What Is Curling? The Olympic Game of 'Chess on Ice' Is Way Harder Than You Think

Playing The Sport of Curling Is Harder Than It Looks: 'You Look Like a Washerwoman'

The Winter Olympics are once again upon us, which means we get to see our favorite cold weather sports unfold over three action-packed weeks of competition at the highest level.

And, of course, we get to watch a bunch of curling.

Or, if you're like the majority of Americans, "that weird game with the broom and the rock that you slide across the ice to try to hit a target while your teammates yell at you."

But it doesn't have to be that way. The Pyeongchang games can be the year you finally understand the basics of this historic and quite challenging, if baffling, sport.

When Did Curling Begin?

Born in Scotland's dreary winters, the sport of curling dates back to the 16th century.

Curling
Curlers once played on frozen ponds and lochs with household corn brooms, such as these curlers in 1914 (Notman photographic Archives/McCord Museum)

Considered one of the world's oldest team sports, early curlers gathered on frozen lochs and ponds to coax 40-plus-pound granite stones across the ice and into a target with the help of what, at least back then, were actual household corn brooms. 

As Scots dispersed across the globe to places like Canada, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand in the 19th century, they took the game with them. And as the game went international, its rules and implements became more fine-tuned.

Who Can Play?

The curlers themselves also became progressively more elite. While just about anyone can acquire the skills to play at a moderate level, veteran curler Dean Gemmell from New Jersey's Plainfield Curling Club told InsideEdition.com that to be an Olympian — as with most athletes — curlers must start young and train hard.

"You have to be able to put the stones in the right place with some physical capability," Dean said. "Most high-level curlers nowadays you'll see are extremely fit."

What's That Broom For?

Corn brooms have given way to push brooms, which have since been replaced by the nylon sweepers with swiveling heads and fiberglass handles that you see today's curlers using to laboriously slick path toward their circular target, or "house."

The stone itself is 44 pounds of good, old-fashioned granite culled straight from the earth. The world's best curling stones are cut from rock that comes from just one spot on Earth: a tiny hunk of land in the waters off Scotland called Ailsa Craig.

So How Does It Work?

The thrower starts in the "hack," or foothold at the end opposite the house. Using a broom for balance in one hand, the thrower glides out of the hack and lets the stone glide away from the other hand at the perfect moment. 

As the stone moves toward the house, the thrower wants its path to curve or "curl" toward the target, hence the name of the game.

Curling sheet
Curling is a game with a lot of terminology. (U.S. Women's Curling Association)

Two teams of four take turns sliding a total of eight stones (or "rocks" or "bricks") toward the house. To help the stone make it toward the intended spot, two sweepers brush the ice to make it slick per the instructions of the "skip" team member standing in the house.

The skip is the most common source of the most confounding aspect of curling: The YELLING.

"There’s a lot of yelling, that’s probably the best part about it," Dean joked. "The person in the rings will call if it’s curling too much and they want to brush it."

The thrower can also yell out to the brushers to tell them how heavy or light the stone was on the ice as it was thrown.

In addition to all the yelling, Dean admits his sport has a lot of odd jargon that might be off-putting to prospective new curlers. "I wish I could go back and change them," said Dean.

Other fun, if perplexing, terms include "hogged stone," "hog line," "pebble," "shot rock," "slider," and "bonspiel" (see our glossary below for more definitions from the folks at Curling Canada).

How Does the Scoring Work?

Each set or inning is called an "end" with a game consisting of eight or 10 ends. The goal of curling is to have the most points upon the completion of the ends.

Curlers accomplish that by doing more than just aiming for the bull's eye — or, in curling, the "button."

Dean, whose team won the U.S. Men's Curling Championship in 2012, has made it part of his mission in life to spread the gospel of curling, a game he says requires as much thinking as it does physical exertion. 

"It’s a tactical game, you have to be able to out-think your opponent a little bit," said Dean, who finds fault with one of curling's nicknames, "chess on ice."

"The difference is, in chess it’s pretty easy to move a chess piece. In curling... it takes a considerable amount of skill to get your rock where you want it."

In fact, according to Dean, most Olympics-level throwers' shots don't aim for the button at all. "You’ll see almost none early where they are trying to put in in the button, its more tactical you’re setting up rocks in certain places," he said.

Sadly, you likely won't curl your way from the La-Z-Boy to Beijing 2022.

However, it's Dean's hope that curling continues to grow from a niche sport to a more widely understood game in the U.S. as the Winter Games attract more of the curious to clubs like his.

After all, curling started as a social sport and every friendly game is meant to end with the curlers sitting down for a drink — ideally, Scotch. 

That is to say, with curling, everybody wins.

"The winners buy the first round," Dean said. "The losers reciprocate."

Bonspiels, Biters & Buttons: Curling Terms You Should Know

BITER

A stone that just touches a circle in the house.

BONSPIEL

This is the term used for a curling tournament. Bonspiels with cash prizes are called "cashspiels."

BURNED STONE

A stone that is touched by a player's body or equipment while in motion. The stone is removed or "burned" from play.

BUTTON

The center of the bullseye, or house.

CURL

The amount or curve of the stone's path across the ice.

END

The rounds in a game of curling in which each team throws eight stones.

HACKS

The foot-holds from which a thrower kicks off. 

HIT

When one stone is hit with another and removed from the playing area.

HOG LINE

The line 10 meters from the hack at each end of the ice. The stone must cross the far hog line to be considered in-play.

HOGGED STONE

A stone that does not reach the far hog line.

HOUSE

The 12-foot ring, 8-foot ring, 4-foot ring and button for which stones aim, collectively.

PEBBLE

A fine spray of water applied to ice to improve its grip before play.

SHEET

The ice curling is played upon. 

SHOT ROCK

The stone closest to the button at any point during the end.

SKIP

The player who determines the strategy, and directs play for the team before throwing the last pair of stones for the team in each end.

SLIDER

The slip placed on the sole of the shoe, to make it easier to slide on the ice.

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