You might remember the first time you played Tetris. Thirty seconds of assessment, then thirty seconds of figuring out the controls, and then roughly five years of life-energy sucked into stacking little colored blocks while Russian and Cuban paratroopers silently dropped into our country and attempted a takeover. Were it not for the brave teenagers of Calumet, Colorado and Patrick Swayze, their plan might very well have worked.
I went to the Ice Chalet in Knoxville, Tennessee to track down the appeal of another obsession-spawning game involving objects sliding slowly across a screen for hours at a time: curling, or as I like to call it, "Scottish Tetris." I took Doug Gillett for moral support. He's the guy in the Slovak national hockey team jersey, so you know he took this really, really seriously.
A Sport That Involves Wearing Teflon On Ice Has To Be Good
If you blew significant man-hours watching curling on television in 2006, you know at least the gist of curling. A long lane of ice. Forty-two pound stones. People in stretchy pants with brushes side-stepping and scrubbing ice furiously as breathmint-shaped rocks ease to a stop on a blue and red bullseye-shaped target. You may not have known what was going on, but like Tetris if you gave it longer than thirty seconds you were utterly hooked.
So consider yourself mildly shocked to know you can step on the ice, fiddle around for thirty minutes, and be familiar with pretty much everything one needs to know in order to play a game of curling. This is one of its instant selling points: unlike other Olympic sports, you can physically get out there and curl as a non-Olympic grade athlete. Actually, if I'm involved, it's a non-pickup-shuffleboard-game-at-a-retirement-home athlete, but that's the point: it's an egalitarian sport, and even at the big competitions it's possible to heave stones as a novice next to the biggest names in the sport.
The stones aren't cheap: the best ones come from the Ailsa Craig, an island where the preferred granite was mined up until 2006. If you want the real thing, the family who owns the island says they mined enough to keep curlers in good stead until 2020, and could cost you $400 a piece for the lower-end stones. After that, however, they'll have to depend on inferior granite from elsewhere. This breaks some purists' hearts, but not everyone is so concerned. Small local clubs use whatever they can as "stones."
You also need very little besides the stones to get going. You need ice, of course, and preferably "pebbled" ice that's been steamed ahead of time to give the ice the bumpy texture needed to make the stones curl. Did you just figure out the sport's name? And that because it's Scottish, everything's pretty literal in terms of terminology? If you did, take a cookie as a prize, and don't be shocked to learn that the Teflon condom you slip over one foot if you don't have a proper curling shoe is called a "slider."
(Oh yeah: they are real. Please note Dakota Curling's motto: "Our prices will ROCK you.")
If the idea of running around on ice with one shoe covered in Teflon sound like a bad idea, you're clearly against the idea of fun in general. The Teflon allows you to spring out of the hack (the starting blocks of curling, if you will) and then, in a graceful, gliding lunge, release the stone on its long slide down the alley toward the "house," or target. If you're me, you sort of half-stumble, half-careen, but let's not get hung up on the terminology. THE STONE GOES THAT WAY.
If you neglected to wear a belt that day, you also end up showing your blessed onion to the world behind you. To those of you who saw my ass on Sunday night: you're welcome.
Sweeping Like You Want To Kill Someone.
"Sweep! No, seriously, sweep!" The loudest voices you'll hear in curling belong to the skip. Again, we're getting Scottish here, since the game has someone built into it whose sole job for most of the game is to scream and give orders at the top of their lungs.
The screaming goes to the sweepers, the aspect of the game most frequently mocked by those who, watching curling in the Olympics, say "Isn't this just shuffleboard on ice?" I'd like to cordially invite all of these people to lick the ice for a dollar, because sweeping is not only integral to the game but the reason I saw guys in t-shirts out on the ice Sunday night. It's cold out there, but trot up and down the ice for two hours furiously scrubbing away while chasing a sliding rock, and you'll earn the postgame beers plus some.
Sweepers make up the margins a thrower misses and improve his/her throw by sweeping the ice, both improving the accuracy of the throw by helping to keep the throw on line and by affecting the speed of a throw. Sweep effectively and you can extend the distance of a throw by ten to fifteen feet. Get busy talking with a curler like I did while you're supposed to be sweeping, and you could cost your team the crucial margin of a point in a match while running desperately on ice in tennis shoes trying in vain to catch up with the stone.
