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The Continuous Free Guard Zone

Don’t want to read the rationale? Skip to the end. The rest of you can enjoy the ride.

Recently, the issue of blank ends in Elite curling has come up in discussion, particularly on Twitter. While a blank generated by a tough hack-weight shot on Skip’s last stone may still hold interest for fans, the following type of common blank ends generally do not:

At least with that last one (most commonly seen in the Elite Men’s game), fans got to see a couple of good double/triple takeouts, but when an end is over when it is barely half way through, it’s still frustrating. Based on the great skill of Elite players up and down the lineup, it appears that the reward for blanking an end is now too high. Since we can’t blame players for leveraging the rules in a way that gives them the best opportunity to win, fans either have to accept that this is how the game is now or hope for a rule change to make the game more entertaining. So what could be done in the rules to reduce the number of blank ends?

Limit Blanks

My initial thought was to limit consecutive blank ends. If you blank two in a row, you lose the hammer. The problem with this idea is that it flips the incentive too far the other way after a blank end; the team without the hammer in that instance has no incentive to keep rocks in play. If the intent is to make play more entertaining by keeping rocks in play, such a rule could potentially be counterproductive.

So then I thought about that third scenario I identified earlier that we are seeing more often as teams have adjusted to the 5-rock rule. Let’s say we have 6 or 7 stones left to throw and there are no rocks left in play. The teams can tacitly agree to a blank by playing in the rings and hitting. But what if one of the teams doesn’t want to blank? Under the current rules, if only one team wants to blank the end, it will still happen unless that team misses a wide open hit. This is what I mean when I say the value of a blank is too high. We either have to have a disincentive to blank for the team wanting to blank or a reward for the team wanting to put rocks in play. I’ve suggested that the disincentive of limiting consecutive blanks is unlikely to produce the desired result, so we need to look at the other side of the equation.

FGZ, but anytime

In that specific scenario where there are no rocks in play but plenty of rocks left in the End, if the next team to throw chooses to throw a guard, we could make it a “free guard” that could not be removed, just like the initial five stones. This still allows the other team the usual ways to attack the Free Guard Zone, like tick shots, but it doesn’t guarantee a blank end like the current rule. Teams can still agree to blank by throwing their rocks in the house rather than as a guard, but it is no longer a one-sided decision.

Let’s see if we can construct a rule that would be more generally applicable that would incorporate this case. For lack of a better name, I’ll call this the Continuous Free Guard Zone rule. If there are still rocks in play that a team can use to generate offence or put pressure on their opponents, then that team should not need any additional benefit by rule. But when there is nothing to hide behind or freeze to, then we are headed for a blank. This is the situation that brought the Free Guard Zone into existence in the first place, so we should be able to apply the same principles to help bring some balance back to the situation.

We could wait until all rocks are removed before bringing a “free guard” option into play, but I think that’s probably one shot too late. Instead, I propose that the trigger be that there be no rocks in the house. We already have a measuring device that can determine the scoring status of any rock, and we probably want to ignore any rock that has exited the back of the rings but is still in play, since it can’t score and often is unusable for generating any offence. So there’s the first part of the rule: there has to be no rocks in the rings.

Let’s move our focus to the guards that may be in play. The principles of the current Free Guard Zone rule are that you can remove your own rocks with impunity but you can’t remove your opponent’s rocks. If there’s nothing in the house and the normal (5-rock) Free Guard Zone is no longer in effect, then what if you couldn’t remove your opponent’s last guard? If that’s the only rock in play, then it’s the same scenario as I described earlier, only that we can also get there by having all other guards removed (not just throwing a new guard once all the rocks are out of play). If both you and your opponents have a guard in play, you could peel your own guard and/or move their guard (without removing it), or you could just throw a rock in the rings and peel any guard on your next shot (assuming they didn’t peel out your rock in the rings with their next shot, thus returning you to the same scenario). This should lead to more interesting strategy and a lesser reward for blanking.

Details, Details

I think the rest of the details could be implemented many ways, but since we have to start somewhere, I’m suggesting that the Continuous Free Guard Zone rule be enforced just like the current Free Guard Zone rule: any shot that removes your opponent’s last guard from play (if there were no rocks in the house at the beginning of the shot) means that all rocks are replaced to where they were at the beginning of the shot. As an example, if the only two rocks in play are two yellow corner guards, the Red Team can only remove one of them under this rule; if they take on the double and take both out of play, both would be replaced. With that rule in play, does the Red Team make the single peel or do they put a rock in the rings so that they can play the double (or perhaps triple) peel on their next shot? This is much more interesting than what happens now, especially late in the game when the Red Team will have multiple attempts at a double peel to end the game.

The other scenario that would take some further thought or experimentation would be when you have three guards in play, two from the Red Team who wants the blank and one from the Yellow Team who doesn’t. One would think you wouldn’t have to protect that single yellow stone because there are two other stones for the Yellow Team to work with. Most likely, however, those two red stones are to the side of the sheet as a result of two successful tick shots. I think we’d need to see this in practice before deciding whether that is too much protection for the Yellow Team or not, but my suspicion is that the only time red stones would pile up is in a final end where the Red Team might just keep throwing tick shots rather than double-peeling their own guards near the boards.

