The Curling Manual

Table of Contents

Section 7 Basic Strategy

This section will provide the new and intermediate curler with an outline for strategic decision-making. These strategy principles will apply to most games particularly league games. See the section on Team Strategy for a more detailed look at how teams plan and execute. Each player, team, game situation and ice conditions are different so we'll concentrates on the decision-making process and not on individual shot calling.

Strategy Principles

Someone once said that curling is chess on ice. This is true to some degree because, in addition to throwing and making shots, the skip must determine the course of action to be taken before and during the game. During the game there are several options to each possible situation. The skip must decide what shots to call and when to call them.

Most curlers use the term "strategy" to describe the process of calling the individual shots. This is not entirely true. CurlTech believes the game has two separate components:

  1. Game strategy - overall game approach
  2. Calling the Game - shot-by-shot tactics that support the game strategy

Component number two is also known as "calling the game".

The term "strategy" is often used to describe both of these components, but we want to concentrate on the differences between them.

Game Strategy

The term strategy best refers to the overall course of action taken by any team during the game. This "game plan" is determined before the game starts and is based on known variables like your team's skill level, the opponent's general strengths and weaknesses and known field of play conditions (See Section 9, Field of Play). Even the format of the competition can impact the game strategy. Strategy can change, and sometimes should, during a game. For the most part, the game strategy is determined before the game and all shots called during the game are in support of the overall strategy.

Good teams discuss the game strategy before the game starts to allow input from all team members. Coaches can play an important role in determining the game strategy.

Some examples of overall game strategy are:

  • Play an aggressive or conservative game (discussed later in this section)
  • Play the percentage game - a conservative game - you'll make more shots than your opponent
  • Force the opponent to play draws around guards (opponent may not have draw weight)
  • Favor a certain turn (in-turn or out-turn) based on your opponent's deficiencies
  • In the early ends play conservatively then play aggressively in the middle and late ends (you may think the opponent will tire faster than you)
  • Play conservatively to position yourself in a long competition
  • Play shots your team can make

Once the game strategy has been determined, the skip must support it by thinking about how each end will be played. In each end, the skip then must determine what shots to call and when to call them. Shot calling represents the tactical support of the larger strategy.

There is no such thing as textbook strategy or game calling. There are guidelines, however, that apply in many cases.

Particularly at the league level, the first and most important component to strategy is execution. Without proper execution of shots and sweeping, no strategy will be effective. The best strategy is the one that plays to your team's strengths and takes advantage of the opponent's weaknesses. Any type of strategy or tactics is appropriate if it's effective. In most league play, the players make about 50% of their shots. Find the shots that your team can make and stay away from the ones they can't.

Quick Note:
Olympic level players make 85% of their shots. This opens the strategy door to almost anything since the majority of shots called are made.

"Aggressive" vs. "Conservative" Game Strategy

The term aggressive refers to calling and executing shots that, when executed properly, have the highest potential for forcing the opponent's mistake (or inability to score). In curling, as in other sports, this strategy has a high degree of risk and a high potential pay-off. Aggressive shots usually include different types of draw shots like "come-arounds," freezes, tap backs, etc. For example, a perfect freeze almost eliminates the opponent's ability to remove the rock, increasing the chances to score more than one. On the other hand, poorly executed freeze may leave a rock wide open for a hit and roll, resulting in the opposition counting or scoring two.

A conservative strategy is used by teams who want to keep the game free of clutter. The shots most likely played in a conservative game would be mostly take-outs or shots thrown into the rings without cover. Teams playing a conservative game throw so many takeouts that some people believe the game has become boring to watch. Because of this, the World Curling Federation adopted a rule that would force teams to play more aggressive games. This rule is called the "Free Guard Zone" rule. This rule was adopted for spectators. You won't find many people watching your league games, but the National and World Championships enjoy a sizable crowd, live, on television and on the Internet.

Calling the Game - The Thought Process

As mentioned earlier, calling the shots is not the same as game strategy. Once you and your team have developed a strategy for the game, the skip must calls shots to execute.