The conversation, distracting as it may be, really is part and parcel of the entire curling experience. Curling is so obviously and transparently a sport made up on the spot by bored people stuck in the dead of winter with nothing to do but talk to each other and improvise their own entertainment. It's a social game one really could play with a beer at arm's reach. Players congratulate each other on shots across the ice; beers sit waiting rinkside in six-pack carriers.
It is the 16th century's answer to Seasonal Affective Disorder, the original Bowling League of the Scottish Lowlands designed to get you through the winter without burning your own house down.
Simple Games Are Evil, Addictive Ones
The question remains: is it a sport? What's it doing in the Olympics? Isn't it more of a game than a sport, a kind of overgrown bar distraction played on ice? Absolutely. Additionally, Ski-jumping is just formalized suicide, Biathlon is a quantified military training exercise, and short-track speed skating is a shoving match that happens at twenty miles per hour. Figure skating doesn't even have points or goals, and lies in the hands of potentially corruptible judges.
Curling is mesmerizing for one reason: it's simplicity. Chess on ice is the usual comparison, but it may be even simpler than the endless variations and gambits of Kasaparov's game. Leaning out on the hack and staring down the ice, curling engages the game-playing brain at its most basic and addictive of levels. Put this there; leave space here; completely screw over opponent. Like the best games, it is a true zero-sum game, but unlike chess involves the body, a kind of meditative rock-toss you do over and over again until you're in the wordless space Zen Buddhist monks are always blabbing on and on about. The ice helps: there's blank whiteness, a few lines, and everything else evaporates away.
This evaporation includes time. Doug and I worked into a game against three other n00bs, heaving away until we looked up and noticed the club members were all inside going to work on the beer and Utz snack mix in the chalet room. Time disappears in a game of curling like it does when you're playing pool at a bar, or on a long run where you fail to keep track of the distance, or like it did during a simple but well-constructed video game.
The Scottish thing? It also rears its head when you do something right in curling, which like in golf will happen at least once if you're doing everything wrong. In our last game I eased off the hack, let go of a stone, and watched it float behind some furious brushstrokes and loud yelling by our skip right on to the center dot of the house. Even after falling on my ass I could see it sitting just a few inches off center, and my veins surged with the kind of blind thrill you get after accidentally hitting a decent drive off the tee.
"Nice throw!" One of the members of the club boomed out from across the rink, and I made plans to singlehandedly found the Atlanta Curling Club, lack of natural ice and supplies be damned. (The Crunktown Icers: We Get Stoned. I already have the t-shirts in my head.)
Curling doesn't involve speed or too much agility. You don't need a mountain to play it, and you most certainly don't need rhinestones, though if you wanted to wear a Johnny Weir body suit no one's stopping you from bringing fabulous to the sport. In fact, you can pretty much wear anything as long as you have clean tennis shoes on. It's really the only hard and fast clothing rule in curling besides "wear pants," and even that might be negotiable. NFL-style celebrations are also considered acceptable, as illustrated in Doug's thanking of the Supreme Being after a final point-scoring thrown on the Hammer, or the final toss of an "end" or round.
In theory it's all quite simple, and therein lies its charm: it is a deceptively basic everyman's game, one where you shake hands not because you have to, but because you forgot to bring your own beer and need to butter your hosts up before imbibing, or because someone on the other team just made a masterful throw knocking two of your stones out of the house at once. A curling fight would be the most absurd thing in the history of the universe, especially because it is such a social game, and because it would be over quickly and in bloody fashion once someone threw an accurate rock in the direction of an opponent's head.
Having a social game of finesse and strategy in the middle of the Olympics' usual cast of misfit loners and teen prodigies is perhaps why the popularity of curling on tv makes so much sense. You'll likely never rip around a corner on a downhill course at 70 miles per hour in a body suit, but you certainly could pick up a broom, slip on a slider, and be heaving stones at your local rink with 30 minutes of prep time. Sure, that's a game, but so is golf, another devilish Scottish invention of deceptive and positively evil simplicity.
I never understood golf, but I get curling like I got Tetris, meaning there are little grey stones flying across the ice in my head as we speak to the tune of synthesized Russian mazurkas. If you'd like to contribute to the Crunktown Icers, email me at email@example.com and we'll get this party started, Dixieland curlers. I'll bring the beer this time, and a proper belt unless you like the view, in which case I'll have my best Apple Bottoms on sans belt.
Thanks to The Great Smoky Mountains Curling Club for the beer and ice, and to Holly and Hooper for the photos.