Of course, this rule would do very little to eliminate those first two types of blanks that I mentioned, but consider this scenario: Team JJ (a randomly-picked pair of initials, of course) does not have hammer in the first end but would like to mix it up a bit and force their opponent to 1 in that end so that they could get hammer in the even ends. Unfortunately, their first rock slips into the rings, so their opponent, Team Defence, hits it. Hits are exchanged until Team Defence rolls out on one of their hits. There are quite a few rocks left in the end. Team JJ, as they are wont to do, puts up a guard to get their plan to force back on track. Under current rules, Team Defence would almost certainly peel the guard and continue the path towards a blank end. Under the Continuous Free Guard Zone rule being proposed here, a blank would not be a given any more. Maybe the Team Defence Third can make a tick shot as effectively as their Lead; maybe not. Maybe Team Defence transforms into Team Offence and goes hard for two. Either way, this is far more interesting for the fan and leads to more strategic play, much like the 5-rock rule did.

I’m not convinced that this concept is the entire solution to the issue of blank ends being too valuable. It really doesn’t address the hit-through ends where both teams are OK with a blank, even if the fans are not (much less the TV commentators who have to work extra hard to keep the viewer entertained). I think losing the hammer on every blank end, like in Doubles, is going too far. But trying the Continuous Free Guard Zone on its own may be a valuable experiment, even if it is just on a strategy board by people who play or coach at the Elite level.

The Continuous Free Guard Zone rule, in a nutshell

In summary, the purpose of the Continuous Free Guard Zone proposed here is to make it more difficult to blank an end when only one of the two teams wants a blank and most or all rocks have been removed from play. The team who wants to “mix it up” should be allowed to have a rock to work with, whether that rock is in the house or is a guard. So if there are no rocks in the rings, a team should be able to have one of their stones as a guard without it being removed from play. That’s the concept in a nutshell. If you would like to chat more about this idea, I’m @AnthonyReimer on Twitter. It’s just an idea right now. Feel free to take it, leave it, or work with it to make something better.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised that my time as a basketball referee made me a bit of a rules junkie. So, of course, I have taken the existing Free Guard Zone rule (specifically, the Curling Canada Rules of Curling for General Play 2018–2022, since most reading this will not have access to the Rules for Officiated Play) and modified it to incorporate the Continuous Free Guard Zone concept. I’m just making it easier for anyone who wants to give it a try to have something on paper as a reference. It is below.


12. Free Guard Zone (FGZ), Five Rock Rule, Continuous FGZ

  1. The FGZ is the area between the hog line and the tee line, excluding the house.
    1. A stone which comes to rest biting or in front of the hog line after making contact with a stone in the FGZ is considered to be in the FGZ.
    2. A stone that comes to rest outside the house but biting the tee line is not considered to be in the FGZ.
  2. There are restrictions on when a delivering team may remove from play a stationary stone(s) belonging to the opposition located in the FGZ:
    1. Any stationary stone(s) belonging to the opposition located in the FGZ shall not be removed from play by the delivering team prior to the delivery of the sixth stone of the end.
    2. When there are no rocks within the scoring area (see Rule 13(9)), the delivering team may not remove from play all of the stationary stones belonging to the opposition located in the FGZ.
  3.  
    1. When an opposition’s stone(s) is removed from play from the FGZ as described in Rule 12(2)(a) or when all opposition’s stones are removed from play from the FGZ as described in Rule 12(2)(b), directly or indirectly and without exception, the delivered stone must be removed from play and any other displaced stones replaced as close as possible to their original position(s).
    2. Any stone previously in the FGZ, whose location is now not in the FGZ – as per rule 12(1)(a) or (b) – may be removed at any time without penalty.
    3. When a delivered stone hits an opposition stone(s) located in the FGZ on to any other stone(s), no penalty shall apply if the opposition stone(s) originally located in the FGZ remains in play. If any opposition’s stone(s) is removed from play as in Rule 12(2)(a) or all opposition’s stones are removed from play as in Rule 12(2)(b), apply Rule 12(3)(a).
    4. A team may remove their own stone from the FGZ providing its removal does not cause an opposition stone(s) to be removed from play from the FGZ as in Rule 12(2)(a) or all opposition’s stones to be removed from play as in Rule 12(2)(b). Should opposition stone(s) be removed in such a manner, apply Rule 12(3)(a).
    5. A team may raise their stone located in the FGZ on to an opposition stone located in the house (not in the FGZ) and remove it from play. If an opposition’s stone(s) in the FGZ is removed from play during the execution of the raise and the restriction in either Rule 12(2)(a) or (b) is applicable, apply Rule 12(3)(a).
  4. When Rule 12(2)(a) or (b) is applicable, it is the responsibility of the skip of the team who is about to deliver to ensure agreement with the opposing skip as to whether or not any of the stone(s) in play have come to rest in the FGZ and, in the case of Rule 12(a)(b) whether any stone is within the scoring area as defined in Rule 13(9). If they cannot agree, they shall make the determination by using the six-foot measuring stick. If the position of another stone(s) hinders the use of the six-foot measure, they may reposition the stone(s), complete the measurement and replace the stone(s) to its original position.
  5. A visual agreement by the opposing skips as to whether or not any stone was in the FGZ or in the scoring area does not preclude a measurement occurring at the conclusion of the end involving the same stone(s).

Updated 2019-12-21 with corrections to the re-written rule (the sanction is Rule 12(3)(a), not (b)) and two editorial corrections to match usage elsewhere in the post.