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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Aggression is the Better Part of Valor

What?  Aggression?  That's not right!  The correct phrase is "Discretion"...yadayada, "Valor" (or, if you're Canadian, "Valour").  Then again, at least one site tells me that Shakespeare was simply telling another one of his hilarious jokes.  Much of Elizabethan literature is lost in translation these days, but it's fair to say that William may have been the Stephen Colbert of his time.

There were several aggressive decisions made during the second Grand Slam of the season, The National, won by Mike "Money" McEwen.   Many of these choices were made by the winning squad, others by their finals opponent, Brad Jacobs.  Perhaps it's the 5 rock Free Guard Zone rule or maybe just evolution by the Next Generation, but there were some calls we may not have seen even 2 to 3 years ago.  Jacobs and McEwen are currently the top two teams in the world and given their level of play, it's difficult to argue with their on ice decisions.  That didn't stop Joan McCusker, Mike Harris and Kevin Martin in the Sportsnet booth from wondering aloud if several calls were correct and it certainly won't stop me from digging a little deeper to see if these squads are winning because of or in spite of their on ice strategy.

Round Robin: McEwen vs Jeff Stoughton

In the Second End, McEwen is down 1 and could play a tap for a single point to tie the game (blue line) but instead chooses to try a double for two or three (green line). 


McEwen is Yellow

The tap is not automatic but the double is very difficult.  The rock was almost fully buried and Mike needed the right combination of line and weight to make the shot.  The attempt was missed by a fraction and a steal of one was the result.  

Let's use a quick method of estimating this shot. Imagine you are the skip, standing on the ice in a nearly empty arena and watching the time clock tick away.   There is no excel spreadsheet available and you will need to do math in your head, just like in junior high.  With 6 ends remaining, the Win Expectancy (WE) for a team without hammer tied, 1 up and 2 up is 38%, 57% and 75%, respectively.  Let's round those to 40, 60 and 75.  If your opponent steals your WE becomes 1-.75 = 25%.

Let's assume you make the tap almost every time.  That leaves you with a WE of 38% (call it 40).  Start by guessing an equal chance for every outcome (steal 1, take 2 or take 3).  Multiply each WE by 1/3 (round quickly) and add them together.  13+20+25 = 58.  Presto!  That's the same as taking a single.  Even if you surrender a steal one in three attempts, it's the correct decision, if you can get the full 3 points one in three tries.

Astute readers will notice that there is some chance of a steal of 2.  If Mike hits the guard he'll drop to a 17% WE.  Granted, there is also a risk for a steal of 2 with the tap back.  In fact, given his previous rock appeared to grab, it's the second end and early in the event so ice conditions are still being evaluated, you might argue the hit is the safer shot.  Kevin Martin and Mike Harris discussed the call at the beginning of the next end and both felt it may have been the wrong decision, figuring Mike would make the tap 95% of the time.  Even if Mike does make the tap that often, given his abilities, I believe he chose the correct call.  However, changing the weight from firm board to normal hit (a decision made from the hack) may have been a mistake and decreased his chances of making the shot.

In the Fifth End McEwen now has a 3-2 lead without hammer.   Rather than hitting and possibly rolling to sit two (blue line), Mike choses to attempt a draw to sit one (green line).  


McEwen is Yellow

A very aggressive call.  With the amount of curl in this spot, he's able to bury past the guard but the length of the guard and large amount of curl also leaves Jeff a chance to follow him with a soft take-out or attempt a long runback to possibly score two points. Stoughton misses the hit attempt and McEwen steals to go up 4-2.

I'm not entirely certain why Mike would attempt this shot.  It appeared he could get his final rock in the same spot by making a hit and roll, removing any chance for a deuce.  Perhaps he was concerned a failed roll would leave Jeff a possible double for two.  McEwen could have stuck on the nose and a double would not have been possible but a single for Jeff would have been nearly automatic. Mike may have been more comfortable with ice and conditions for the draw vs the hit and roll.  One last, not very likely explanation, Mike had a brain fart and thought he was sitting shot stone.  A surprising decision that worked out in the end. The WE moved from 65% to 81% by stealing rather than forcing Jeff to 1.  If Stoughton had scored 2, McEwen's WE would have dropped to 37%.  Using our head math from before, if Mike is able to steal 50% of the time and Jeff gets two the other half, it's approximately equal to the hit (1/2 of 80 + 1/2 of 40 = 60).  Given that Jeff will sometimes still only get 1 point, The steal chance could be less than half in order to be the correct call.  I appreciate aggressive play but suspect the decision here may have introduced more risk than was necessary.  

With hammer in the Extra End, rather than peel a centre guard, McEwen chose to draw around and sit two in the four foot.  He slipped a foot heavy and actually left Stoughton some hope.  


McEwen is Yellow

Jeff's final rock lost its handle, perhaps because of a pick, and McEwen took the win without having to throw his last shot.  The draw around vs peel tied with 3 rocks to go, attempting to get position before your opponent, is a play more often seen in the women's game.  I was surprised at the call, as were the commentators, but Mike may have felt his second shot, sitting top four foot in the open, would provide an angle raise if needed.

Championship Final: Mike McEwen vs Brad Jacobs

This was a facinating game that was filled with aggressive calls right form the beginning.  In the very First End, rather than draw for a single (blue line), McEwen chooses to try an angle raise for 2 points (green line). Our panel of experts in the booth are surprised by the call.  The result is a missed shot, a steal of one and an early lead for Jacobs.  


McEwen is Red

Let's evaluate the risk in this decision and decide if it is the correct call.  Naturally, if Mike expects to make a 30 degree angle raise of 12 feet 100% of the time, it is clearly the right decision.  I expect team McEwen recognizes this is a difficult shot and they are taking some risk at an attempt to gain early control.  

