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What Exactly Is Curling?

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Olympic curling has taken to the ice, but if you're like most Americans, this writer included, the game is a bit baffling. Here's a quick, stripped-down primer on everyone's favorite icy alternative to shuffleboard. It doesn't cover anywhere near all of the game's nuances, but it should give you enough info that you can enjoy watching an end or two. (And yes, you'll learn what an "end" is.)

WHAT'S THE OBJECT OF CURLING?

Good question. First, let's get a bit of the jargon down. The playing surface in curling is called "the sheet." Sheet dimensions can vary, but they're usually around 150 feet long by about 15 feet wide. The sheet is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to "curl," or deviate from a straight path. These water droplets are known as "pebble."

At each end there's a target that looks like a big bullseye. These targets are known as "the houses." The center of the house is known as the "button." Basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

WHAT'S WITH THE SWEEPING?

How Curling Works
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Remember how we talked about the pebble of ice droplets that the rock has to travel across? When the stone touches the pebble, there's friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the house.

Obviously, that friction is not always a good thing, but sweeping helps combat the problem. The sweeping motion raises the temperature of the ice by a degree or two, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone and keeps the stone moving in a straight line.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE YELLING?

Each curling team has four members: a lead, a second, a vice-skip (or third), and a skip. Each "end" (curling's equivalent of a baseball inning) involves both teams shooting (or "delivering") eight stones at the house, with players delivering two stones apiece.

When the lead, second, and vice are delivering their stones, the skip stands at the opposite end of the sheet (near the house) and uses his broom to give his teammates a target for their deliveries. Once the stone has been delivered and is a "running stone" (that is, one that's still sliding), the skip then yells to the sweepers to let them know when to sweep and how hard. When the skip shoots the last two stones of a team's end, the vice takes over calling the shots.

HOW DO YOU KEEP SCORE?

In each end, both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all 16 stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that's closest to the button (center of the house) effectively "wins" the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team's closest stone. Since the team that won the end always has at least one stone that's closer to the button than their opponent, the team always scores at least one point, and could score up to eight points.

If neither team manages to keep a stone in the house during an end, it's known as a "blank end," and no points are scored. Olympic curling matches last for 10 ends unless there is a tie, in which case it goes to extra-ends, curling's equivalent of overtime.

WHAT'S THE HAMMER?

As you might have guessed from reading about the scoring system, throwing the last stone of an end is a huge advantage. If you've got the last stone, you can always try to knock the other team's best stone away from the button. If a team holds the last stone for an end, it "has the hammer," and should probably be able to score some points. If the team without the hammer manages to somehow stymie their opponent and score points, it's called a "stolen end." Whichever team fails to score points in an end gets the hammer for the next end.

SO IS THERE STRATEGY INVOLVED?

Yes, there's all sorts of strategy in curling. Let's say your team doesn't have the hammer. You're at a huge disadvantage when it comes to scoring points, so you might opt to play defensively. To do that, you might just deliver a number of "guards," or rocks that will sit in front of the house and provide an obstacle for the other team's stones. Alternatively, guards can be used to defend your stones that are already in the house from being knocked out by the other team's "takeout" shots.

The third major type of curling shot is the "draw," a shot that's meant to avoid other stones and come to rest in the house. Generally, a draw is used with the hope of scoring points, a guard is thrown to protect the house or a stone that's already been thrown, and a takeout is used defensively.

MAY I SEE A CLIP?

Yes you may.

This post was originally published in 2010.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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