With the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games well underway, curling — one of only 15 elite sports included in the Games — is back in the spotlight. The event, which mixes elements of shuffleboard, chess and hockey in its intricate dance of stones and brooms, might be less well-known than big events like halfpipe and figure skating. But it’s just as compelling to watch, as many viewers are now discovering.
The Olympic curling competition started on Thursday with the mixed doubles matchups. By Tuesday, Canada’s team had made quick work of their game with Switzerland, grabbing the gold medal and winning a legion of new curling fans. Don’t worry, there’s plenty more curling on the Olympic menu: the semifinals and finals for the men’s and women’s teams will continue on Feb. 22, 23, and 24. So to prepare for the competition to come, here’s your primer on curling’s rules, positions, scoring and equipment — and a little taste of just how excited new and returning fans are getting about the sport that’s most like sweeping rocks.
Who are the American curling competitors at the 2018 Olympics?
For the third consecutive Olympics, John Shuster, 35, will serve as skip for the U.S. men’s team. He’s the first American men’s curler to make four Olympic squads; Shuster, a Chisholm, Minnesota native, was lead for the 2006 Olympic team that won bronze in Torino. Shuster’s Olympic skip record isn’t so sterling. Faced with high expectations after the 2006 bronze medal, the Americans finished last in Vancouver and ninth in Sochi.
Joining Shuster on the team are John Landsteiner — who competed with Shuster in Sochi — Tyler George and Matt Hamilton. Hamilton’s sister, Becca, made the U.S. women’s team, joining fellow first-time Olympians Nina Roth — the team’s skip — Tabitha Peterson and Aileen Geving.
The Hamilton siblings, who hail from McFarland, Wisconsin, will be busy in PyeongChang. Older brother Matt, 28, and sister Becca, 27, will represent the U.S. in mixed doubles.
Millions will be watching their PyeongChang power play.
What is the history of curling?
The origin of curling traces back to 16th century Scotland, where the sport was played on frozen ponds and lochs. The first recorded match took place around 1541: a Scottish notary recorded a challenge between a monk at Paisley Abbey and a relative of the abbott. Scottish immigrants spread the sport to North America: the first Canadian curling club opened in Montreal in 1807, and the first American club appeared in Pontiac, Mich. in 1828. The Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland, the so-called “mother club” of curling, wrote the first official curling rules in 1838.
Curling first appeared as a medal sport at the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France. Only the men held a tournament, and Great Britain won gold (the entire team was Scottish). Curling made five appearances as an Olympic demonstration sport — in Lake Placid in 1932, Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, Innsbruck in 1964, Calgary in 1988 and Albertville in 1992 — before the sport was added to the Olympic program in Nagano in 1998. Since 1998, Canada has won three Olympic golds in curling on the men’s side — including the last three — while Switzerland and Norway each won one. Both Canada and Sweden have earned two women’s gold medals in curling; Great Britain won the women’s gold in 2002.
Olympic curling stones weigh between 38 and 44 pounds; the granite is harvested from Ailsa Craig, an island off the west coast of Scotland that resembles, from a distance, a curling stone.
How do you play curling and what are the rules?
A key driver of curling’s appeal is its relative simplicity. Though the sport may have unfamiliar terms, and thus seem complicated, it’s actually pretty easy to follow.
A curling match consist of 10 ends, which are equivalent to innings in baseball. In each end, the four players on both teams alternate throwing stones. The lead throws first, followed by the second, then the third — or vice-skip — then finally, the skip. Each of the four players on the competing teams throws two stones per end, for a total of 16 stones. The “skip” is the most important player on the team. The skip not only throws the last stone in an end — which often determines the scoring — but also directs the overall strategy.
To execute a shot, a curler pushes a foot off the hack, a piece of rubber akin to a starting block. The curler slides across the ice, or sheet, to the hog line, and must release the stone before it touches the line. The stone then heads for the house — the area with four concentric circles on the other side of the sheet that loosely resembles a dartboard. The house is the scoring area.
How does curling scoring work?
Only one team can score during a curling end. The team with the most stones closest to the curling bullseye — the button — is awarded points. So if, after 16 stones are thrown, Team A has a stone right on the button, and Team B has a stone a few feet off the button, Team A scores a point. If Team A had one stone on the button and a stone a few feet off the button, while Team B had a stone on the outer edge of the house, Team A scores two points.
The team that fails to score in an end gets the hammer, or the advantage of throwing the last stone, in the next end. If no stones remain in the house after an end, no points are awarded: the team with the hammer in a scoreless, or blank, end retains the hammer in the subsequent end. The team with the most points after 10 ends wins the match.
What’s with the curling brooms?
After a curler throws a stone, his or her teammates will often start sweeping the ice in front the stone as it glides down the ice. Why is sweeping the activity that requires the most exertion in this particular Olympic sport? Physics! The sweeping warms the ice and reduces friction, allowing the stone to travel farther and straighter. Depending on the path of the stone and its intended target, a team’s skip will instruct the other curlers to either start sweeping like a teen whose parents are returning home early to an illicit house party, or to lift their brooms.
What’s new for curling at the 2018 Winter Olympics?
A mixed doubles tournament! Olympic organizers have added a mixed doubles curling event to the PyeongChang program to complement the men’s and women’s competitions. Mixed doubles curling teams consist of just two players — a woman and a man — instead of the usual four players per team. Matches are eight ends long, not 10, and the two players alternate throwing five stones per end instead of eight: one player throws the first and last stones, while the other throws the second, third, and fourth rocks.
Mixed doubles adds a wrinkle. A sixth stone for each team isn’t thrown, but set on the ice before the start of the end. The stone of one team is positioned in the middle of the ice, guarding the house, while the other team’s stone is set in the house, near the button. The team with the hammer decides where the stone is positioned; if the team places its stone as the guard, however, the other team gets to take the last shot of the end.
Once per game — but not in tie-breaking “extra ends” — the mixed doubles team with the hammer can decide to exercise a “power play.” In the power play, the pre-positioned stones are shifted to the side.
In a perfect world, would curling power plays involve broomstick fighting and a penalty box like they do in hockey, rather than moving rocks around? Probably. But a more genteel game will do just fine. Mixed doubles scoring is the same as the traditional curling game. The team with the most stones closest to the button earns the points in that end.
How are people reacting to curling so far this year?
Curling doesn’t get a lot of air time or publicity outside of the Olympics. So for those who aren’t already part of the curling community and fanbase, it can be quite a journey from discovery to obsession every four years when the sport finally gets its moment in the sun. This year is no exception. From those who find the sedate pace soothing to those who are befuddled by the rules, here’s how viewers are reacting this year to their reintroduction to curling.
TIME reporter Raisa Bruner contributed to this article.