How difficult is this shot?  Every curling shot has a margin of error.  For big weight hits, where a rock is moving nearly straight, you can start to examine the margin as a physics problem of angles.  I could not find any studies on the impact of curling rocks (please let me know of any), but I did find this study on pool.  Essentially, the further you move from a nose hit the less margin for error.  Also, the angle of approach (based on the target stone being a centre or corner guard) will also reduce the margin for error.  The final chart (copied below) shows how the margin of error will decrease based on the angle of impact.  


From the results they describe two examples:

a straight-in shot is 1.15X (15%) easier than a 30 degree cut angle shot.

a straight-in shot is 1.97X (97%) easier than a 60 degree cut angle shot. 

A straight back raise is generally 80-85% successful at this level.  If we assume Mike is on the higher end, and we estimate an angle of 30 degree, then his success rate will be approximately 74%.   Keep in mind, I have over simplified this for the purpose of discussion and I'm using a pool study to apply to curling, but it does appear to make sense.

If McEwen draws for the single their WE is 61%.  With the raise attempt, three likely outcomes will occur:

Mike misses and Jacobs steals 1 (WE = 43%).  

Mike is able to contact the Jacobs stone and remove it, but also rolls out and scores 1 (WE = 61%).  

Mike makes the shot and scores 2 (WE = 74%).

Like above, let's start by guessing there is an equal chance for each outcome.

WE = (.43+.61+.74)/3 = .59

That's 59% or nearly the same as the WE of a draw for 1.  That's not even taking into account the odds of making the draw to the full four foot in the first end (Kevin mentions it's likely 85 or 90%).  A high percentage shot, but certainly not automatic.

Mike is betting on his odds of hitting and removing the stone in the rings greater than 2/3 the time he attempts the shot, and sticking around half the time he's successful.  Based on a pulled-out-of-my-rear pool analogy, appears to be a reasonable call.

Perhaps team McEwen has been practicing these types of shots, and this is simply an indicator of the future of the game.

In the Second End, McEwen is now one down with hammer.  On his final shot there appears to be a simple draw for two points (blue line).  Instead, Mike chooses a hit attempt on a partially open stone for three (or the same deuce if he rolls too far).  


McEwen is Red

The result is a shade light and/or a fraction wide.  McEwen hits the yellow Jacob stone but spins away and sits 3rd and 4th shot by an inch.

At first glance, I liked the call.  There was still a high probability of two and even if you miss (which he did) you're tied without hammer and 3/4 of the game still to come. So what do the numbers say?

Three possible outcomes, McEwen will score 1, 2 or 3.  Each results in a WE for McEwen of 43%, 62% or 75%, respectively.

Let's use thirds again to start the analysis.

WE = (.43+.62+.75)/3 = .6

Low and behold, this is nearly the same as if they draw for two to go one up.  It is McEwen's analysis of the ice (Mike Harris mentions it's a fresh spot) and confidence in weight that will determine his assessment of his chances.  I tend to think he's getting two or three more than 66% of the time and was just unfortunate with the result (missed it by a fraction of an inch).  If we assume that will occur 80% of the time, he only needs to make a trey 20% of the time for the call to be correct.

Announcers Kevin Martin, Mike Harris and Joan MCusker were not as forgiving of this call and all suggested during the start of the next end that McEwen should have drawn for two.  Words like "boost" and "momentum" were used, interestingly just as Jacob's second E.J. Harndon flashed a hit.  

Momentum is one of the most overused word in sports yet has the least amount of measurable impact on a result at a highly competitive level.  I share the same thoughts of Grantland NFL writer Bill Barnwell, who has written often about momentum and discussed it at length following the Raven's Super Bowl win in 2013.  In a non-contact sport like curling, it doesn't fundamentally exist, except related to the movement of the rock down the sheet or transferred during a take-out.  The idea is, given the bad situation that occurred (held to 1 point instead of scoring 2), one team will now rise to the occasion and play better than they had and the other team will be distraught and lose their focus.  You could sell me on the idea of the latter under the right circumstance (Olympic Gold Medal game) or era (before curlers became althletes), but to consider that a team suddenly improves from their expected abilities is simply folly.  

Sorry, my son's new favorite show is Top Gear and words like "folly", "brilliant" and "rubish" have now taken hold of my internal lexicon.

On the final shot of the Fifth End, McEwen, now tied 2-2 with hammer, chooses to run back his own centre guard onto a Jacobs rock sitting on the pin.  Given the amount of curl, a draw tap for one point would not have been difficult.  Mike Harris and Kevin Martin comment that this is not a common choice and McEwen is keeping a potential blank in play (in fact, his preferred outcome).  Given his abilities to make runbacks (as stated earlier, likely 85% or even higher) it's not a very dangerous call, but it may not be the best choice.  Assuming he'd make the draw for one 90-95% of the time, he's not giving away very much and is adding a chance to blank, which nets him an extra 4% WE (65% to 61%).  He might be anxious to hold hammer in the 6th to have "Two-Hammer-To-One". I've spoken previously about this approach (most notably in my book End Game, click on the link above to get yourself a copy) and I'd suggest most teams at this level against similar competition should not introduce additional risk in order to be in this position.  Harris and Martin are, reasonably, estimating the average skip of this calibre will make the draw tap more often than the raise, so it's usually going to be the incorrect call (though not by much).  If Mike McEwen believes his odds are equal to make either shot, he should play the raise.

McEwen scores one and goes up 3-2 heading to the sixth end.

In the Seventh End it's Brad Jacob's turn to try the "risky" shot for two rather than draw for one point (blue line) to tie.  Down 3-2, rather than be forced to a single and face an unlikely steal in the final end (20% WE), they choose the runback attempt (green line).

Jacobs is Yellow  

Brad chooses to play control weight and the result is a soft glance on the shot stone but they fail to move it far enough and McEwen  steals 1 point.  This appeared to be a difficult shot. Jacob's rock sitting top eight appeared to almost and reduce chance of hitting the red stone on the inside.

