Chess on ice?

by admin on March 30, 2011

Last night I decided to give a new sport a whirl … sorry, a curl. The San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club was having an introductory clinic at Sharks Ice in San Jose.

Curling is the only Winter Olympic sport that I find remotely interesting, because to me it’s the closest thing to a chess game on ice. It’s more entertaining than watching people bounce (figure skating), wipe out (skiing) or crash into each other (hockey). However, I didn’t fully understand what was going on, and I figured that the only way to understand it would be to actually play it.

Alas, I have to report that there was no strategy going on last night. If curling is like chess, my problem was that every time I tried to move one of my pawns, it just kept right on going: to e4, e5, e6, e7, e8, e9, e10, …

I could get the darned stone to slide easily enough, but I couldn’t get it to stop, and in fact I didn’t manage to stop a single stone all night in “the house,” which is the bull’s-eye region where you score points. At least I wasn’t the only one with this problem. In the group of twelve people or so I was curling with, I think we had at most two or three shots in the house. When you consider that we played four ends (like an inning in baseball) of sixteen stones each, that’s about two or three successful slides out of 64. So it’s a little harder than it looks on TV!

So the “chess on ice” aspect of the game was a little bit iffy. (However, see this blog for more on the analogy.) What it was, though, was a lot of fun. First, I was amazed at how many people came out for the beginners’ clinic. There were 90 people signed up (probably not quite that many actually came), and probably at least 15 or 20 instructors distributed around 10 sheets. Can you imagine getting 90 people to come for an introductory chess clinic? I didn’t think so. That’s what Olympic exposure will do for you. I am now suddenly a supporter of getting chess into the Olympics.

The way the clinic worked was this. First we spent about half an hour just learning how to push off the “hack” (like a set of starting blocks) and glide without losing our balance. I found this pretty easy at first, until two things happened.

1) They have you put a Teflon-soled “slider” under your shoes, because ice just isn’t slippery enough. Also because it’s so much fun watching beginners try to stand up after sliding their stone, and cartwheeling in one direction while the slider flies off in the other direction.

2) They have you let go of the stone. This is a key point. I could keep my balance just fine as long as I had a stone to lean on. But the game unfortunately requires you to let go. (I’m probably like the beginning chess players who put their hand on a piece, move it, and then spend a minute hanging on to the piece for dear life while they look this way and that to see if there is some threat they missed.) I think that every single beginner, the first time they let go of the stone, ends up sprawled on their butt or their side, because they aren’t prepared for the equal-and-opposite-reaction thing. You push the stone one way, it pushes you the other way.

The funny thing is that you don’t actually have to push the stone. In fact, you shouldn’t. Curling is the most Zen sport after archery. You’re just gliding along there with the stone, and then you just let go. No push, no toppling over on your butt. It’s true that at some point you’re supposed to rotate the stone so that it will curl one way or the other, but that’s probably something they cover in lesson two. Again, I suspect it’s a less-is-more deal where you don’t actually have to spin it as hard as you think.

The other part of the sport, which isn’t Zen at all, is the sweeping. This has no counterpart in chess. This part of the sport actually makes you work up a sweat: you’ve got to walk along in front of the stone, scrubbing furiously. It’s more like scrubbing a tub than sweeping a floor. The objective is to melt the ice in front of the stone, which makes it go farther. (For my stones, alas, that wasn’t the problem. They were going too far, and there is nothing you can do to slow them down — only speed them up.) It’s surprising how much farther a stone will go with sweeping, maybe five or ten feet farther. (Compare that to 150 feet, the length of the sheet, and 12 feet, the diameter of the house.)

Maybe we should do some sweeping in chess! A little bit of frenetic activity between moves might get the blood pumping and help us think better.

After two hours of curling, I had forgotten all about the fact that I was on a refrigerated rink, and I was surprised at how balmy the outdoors felt. It was as if I were living in Miami all of a sudden!

All in all, I had a very good time. I’m not sure when or if I will go for another lesson — really there is no room in my schedule for more recreational activities, after chess and hula. But at least when the next Olympics come around, I will have a better understanding of what the curlers are doing and how hard it is!

Yours truly (center) with fellow curling novices after our lesson.

Here’s another account of a beginning curling lesson — quite similar to my experience, but emphasizing even more the losing-your-balance aspect.

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