (landing right in front of the other rock), and so on. But almost none of these translations are ever given or illustrated on the broadcast (they have the ability to place arrows, phantom rocks, etc, on the screen with their telestrators, but they rarely use these tools to communicate with Joe or Jenny Six-pack). Without an experienced curler beside you, I’m genuinely not sure whether you can eventually figure it out. I suspect you can; but casual empirical evidence suggests that people who tune in for only a short while have barely a clue what they’re talking about. And are not even clear how you actually score points at the end of the end.

What is most impressive about this rich vocabulary is that it marks out a large number of strategically significant things that can happen. As in baseball, there are a number of relevant factors that must be taken into account before throwing each rock/pitch; but not so many that you can’t make an educated calculation yourself about what the rational next move is. While both sports seem to move slowly for people used to more fluid games (soccer, hockey, basketball), they move just quickly enough for viewers making the same strategic calculations as the players.

And what’s great about these broadcasts — once you can parse the vocabulary — is that they now mic the players so you can hear them discussing their own decisions. And the broadcasters themselves are not afraid to speculate and debate about what the best strategy or move would be. They are also quick to explain whether the rock that was just thrown successfully achieved the strategic goal; and if not, what the strategic implications will be. There is just enough time between throws to have much more debate than there is either time or inclination for in baseball and football broadcasts.

So how complex is curling? How sophisticated are the strategies? I would guess that it’s in the neighborhood of baseball; probably more complex, because there is more interaction with an opponent who is on both offense and defense at the same time. But less than chess itself. Take the task of the players when they take their turn, as they all do twice per end, of throwing the rock. They need to have mastered something like the throwing trajectories of a pitcher like Greg Maddox: who could throw a fastball with varying speeds up, down, inside, and outside; but also curve balls and sliders in different locations, and a change-up. Curlers, especially the “skip” who throws the decisive last two rocks, also has to be able to master a very similar range of trajectories.

Curlers have an additional problem of having to understand the way the ice is behaving. Every sheet of ice is unique, with the rock traveling in different ways over different parts of the surface, and with these factors changing in the course of a game. Good curlers take every bit of data they can from their throws and those of the other team, often using stop watches to measure the time it takes to cover a certain distance.

And then there is the sweeping, which allows to team to modify the trajectory and speed of the rock’s movement while it is in play. How you judge or misjudge the sweeping is often the difference between victory and defeat.

Finally, it is worth noting one way in which curling is even more strategically difficult than chess. In chess, when you decide to move your knight to K5, you simply pick it up and put it there. In curling, you have to push a 42-lb piece of granite 140 feet or so and deliver it to a target within a range of 2 inches in some cases. (On Friday night, the Canadian woman’s team’s skip just barely missed such a shot in the last end, and again in an extra end, and gave away the gold medal.) If you miss that shot it’s like having your knight land on the wrong square and the whole complexion of the game is changed for both teams.

Bottom line: if you like chess and you like baseball, then you should like curling. If only you could figure out what they’re talking about.