Two down playing the last end, WE is 11%.  Tied without hammer is 20%.  One up without hammer is 58%.  I'll spare you the formulas, but if Brad can get a deuce even 1 in 5 tries and only gets a single 2 in 5 (a steal happens 40% of the time), then it's clearly the correct call (WE=24%).

It's important to mention that these Win Expectancy numbers are based on over a decade of 4 Rock Free Guard Zone.  The 5 Rock Rule that is now being played during Grand Slams does not have enough data to be meaningful, but we can expect some adjustment in favour of the team that is down with hammer in all situations above.  This should give even more support for some of what appears to be "riskier" decisions.  

One more great aspect of the 5 Rock Rule. Just as I was about to turn the channel after the 7th end, I couldn't.  Jacob's odds to win aren't much better than 11% (even if they take two they are in the same position as the 4 Rock Rule in the extra end).  However, 5 Rock FGZ final ends play out dramtically and there always seems to be something to watch.  In this case, Brad had an angle raise double to tie the game and barely missed it.  Entertaining.

Epilogue

All this discussion of aggression and risk got me to thinking about some new statistics.  If the data was captured, it would be fairly simple to track the risk factor of skips.  In ends where a decision on the final shot will determine 1,2 or even 3 outcomes, vs a simpler shot that will likely be a single outcome (usually a force to one), a measurement of the difference in WE could be calculated to see how much "risk" a particluar skip is willing to take on.  I'll ponder this one a little more, talk with Gerry at CurlingZone and come up with something for another day.  For now I'm tired and need to get a good nights rest to prepare for a full slate of NFL Football during U.S. Thanksgiving (minus the Turduckin).

Until Next Time...

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Grand Slam Season Begins

The days are growing shorter, the trees have gone bare, my golf course has closed, my hammock has gone back in the garage, and the first of the season's Grand Slams has ushered us into another Canadian winter.  Sure, the snow has held off for now, much to my snowboarding son's disappointment, but without baseball playoffs or quality Sunday night TV to distract me, there are no excuses for not producing another CWM article.

It will take me some time to get interested in curling again.  Olympic years seem to barrage us with copious amounts of on and off-ice activity.  It's the part of the roller coaster when you've left the highest point and are heading at top speed towards the first double loop.  The year-after-the-Olympic year becomes that point where you've reached the end of the ride and are deciding what to do next.  Should you get back in line? Move to a ride that moves at a more reasonable speed for your age?  Or maybe take a break and gorge yourself on the enourmous leg of a holiday bird?

This year seems even more strange.  Kevin Martin has left the ice and slid into a rather crowded broadcasting booth.  Glenn Howard was not in the playoffs at this week's Masters, but instead had his new "old" team likely at the chiropractor following their exit from the event.  Jeff Stoughton has a new team, including a front end that is too young to even remember when their skipper had hair like the Andy Travis character on WKRP.  They likely don't even know what a WKRP is for that matter.  


All other photos of this quaff appear to have been deleted from the internet 

We could even say that Brad Gushue, winner of his second Grand Slam, has ascended to become one of the old guard on tour.  He still looks young enough to be the guy that comes once a week to mow your lawn.  Ok, maybe the guy that collects the money for the guy that mows your lawn.  Gushue's opponent in the finals of the Masters, Manitoba's yes-they-stayed-together McEwen squad, failed to win their 5th straight event to start the season, losing only their third game in the process.  They look like the guys that are too cool to mow lawns.  

On the women's side, the finals between semi-finalists Homan and Jones that sponsors and SportsNet likely wished for, did not take place. Instead we settled for a Val Sweeting victory over that Swedish team with the long name that can be trouble pronouncing (Margaretha Sigfridsson).  Sweeting was assisted by late pick-up Cathy Overton-Clapham, who happened to be in the neighbourhood.  

As mentioned earlier, Rogers coverage now includes Kevin Martin in the broadcast booth.  KMart seemed to do fine but I'm not a fan of all four personalities involved with the same game at once.  Often the commentary became crowded and on various occaisions, each of Mike, Joan and Kevin took turns being the Ed McMahon character, re-stating what had just been said.  

I had mixed impressions of the attempt to cover four games at once.  Jumping to the last few shots of an end was like televised poker and only watching races between a middle pair and Ace-King.  In order to create drama, it's necessary to watch how an end develops, and not simply skip to the action at the end.  Where's the tension? Where's the build up?  Perhaps they'll get better over time but I'd prefer to see SportsNet use some of those extra channels to show more than one game per draw.  And while I'm complaining, why is it, despite a dozen sport channels, Canada did not broadcast Ole Miss vs Auburn last Saturday?  And another thing SportsNet, why were several baseball playoff games only broadcast on the MLB channel and not available in Western Canada!?! "Every inning" my a....  

Whew. Deep breath. Ok, that's enough of that.  

Before we get any further, if you haven't already done so, please check out the link above to my book "End Game: An Olympic Viewer's Guide to Curling".  Available at many fine online retailers.  

On to the games.

Men's Semi-Final: Mike McEwen vs Brad Jacobs

The critical second end was interesting as it demonstrated how misdirection can create opportunity.  McEwen is down 1-0 with hammer.  With third B.J. Neufeld's last rock of the end, rather than make a play onto shot stone (red line) they chose to play to the opposite side of the sheet and sit second or possibly third (green line):


McEwen is Red

There was some discussion, so it didn't appear that Mike had a clear motive with this call, but the result tempted Jacobs to play down with his first skip rock and try to freeze onto third shot.  Brad may have been better off trying a hit and roll on the red stone covering his shot rock.  It was difficult and he may have moved his shot stone, but the result of a freeze keeps two McEwen stones in play.  Brad makes a decent shot, perhaps bumping the McEwen stone too far but no one seemed concerned at the time.  Mike then plays the tap back onto shot stone and now sits first, third and fourth:



Jacobs is left with a draw around centre or a hit on third shot, in an attempt to remove shot stone. They choose the draw and fail to bury, leaving a thin double for four points.  Surprisingly, McEwen intially considers a nose hit for two, but elects to try for the big end and makes it.  I'll spare you the math but needless to say the hit for four is almost automatic in my assesment.  McEwen sat second so even a poor shot could result in one point.  The advantage of four is significant and the hit for two was not so certain.  Any roll either way would result in only one point.

