20: Brier review


Note: I will not be previewing the Canadian mixed doubles championships. I dabbled with mixed doubles ratings a few months ago, but really they need to be individual ratings and not team ratings given that most players don’t exist on permanent teams. Maybe that’s a project for a rainy summer day.

The Brier is in the books – congrats to Team Bottcher who is the new world number one – and there were two issues that popped up that were of special interest to me.

1. Down 2 with hammer, or tied without? I analyzed this conundrum pretty thoroughly in the fall and found that even against the best teams, being tied without last rock going into the final end is better than being down 2 with. Against the very very best teams in the world, it’s close, and maybe on perfect ice it’s closer, but I’m still convinced it’s better to be tied without. Anyway, this issue came up quite often in the Brier.

Right away, it came up for Brad Jacobs who, in his second game, trailed Mike McEwen by two heading into the ninth. He elected to play for the blank and McEwen obliged. Well. I don’t know if McEwen obliged because the video doesn’t show the first two rocks of the ninth end, but presumably McEwen’s lead, Colin Hodgson, threw his first rock in the house because historically, you’d expect your opponent to try and score some points in that spot. Anyway, we now know that Brad Jacobs stands with Kevin Koe and John Shuster on this strategic tactic. (And, possibly, Mike McEwen does not.)

But analyzing this situation is even more complicated than my original analysis. The decision prior to the ninth end is not to score 2 or take the blank, it’s to try to score 2 or take the blank. And in trying to score 2 you risk scoring 1 or giving up a steal, which puts you in worse position than had you blanked. Of course, you could also blank anyway or score more than two. But until I know the realistic distribution of what happens when you try to score two in that spot, I’m not willing to crush Jacobs for his decision just yet.

That said, cases do come up where there is a choice with the final rock or two. In PEI’s game against Team Canada in Draw 13, PEI skip-sub Tyler Smith was giving Brad Gushue a legit fight. PEI was down one with hammer heading into the ninth. On his last shot, Smith faced a draw to the button to score one. He also could have just drawn to the eight foot and given up with to go the tenth down two with last rock. PEI did give up one, but they were clearly trying to score there and came up just short.

Other situations of note included Scott McDonald opting to give up one to Matt Dunstone while Jason Gunnlaugson went pretty hard for 3 against Brad Jacobs, though when that becomes an impossibility he mentions to Adam Casey that blanking is as good as scoring two.

Most famously, the situation came up in the Brier final. It didn’t really come up in strategy in a meaningful way but Bottcher went into the ninth up one with last rock. Before Koe’s first shot, John Morris convened a secret on-ice meeting to inform his teammates that Bottcher would rather give up a steal than score one.

However, it’s unknown to me how Brendan Bottcher feels about this strategy. We know John Morris loves this strategy more than anything in the curling world, though. And normally when John Morris loves something, you’d be advised to copy him. But this is one case where you shouldn’t.

(It’s also worth pointing out that every team that faced this choice ended up losing. The bottom line is you’re in a very bad spot no matter what choice you make, but that doesn’t mean you should make the wrong choice.)

2. Brier scorigami. Jon Bois coined the term scorigami for an NFL game that produces a score that has never been seen before. In Draw 14, Northern Ontario beat Manitoba 3-0, the first time there’s been a 3-0 game in Brier history. I found myself glued to the game, not because it was exciting – it wasn’t – but because it was clear some sort of history was being made.

At the Brier, Brad Jacobs went all in on using the tick shot, whether it was the first end or the last. Hilarity ensued when he won hammer to start against Gunnlaugson. Ryan Harden put on a ticking exhibition for the first three ends and both teams’ hitting ability and relative impatience led to blanked ends.

After Jacobs took one in the fourth (with another tick involved) there were three more blanks. Those blanks had nothing to do with tick shots, though. Still, a 1-0 game heading into seven was not the best advertisement for the sport.

I’m on record as wanting to ban the tick shot. The problem with it is that it distorts the value of hammer that is bad for the game. There is no defense for the non-hammer team against the tick. As it becomes more prevalent it will become more difficult for the non-hammer team to score. No matter how much you admire the ability of the best curlers in the world to execute tick shot, it makes the game less interesting to the majority of spectators. (It perhaps was not a coincidence that Jacobs was only on TSN’s featured game three times during the Brier.)

The whole reason the down-two-with or tied-without is a debate now is that hammer becomes so valuable with the tick shot that the best curlers think that scoring three with hammer is easier than stealing one. And while my analysis shows that’s not true, even for the best teams, it is a reasonably close call.

I missed out on the transition to the free guard zone, but I love watching games of that era. Because games among elite teams of those times could also be freakishly boring on occasion. Nationally televised games in massive sold-out arenas were relegated to peeling exhibitions. It’s one of those things that doesn’t seem possible until you see it yourself.

On some level I’m sure it was pretty impressive to see Pat Ryan’s team relentlessly throw perfect peels. Like, I could never do that, so I’m impressed! But I don’t need to watch other people do it over and over again. That does not make for an interesting viewing experience. And that’s not to say I blame anyone of that era for playing that way. Pat Ryan is one of my favorite players for having the courage to basically break the game and force changes that made the game better.

And I don’t blame Brad Jacobs (or Ryan Harnden) for how this game turned out. Keep throwing those ticks guys. Burn it all down. Do it enough and the game will be made better by additional rules that force some action and bring the advantage of hammer back in line to where it was ten years ago. Frankly, I’m amazed the tick shot isn’t used more aggressively early in a game given how much ice conditions have improved.

This game won’t move the needle to reforming the sport because it was buried on a Wednesday afternoon when only the die-hards were watching. It also helps that Team Jacobs didn’t perform very well at the Brier. But it won’t be long before a game like this happens in the Brier final and the reaction won’t be pretty. In fact, this year’s final was teetering towards becoming a game like that, what with a mere single point scored through six ends. The lack of scoring was for different reasons, as the tick shot was never played. However, there was still a lack of action in some ends. That said, the final four ends were exciting and so the beginning of the game will be forgotten.

But it’s a matter of time before the tick shot is banned or the free guard zone is expanded to seven rocks or some other creative solution is adopted. The 3-0 game won’t be the one that reaches the tipping point, but it will have played a small role in pushing things in that direction.

That’s still a ways away, though. Much like the initial adoption of the free guard zone, these games will have to become more common for action to be taken by the governing bodies. Blanks were actually sharply down from last year’s blank-fest. With 14.5% of ends being blanks, it was the second least-blanked Brier of the last seven. Much like the drop in blanks at the Scotties, I’d guess rust is the primary reason for this. It will be interesting to see what next year’s events look like when everyone presumably starts the event with an entire season of competitive curling in the books.

Anyway, the main reason I was glued to this game was because in 30 years people will look back on the 2023 Brier final or the 2024 Brier final or whatever game was the tipping point for the next major rules change and wonder how curling could have been played like that. The 3-0 game on Wednesday will be a mere footnote on whatever version of Wikipedia exists by then. But that was the game that proved something like this was possible.