Hear more about this subject and other curling topics from Jonathan Havercroft on Rocks Across the Pond: A Curling Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and TuneIn
With the start of the new curling season just around the corner, most curlers will experience playing under the new five-rock free guard zone (FGZ) for the first time. While the rule has been used in the Grand Slam of Curling for several years now, the WCF only adopted it as the official rule for curling beginning this season.
There are two rationales behind this rule change. First, the five rock FGZ gives each team an equal number of protected guards. Under the four rock rule, the team with the hammer only had one protected guard, whereas the team without the hammer had two. Now a team can set up an end with two protected guards regardless of whether or not it has the hammer.
Second, the rule make the game more entertaining to watch by encouraging more rocks in play, making comebacks more likely, making defensive tactics like the tick shot less effective and reducing the number of blank ends.
While the elite teams have experience playing with this rule for years, most club teams will start the season with no experience under the new rule.
Because the rule is new it’s going to take a few seasons for both competitive and club teams to figure out how to adapt their style of play. I’ve only played eight games using the five-rock FGZ, and in a few instances the rule changes did lead to some unfamiliar situations. Most notably we would often have long chats about what to do with the fifth rock of the end – especially when we were trying to protect a lead.
So what follows are some fairly provisional suggestions about four openings to an end that now become possible under the five-rock FGZ?
1. Delayed Corner Guard
One tactic my team tried out last season was not putting up a corner guard with our first shot of the end but with our second shot. This enabled us to be moderately aggressive. We were putting a guard in play that we could use to generate offense, but were not going all in to score a big end. This strategy works well in early ends, or when the score is tied in the middle ends.
Our opponent would begin the end by drawing top four. We would respond by hitting that stone with the goal of rolling to one side of the house. The opponent normally responds by hitting our stone – but if they roll back towards the center it is normally behind the t-line, or if they do not roll far then they remain out in the edge of the house. In either case, we would respond by putting up a corner guard on the other side of the house.
The opponent is now faced with some tricky choices – guard a stone that is not in a great scoring position, draw another stone top four, or try to go around the corner guard. No matter what the opponent chooses, we would then have a good set-up for the end – we would have access to the four foot to score with the last shot, and rocks in play on the side of the house to use to generate offense and a corner guard to come around.
2. Cutting off the corner guard
This is actually an old tactic used by Manitoba teams back in the 1980s, but I expect it to make a comeback as there will be more corner guards in play.
A common opening with the four-rock FGZ would be for the team without hammer to draw top four, the team without hammer to then put up a corner guard. The team without hammer would normally respond by guarding their own stone or simply drawing another stone top 8 and wait until the fifth stone of the end to remove the corner guard.
But now a team without hammer has to wait until the seventh stone to remove that guard, so it becomes a lot more dangerous. One way to counter the corner guard is to draw around it. This does involve some risk, as a poorly placed draw might give the opponent either another guard to come around, or a stone to freeze against.
But the advantage of cutting off the corner guard is that the area the opponent has to draw behind is smaller and you are sitting two stones in the house, whereas your opponent is sitting none. Sometimes the best guard is second shot.
3. Double Corner Guard
The most common placement for a second corner guard under the four-rock rule was the other side of the house. The thought was that guards separated by distance would be hard to double peel.
With a five-rock free guard zone, the double peel on the second’s first shot is no longer an option. So there is a case to be made for trying to place two corner guards on the same side of the ice (ideally separated by some distance) and then try to hide a stone underneath it.
I think the double corner guard accomplishes two things. First, a well staggered double corner guard on one side also leaves the other side of the ice open for a draw to the button if the end plan does not work out well. I think there is a case to be made for teams with hammer to try to place rocks on one side of the house to attempt to generate offense while having an open side as a bail out option, rather than placing guards on both sides of the rings and then not having an open path to the button with the last rock.
Second, a double corner guard creates a lot of coverage under which to hide multiple stones and potentially build up a big end.
4. Attack on the side first, then deal with opponent’s stones in the middle
I noticed a few teams, including Kyle Smith’s Scottish men’s team, use this strategy at last year’s European Championships and I expect the five-rock FGZ will make this an even more appealing option.
Since the advent of the four-rock FGZ, most of the game has become a race to the four foot. The team without last rock puts up a center guard, the opposing team comes around it, then the first team freezes on it, and the teams repeat until one of them tries a big weight shot to either sit a lot of stones, or get themselves out of trouble.
To be honest it can get a bit repetitive at times and often meant you could skip watching the first few shots of the end. The Smith rink tended to shake things up by responding to the center guard with a corner guard. When the other team went around the center guard, the Smith team would ignore that stone as well and draw around their corner guard.
The advantage of this strategy is it sets up the team’s second point early in the end. While the team without hammer can set up a good steal opportunity, from the sixth rock of the end on, the Smith rink would then attack the shot stone. The team without hammer has to protect shot rock for ten stones, or risk giving up a deuce.
If the goal for the team with hammer is to score two points, then this approach is a clever way to do it. So often teams obsess about who is shot rock and how they can be shot rock after they throw. But you only need to be shot rock after the last rock is thrown in order to score. This approach lets a team lock in its second point, and then it can chase after shot rock.