How could Jacobs have avoided this end?  The freeze initally appeared to be a good shot but in fact landed in a poor spot.  Looking at a double on his last, Jacobs could not play the easier double on the high side as it would likely jam and leave McEwen a draw for three.  If Jacobs had played a hit on second shot initially, it could remove a red stone but still leave them in some difficulty.  It would have been easier for Brad to bail out and surrender a deuce however, rather than face a possible four spot against.  His final draw, even if made, could easily leave a shot for two or possible double for three.  I may have preferred trying to double the two red on the inside but they seemed reluctant, perhaps because of concern with the ice.  Not a clear decision and pressure on Brad to be perfect, otherwise risk a big score for Mike, all started by McEwen playing away from the shot stone.

I don't want to pile on SportsNet, they have made considerable investment in curling (despite not including it on their mobile app) and I want them to succeed.  But one of their video staff needs some additional training.  In the second end, the score is displayed as 0-0 when it is in fact 1-0.  Later on, McEwen is shown in a smiling photo as playing against Gushue, rather than Jacobs.  Perhaps less announcers and more graphics people? Ok, I'll stop now...

Men's Semi-Final:  Brad Gushue vs John Epping

In the first end Epping has hammer and after a roll-out on Gushue's first stone, is able to draw and sit two.  Both Kevin Martin and Mike Harris comment that it is perhaps a risky call to go around centre (green line) rather than draw to the open one final time (red line).


Gushue is Yellow

Which is the correct call?  A deuce will give Epping a 74% WE with 7 ends remaining.  If they are able to score three it increases to 85%.  If we assume a draw to the wings will nearly always result in a deuce, and the draw around centre will result in a force 1 in 5 attempts, a three needs to be succesul 30% of the time for it to be the correct call.  Even with a perfect come around, Gushue has a good chance to runback his own centre guard and take away the three ender.  Granted, a draw to wings will not always score two, but the draw around centre can also introduce the chance of a steal.  These Win Expectancy numbers are based on over a decade of 4-rock rules and this event is being played under the 5-rock rule, as will future Grand Slams.  We'll have to wait on the data but I'd suspect a score of three this early has slightly less significance under the new rules, as a team will have a better chance to come from behind.  If Epping feels that Gushue is the stronger team, this risk may still be correct, but I'd suspect they would be considered close to equal and the alternative decision, to draw to the open side, was likely the better play.

Women's Semi-Final: Val Sweeting vs Rachel Homan

Sweeting is tied 1-1 without hammer in the 5th end, facing the house below on thirds final shot. Joan comments that it was a strange decision for Val to hit (red line) rather than draw to sit 2 (blue or green line).  



Sweeting is Red

The mistake with hitting is perhaps more a fault of playing to the side with the corner guard.  Even if succesful, Rachel will be playing around the corner guard and now have a potential catcher at the back of the rings.  I prefer Val to play away to the open side (green line).  With only 5 more rocks to come they are more likely to keep a deuce out of play.  Granted, Homan may choose a draw any way, but the back yellow will not come into play in that case.

Cathy rolls out with the hit attempt and Homan calls for a draw around the corner (blue line).  Third Emma Miskew comes light with the attempt and eventually Rachel is forced to a single.  Kevin Martin suggests Rachel should have instead tried the runback, to increase the chance of a blank, giving them hammer with 3 ends to play.

I've written before on the dangers of over emphasizing the benefit of two-hammers-to-one.  Looking at Win Expectancy for Womens teams, it is only a 3% advantage for Rachel to be tied rather than up one without hammer in the 6th end.  At this late stage of the end, Rachel should consider if she has a reasonable chance to score two.  If a two is unlikely, it is clearly better to blank than to be forced to one and the likelyhood of a steal also is minimized if not eliminated.  Let's expect the runback to be succesful 2/3rds of the time, and assume this always results in a blank.  If we assume a come around never results in a steal (ie. Rachel will always make her draw to the open four foot for 1 point) then she only needs to get a deuce 1% of the time for the draw to be correct.  Even if we add in a 5% chance of a steal and increase the runback odds to 80%, she only needs to score two 7% of the time for the call to be correct.

Based on the numbers, I believe Rachel made the correct call. 

Men's Finals: Brad Gushue vs Mike McEwen

Gushue manages to score 4 points to go up 6-2 in the 5th end.  The 5 rock rule comes into play in the 6th end and Brad has to decide what to do with his teams fourth stone.


Gushue is Yellow

There is some discussion and Gushue finally decides to put up another guard.  Recall, they have a 4 point lead and less than 3 ends remain.  With the 5-rock rule, teams should be aware of this situation and better prepared on how they want to proceed.  In Brad's case, an ugly mess is the result and eventually McEwen is able to score a miracle 4 to tie the game.  Team Gushue does a great job of regaining their composure, rebounding with a deuce the next end and holding on for the victory.  Next time, I suspect Brad may choose to peel the guards instead of adding to the pile up front.

Next stop: The National, in Sault Ste. Marie

Saturday, March 29, 2014

ATH, 03/27/14: Between Two Worlds


Jordan is joined by Gerry and Kevin just after the Women's Worlds and before the start of the Men's World Championships.  They discuss Rachel Homan's surprising loss and the process of World and Olympic qualification in Switzerland and other countries.  They cover some of the changes and challenges in USA Curling. Note: Due to technical difficulties the podcast was cut short and discussion on team rumors and Brier relegation were lost.  The boys hope to be back next week with those topics and more.


Check out this episode!

ATH, 03/27/14: In Between Worlds

Jordan is joined by Gerry and Kevin just after the Women's Worlds and before the start of the Men's World Championships.  They discuss Rachel Homan's surprising loss and the process of World and Olympic qualification in Switzerland and other countries.  They cover some of the changes and challenges in USA Curling. Note: Due to technical difficulties the podcast was cut short and discussion on team rumors and Brier relegation were lost.  The boys hope to be back next week with those topics and more.


Check out this episode!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ambition and Achievement

I just finished watching the first season of Showtime's "Masters of Sex".  It follows the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and their ground breaking research on human sexuality that began in 1956.  It's been renewed for a second season and I highly recommend it to most people over the age of 21.  I just listened to a recent Andy Greenwald podcast from Grantland with show runner Michelle Ashford.  With about 9 minutes remaining, she talks about Virginia Johnson, her motives and a major theme of the show.  From the interview:

"It's about ambition and the notion of a woman being ambitious is horrifying in the 50s and even very uncomfortable today.  The idea of a woman being sort of nakedly ambitious kind of sets everyone's teeth on edge.  In men it can be considered attractive and viral while in women it's kind of considered gross or unbecoming"

Michelle's words immediately hit me. Jennifer Jones.  Not just Jennifer herself but the perception of her by media and fans.  Why is an ambitious women so clearly attacked and scorned while an ambitious man is seen as driven and determined.  Over the years, Jennifer has removed players on her team, including popular third Cathy Overton-Clapham.  These moves have met with outrage, some of which continues today, yet Jeff Stoughton dismisses his long time lead Steve Gould and there is no more than a murmur, which goes quietly away within a short time.  Brad Gushue drops players as often as Bill Belichik, but their goals are the same, to win. A gold medal in Turin with Russ Howard was met with cheers rather than jeers.  Kevin Martin has a few bumps in his legacy (just ask Randy Ferbey).  Personnel issues,  financial dealings and even being booed at the 1991 World's in Winnipeg, all incidents of the past that aren't part of the current conversation.

Jennifer is still disliked by some who think her treatment of Cathy was unfair.  They forget that sport is about winning and the decision was likely harder for Jen than they realize.  I'm not saying I agree with Jennifer's moves or the manner in which she dealt with her decision, but why should I hold it against her more than I would her male counterparts?  That is her business and the effects on her relationships with friends and peers are hers to deal with. But it's clear to me the opinions of Jennifer, and their strength and longevity, are influenced by the fact "she" is not a "he".  

Why can't we be comfortable with a woman who is driven to succeed?  Does society really feel this way about women?

Colleen Jones, announcing the non-Canada semi-final, remarked on Jennifer's change in demenour after having given birth.  Would she or anyone else make the same statement about a man?  The comments were meant to be positive but why do we consider Jen's transition from cold hearted competitor to nuturing mother to be worth discussing?  Does it make us like her more to imagine her as caring rather than driven to succeed on her own terms?  

I see Rachel Homan at an early age coming under similar scrutiny.  Before she entered the media scrum after the Trials semi-final, someone made an off-hand joke about Rachel that was (to be honest, funny), but rude and thoughtless (something about strangling kittens maybe, but I don't recall exactly).   Doubtful anyone would make a similar joke about a man in that situation.

Congratulations Jennifer.  You worked hard for this achievement. You have earned it.  Your effort, determination, and ambition is admired.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is a bitter, sad little troll who requires counselling for their inability to deal with their own regrets in life.

Other teams and countries still have ambition to claim medals.  What a single game can mean...

Bronze medal for Rui Liu, or even a close contest against Sweden's defending World champions, will show the world the Chinese men's program has reached a different level and this week was not just a fluke.  It may also help spark actual participation in a country with 1.3 billion people but only 5 curling clubs and 300 teams.  

Gold for Canada will silence critics who say the grassroots of Canadian curling is in decline and it's unable to nuture new champions to rival the country's aging stars. It could also mean future curlers will look more like hockey players than school guidance counselors. 

Gold for Great Britain will end the not-so-silent whispers about a sinister backroom program with too much money and power.  It will justify the act of players being chosen and slotted in by coaches and sport managers, the way Tywin Lannister controls his own children.  What if Thomas Ulsrud makes the open hit on his last shot in the 10th end?  Murdoch most likely loses, fails to medal, and the decisions and structure of the Scottish program would be under scrutiny.  Instead, a silver is assured and a gold will silence the critics who believe curlers should establish and develop curling teams.

A bronze for Sweden will be a nice consolation prize.  They may have been the best top to bottom team this week and like the Swedish womens teams who've been in the last 3 Olympic and World finals, they will return.

A few game notes from today:

1. Tied without hammer, Sweden chose not to play a centre guard in the 6th and 7th ends of their game against Canada.  Apparently they were running into clock trouble, but to allow them both to be blanked, even hitting a tight guard late in the 6th, was dumfounding.  Sweden might point to the pick or key misses late as the difference, but strategy didn't help their cause either.

2.  Kaitlyn Lawes first shot in the 9th end received cheers and high fives all around, but it was likely not the best call.  Rather than peel out the Swedish shot stone (green line), Jennifer could have attempted to hit and stay, while doubling off her own stone in the back four foot (blue line).  


Canada is Yellow

After Swedish third Christina Bertrup makes a tap back,  Lawes hits and rolls away, leaving another catcher back four foot, failing to block the draw path or to remove that same catcher.  If Bertrup had made the freeze on her last shot rather than sailing between the yellow stones and through the rings, the end and game could have been very different.

3. Worst line call of the Olympics.  Sweden's double for four in the 5th end was easier than it appeared and actually overcurled, with the sweepers held off until nearly the hog line.  

4. In the 7th end, 1 up without hammer, Switzerland benefits from a miss by Scotland third Anna Sloan (her draw sails through the house). Ott decides to peel the corner guard while sitting one top eight foot.  In fact they double off their own rock by accident.  Not certain I like this decision.  The Swiss are choosing to allow a blank rather than go for a force, but they may not have as good an opportunity later.  In fact they end up in a mess next end and Scotland gets a key deuce on their way to the bronze medal..

Congratulations to all the medal winners and good luck to the men tomorrow (or is it today?).



Curling's Final Eight

It's not really the semi-finals as much as two final fours, played out to determine who gets the top prize (gold) and who gets nothing (loser of the bronze medal game).   The advantage of being 1st place is not much better than the otehr three teams in your bracket.  There is usually little difference between the quality of the third and fourth ranked team and all your hard work has given you hammer, which heps, but doesn;t give you an extra life should you stumble.   

Niklas Edin of Sweden lost just one round robin game only to match-up against a scrappy Scotland Great Britain squad that has more pedigree over the last few years than the third place team from China.  Jennifer Jones of Canada went undefeated and her gift was last rock against Eve Muirhead and her defending World Championship team. 

I think the page system is a more equitable process but you can't knock this for excitement. Who said the Olympics were fair?  I watched Snowboard Cross with my son and every other heat the guy in second or third got knocked out by another rider and last place boarders snuck into the next round.  No recourse for the guy who was caught up in the collision, just a high five hand slap at the finish line, if he makes it there without a stretcher.  (Reminder to self, need to get my son to the curling rink and away from his snowboard).

Let's get to it:

Women:

1. Sweden (Margaretha Sigridfisson) vs Switzerland (Mirjam Ott).

These two teams met in the 2012 World finals with the Swiss winning gold.  It was the third ever win in the event for Switzerland but first in 30 years.  The only word I can use to describe this game is four letters, begins with "U", and comes before Betty  in the title of an ABC dramedy from the late 2000s.
Tied 3-3 in the 7th end.  Sweden has hammer and Ott has to decide what to do with her first sone, sitting one back button:


Sweden is Red

They decide to play a guard (green line).  The come around (blue line) is another option, though it's a difficult shot to not leave a raise double.  The in-turn draw was also an option, for Ott and for Sweden on their next shot.  It was difficult to guard the raise and the draw.  The actual result, the guard over curled and left a draw.  Sweden was able to move the Swiss stone off the button and eventually left with a draw for two, but Prytz was heavy and Sweden only gets a single point

Sweden, down 1 with hammer in the 9th end, looks to be in trouble but Ott misses a double on her last and allows the Swedes to get their deuce.

The final end had some wild swings with several missed shots.  Ott ends up with a possible split to win but she is wide and heavy and actually slides through the hosue and hands Sweden the win.

A sloppy game that didn't give anyone the impression Canada's gold hopes are in jeopardy but anytthing can happen in a single game. Speaking of Ms. Jones...

2. Canada (Jennifer Jones) vs Great Britain (Eve Muirhead)

Jennifer receives an early gift when Eve's open hit attempt picks and Canada takes an opening deuce.  Difficult to overcome, especially with Canada playing so efficiently, stealing a single in the second end to go up 3-0.

After a deuce to bounce back, GB had a chance to possibly steal but Eve opens up shot stone while attempting to come through a port and Canada is able to escape with a single.

Down 5-3 with hammer in the 7th, second for Canada Jill Officer misses and GB decides to try and hit to sit two with their final front end stone (below).  Second Vicki Adams rolls out of play and the end is eventually blanked.


Canada is Red

This is a poor decision.  It is too early to come into the rings, unless they chose to try a freeze, but the best call is likely a corner guard.  Perhaps this decision is driven by a Great Britain coaching influence to have hammer in the 8th and 10th ends (see men's game below).  If so, they are overdoing it and might want to read my ebook for a second opinion (web links available at top of page above).

In the 8th end, they again hit in the rings early on Vicki's first when they could have chosen to place corner guards, a freeze or some other type of draw-tap to keep rocks in play.  They actually get another open hit miss from Jill Officer, and, rather than play out of the rings, tap or freeze, they decide to runback their own with take-out weight.  As announcer Mike Harris says, GB is not being patient and though they sit 3 now, there is plenty of time for Canada to make doubles and escape from danger.  Which they do and the result is a blank.

Again in the 9th end, Muirhead has opportunity, but on third Anna Sloan's first they chose to hit to sit first and third rather than freeze or even guard their own rock.  Canada third Kaitlyn Lawes makes the double and Great Britain is left with attempts to freeze on a single rock and eventually Eve is forced to one.  Up 1 with hammer in the final end, Canada makes no mistake (two tick-shots by lead Dawn McEwen), and Jones remains undefeated, heading to the gold medal game.

Over three ends (7, 8 and 9) while down 2 with hammer, Muirhead was unable to create guards or freezes in order to score two, despite two open misses by their opposition's second. Canada played well but this was a game where poor strategy may have played a part in Great Britain not putting themselves in a position to potentially win.

Men

3. Canada (Brad Jacobs) vs China (Liu Rui)

I wonder how many million people watched this game right and what percentage actually knew what was meant by the "hammer".  First end, China goes in to the top four foot and Canada puts up a corner guard rather than the customary settle-our-nerves-and-hit-out-first-end-for-blank.  Nice.

In the 3rd end, Rui makes a freeze on his last but a runback is available and Canaada scores a fist pumping, Austin Powers scream worthy "yah-baby" two points.  Canada leads 3-1.

Plenty of poor shots by China but they hang in and are tied without hammer playing the 7th end.  China has a guard attempt come into the rings on third's first rock and eventually it sets up a difficult position on skips first shot:


Canada is Red

Rui decides to draw down to the Canada stone (green line) but as announcer MIke Harris points out, most any location will leave a double.  Rui is 6 inches short and Jacobs makes the double.  Not an obvious decision, but China could have avoided this by trying a split on their own rock and roll into the four foot (blue line).  A very difficult shot but perhaps the only way to avoid a deuce by Canada.  

The original mistake was playing a hit and roll behind with their previous rock.  A shot they high fived.  An example of not seeing the potential danger two shots ahead, though many teams (including top Canadian skips) would have missed this as well.

On Rui's last we get to hear China's coach, Canadian Marcel Rocque, and I like how he doesn't tell them what to do, he helps them decide what decision to make.  He sounds just like a grade school teacher.  I wonder what he did before coaching, or his days of tossing lead stones for the Ferbey Four?  

Unfortunately for China they miss a double attempt to cut Canada down to two.  The result is three and after a deuce by Rui in the 8th end, Jacobs cracks another three in the 9th to seal the victory.

4. Sweden (Niklas Edin) vs Great Britain (David Murdoch)

I really enjoyed the announcers on the BBC feed, broadcast online by CBC/TSN/SportsNet. It's a universal truth that, for those in North America, British accents make something sound more important, perhaps more regal.  That's why historical dramas always work better using British actors, even if they're playing Italians.

The Ray Turnbull role is played by Jackie Lockhart, Women's World Champion skip in 2002, and also inventor of the term "boob weight" (yes, wikipedia has everything!).  Her colleague Steve Cram, a former runner who won silver in the 1984 Olympics, plays the Vic Rauter role.  At one point Steve suggested Edin might actually allow Murdoch to steal and take a 2 point lead in the 7th end, so they could have hammer in the 8th. (What?)  Jackie was very polite and suggested not a pertinent move.  I even heard a couple of Duguidisms from Steve (he's off....he's missed it...no, he's made it! a great shot!).  Cram became more emotional as the game wore on and his national pride could be felt as he gave up being impartial (assuming he ever was) during the broadcast.  I loved it.  I might have to watch the BBC coverage for the finals and record Mike and Joan for later viewing.

In the 8th end, tied 3-3 without hammer, Edin faces this with his first shot:


Edin is Red

Niklas tries to hit his stone directly on the nose and leave his two rocks one on top of the other (green line).  This is a very difficult shot that will leave Murdoch with a double nearly every time.  If made well it could require Murdoch to roll out rather than give him a chance to roll behind the corner guard.  As it was, the right side to miss on was the corner guard side so the roll would have to go to the open.  I prefer trying to roll the shooter and split the rings (blue line).  This is not as simple as it looks however.  If not perfectly placed, you still could leave a chance for GB to hit and roll behind cover and be shot.  Also likely you will leave a double in many cases as well.

A couple of shots later, Murdoch has an open hit that will allow him to blank the end.  After deliberating with his team, they decide instead to hit for a single point and head to the 9th end up 1 without hammer.  Another application of the "Two Hammers to One" theory.  I recently wrote a research paper for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference which examined this theory and plan to include an excerpt in a future article.  For now, I'll give you the quick summary.

Great Britain made the wrong decision.

I always clarify that statistics are a baseline to begin your analysis.  Other factors and conditions can lead you to make various decisions, some which aren't supported by the numbers.  In this situation, I am 99.99% certain it is the wrong decision.

For historical data, looking at over 20,000 games from all teams, the numbers show taking 1 dropped GB Win Expectancy (WE) from 66.4% (with a blank) to 62.9%.  This data has a 95% confidence interval of +/- 1.4%.  That means 95% of the time we expect the results to land within 1.4% of that number.

But this is data for all teams and Edin and Murdoch are elite level teams, much better than average. 

The recent study showed that elite teams (using Martin, Stoughton, Howard, McEwen and Koe) resulted in a difference of 6% (.76 vs .7).  This was a fairly large sample size. But that is against all competition.
For head-to-head between these 5 teams, it is actually a difference of 8.3%! (.643 vs .560).  This is still too small a sample size to believe the specific results, but it appears clear that Murdoch made a mistake.

It's important to note the mistake is still small and Edin's mistake in missing the shot for 3 in the 6th end shifted the game much more significantly.  If Edin takes 1, his WE becomes 60% instead of 40% and if he scores 2 or 3 it goes to 80% or 91%.

Interestingly, if this same scenario occured in a women's game, the decision to take 1 is defendable and in fact may be correct.! Historical results in women's show a 1% advantage (.625 vs. .615) for a team up 1 without in the second last end. 

If you want to see the charts of this data, they are available in my new ebook.  Simply click on one of the links at the top of the page to buy a copy.

In the 10th end, Niklas attempts a run back (green line) rather than following Murdoch down with a draw (blue line).


Edin is Red

I don't disagree with Niklas call.  This shot is his strength and he likely makes it greater thn 85% from that distance.  The advantage of the draw, however, is you may leave a more difficult shot for one and win the game right there, rather than going to the extra end.  It's a delicate draw and it can go terribly wrong, but some skips may have chosen it over the runback.

Good luck to all countries during their medal round games and for those two teams who lose the bronze game, we feel the most sympathy for you.  To make it that far and go home without a medal...stinks.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Late Night Olympics

Sochi 2014 will possibly generate more petabytes of recorded Olympics than any in history.  I'm not a morning person and generally function better as a night owl, but from 2 AM - 7 AM I still need to sleep, as do most people without insomnia.  Turin was in 2006 and though Tivo had strong market penetration, the PVR was still in its early days.  Come to think of it, I might have just been laying my VHS to rest about that time.

I hope that curling is taking up a good size chunk of recording space on American devices.  It's been a struggle for the US teams, a 3-15 record is not going to generate much buzz south of the 49th parallel. Just imagine the numbers for ratings if the US was winning. Curling has an opportunity every 4 years to gain exposure and hopefully one of these Winter Olympiads a US team will have make a run and curling will get an even bigger boost than Vernon Davis can provide.  The United States men won 3 world championships during the 1970's, but haven't reached a final since 1981 (but did pick up a bronze medal at the Turin Olympics). USA Women appeared in 6 finals from 1992 to 2006, winning once, but have failed to medal at an Olympics.  With Olympic funding and a history of the game across most Northern states (and some Southern), it's surprising that the US appears to be falling behind the rest of the world.  They better hurry hard up (sorry) and improve their game because the country that owns most of their currency appears to be sweeping ahead (sorry, again).

The China women's team won a bronze medal in Vancouver four years ago and their mens team impressed in Sochi with a 7-2 record and are poised to add to that collection.  After a great start (4-2) the women's team dropped 3 in a row to fall to a 4-5 record, just one win out of a tie-breaker playoff game.  Bingyu Wang did win a World Championship in 2009 after making China's first finals appearance in 2008.  The 2009 finals drew 54 million viewers in China.  If Rui Liu wins his semi-final against Canada, that record will likely be not just broken, but annihilated during the gold medal game.  

On second thought, maybe the PVRs of the world get a greater workout when the Olympics are held in North America and the Chinese are sleeping.  

The Sochi curling fans don't appear as rowdy as those in Vancouver.  I'm not certain if this is due to the distance between the seats and the ice, the organizers asking for more decorum and having security toss unruly fans out of the building, or the fact vodka is not being served at the venue.  The home town squads didn't qualify for the medal round, both teams finishing 3-6, but coverage of the Russian women's team should encourage tremendous growth in the Russian junior men's programs.

Maybe the play-offs will bring a little more noise than we've heard up till now.

I'm going to try and provide analysis for all the play-off games, including the one tie-breaker, Tom Brewster David Murdoch of Scotland Great Britain versus Thomas Ulsrud of Norway.

Both teams had a chance to avoid this match-up.  Heading into the final draw, a win by either team would have secured a play-off spot and only by both winning (or losing) was the tie-breaker required.  GB had a tough loss to China, with David coming light on a critical draw in the 8th end.  Norway lost to rival Denmark (yes, they're rivals, who knew?) in a low scoring affair.  

The tie-breaker was a hard fought (if somewhat sloppy) battle with Murdoch making a spectacular shot on his last to score 2 points.  


Murdoch is Yellow.

Rather than draw for one and head to the extra end (blue line), David chooses a runback double for the win (green line).  Some would consider the call risky, but it's riskier to head to an extra end without hammer and only a 20% chance to win. If David figures to make the runback double more than once in 5 tries, it's the right call.  Some other interesting decisions:

3rd End.  Tied 1-1 and Norway with Hammer.

Murdoch decides to try a more difficult shot to generate nearly the same result.  Rather than pick out the shot stone (green line), they decide to play a thin hit on the high red stone (blue line).  


Murdoch is Yellow

Great Britain were perhaps hoping the yellow stone top four foot would sit top button but it instead spins out to the wings and leaves Ulsrud an easier draw than he would have had with the other call.



Murdoch is Yellow

The only reason they may consider this shot rather than the pick (green line) is possibly jamming the shot stone on their yellow at the back twelve foot (5 o'clock) and the fear of Norway then playing a long raise double on the GB centre guard for a possible four points.  It would be an extremely risky double with a miss resulting in a steal and I can't imagine Ulsrud attempting it.  A more difficult shot to garner the same likely result, one point for Norway.   

5th End: 2-2. Norway with Hammer.

On third's last, Murdoch chooses to draw around the centre rather than making a play on the Norway stone.


Murdoch is Yellow

If you were watching the CBC/TSN/SportsNet coverage, you heard commentator Mike Harris discuss the risk of this call. In most positions, GB will leave a chance for Norway to sit two.  GB comes to the tee line and Norway does make the nose hit double and sits two.  Murdoch fails to make a double on his next and the result is a deuce and 2 point lead for Norway at the break.

8th End: 4-2 Norway.  GB with Hammer.

Sitting one in the rings, rather than draw to the open side, GB decides to put up a corner guard. Norway considers their options on third's final stone, facing this:


Murdoch is Yellow

At first they consider picking out shot stone (green line) but reconsider and decide to peel the guard (blue line).  They could have also tried to hit and stay (black line, could also have been attempted with other turn).  This example shows just how dangerous a corner guard can be.  Murdoch has a good chance at scoring two and, after a missed double attempt by Ulsrud on his final shot, succeeds in tieing up the game at 4-4.  You can make a case for each of these calls but I might have preferred taking a chance to create a force.If they hit and stick, GB will ignore the rock and try to come around.  Any mistake and Norway can hit and possibly sit two.  Even if made perfectly, Norway can corner freeze and either create a force or  surrender a deuce.  It seemed unlikely GB could score three points given the situation, the only thing Norway should consider a problem.

Ulsrud has two key misses on his final shots in the 9th and 10th ends.  In 9, he misses a double that could have resulted in a blank (assuming a GB nibbler near the back rings was not in the house).  In the 10th, as great as David's winning shot was, if Ulsrud hits and sticks rather than roll out on his last, Murdoch's shot isn't there and David instead would have a difficult shot just to tie the game aand send it to an extra end.

So the final 8 are settled.  Unlike the Brier, Scotties, Worlds (and many other major events) the Olympics continue to be a one game knock-out rather than a Page system.  In the Page, the team in first or second is rewarded with a second chance should they lose their first playoff game.  In the Olympics, a loss means  you have to hold back the tears and disappintment then compete in a winner-takes-bronze-loser-gets-zilch medal game.  The semi-final is perhaps equal to the intensity of a gold medal game as a win ensures a medal while a loss and you could leave empty handed.

For those in the Western Hemisphere, you can stay up all night and watch back-to-back-to-back curling.  For me, I will have my PVRs and Tivo working overtime and enjoy the games with my breakfast.