CurlTech believes very strongly that individual shot calling is the result of a decision-making process. Since there are an infinite number of variables to consider, we teach "how" to decide on the shot. We do not prescribe calls for certain situations. This comes with experience. There is no text book shot calling.

There are six key decision factors on each shot:

  1. Who has last rock?
  2. What end is it?
  3. What's the score?
  4. How's the ice?
  5. How good are you?
  6. How good are they?

The following pages offer suggestion on how to deal with the six factors.

1. Last Rock

Most of the time, shot calling in any given end is determined based on who has last rock. With last rock advantage, the idea is to score, usually more than one rock. If more than one rock cannot be scored, many teams will decide to blank the end, retain the hammer, and try again next end. Without last rock, the idea is generally to steal one or more or, in some cases, to force your opponent to only one.

Generally, with last rock, try to keep the center of the sheet open. Since you have the last rock, you will need to have access to the center of the house for the last shot (the four foot). By not keeping the center open, you will run the risk of having the center of the house blocked for your last shot. Having last rock is not an advantage if you can't score with it.

Without last rock, most teams try to steal one or more rocks. To do this, try to throw rocks short of the house, preferably in the center of the sheet. With these rocks in place, a rock can be drawn in behind, under cover. This represents the best chance to not only prevent the opponent from scoring but to steal the end.

2. End

Considering your game strategy, you may want to play more conservative shots early in the game. This will allow you and your team to become acclimated to the conditions, allow you to read the ice and to assess the opponent's strengths and weaknesses. This may also keep the game close by not allowing either team to score a big end.

Later in game (the last three ends) is the time to stay steady. Many games are won and lost in the last three ends. Teams must concentrate on a good balance between aggressive shots and good execution. Now is the time to protect your lead or to make a move if you're behind.

3. Score

Again, based on your game strategy, the score will help determine the shots called. For example, in a close game (difference of one or two rocks) the shots called should not stray from the game plan.

If your team is down by a considerable margin, the game strategy should change to a more aggressive one. This is the time to call freezes, center or corner guards, close come-arounds, etc. If the opponent puts a rock in the house, you may want to ignore it and put up a corner guard (you can remove the shot rock later). Another approach is the freeze. The best freeze situation is when the opponent's rock is behind the tee line. This is a low risk freeze if you have the hammer because the button is still open for your last draw. Even if the rocks are in front of the tee, try freezing to them. This will make it difficult for the opponent to remove them. The old phrase "live and die by the sword" certainly applies here. Aggressive shots can backfire if not executed properly and you may end up shaking hands earlier than anticipated. Aggressive shots will yield a higher return (more rocks).

If you are leading by a considerable margin, consider changing the strategy to keep things open. This, if executed properly will limit the opponent's ability to get back into the game. This is risky because any dramatic change in strategy must be accompanied by solid execution or it will backfire. A good example is the team trying to keep things clear that cannot make a peel therefore leaving rocks in front of the house without any counters.

The throw-through is an important tactic late in the game with a sizable lead. The theory behind the throw-through is that if there are no rocks in play, there is nothing for the opponent to draw around or freeze to. Usually, teams wait until the last few ends to throw rocks through. The throw-through being executed in the middle ends is a strong statement that you believe the opponent can't catch you. This is embarrassing if they do.

4. Ice (Field of Play)

This refers to ice and rock conditions. Certain ice conditions favor certain shots. For example, straight ice (less than two feet on a draw) does not favor the come-around. In many cases a come-around attempt on straight ice will result in a rock that is wide open for the opponent to hit and roll. In this case, the promote is a better call. The promote is easier to throw on straight ice because it removes the variable of a large curl. Sweeping is also very effective in keeping a straight rock even straighter.

On the other hand, ice that curls (more than 2 feet on a draw) favors the come around and not the promote.

In some cases, the ice will curl on one side and run straight on the other. If available, always choose the straight side for hits and the curl side for draws.

Another ice condition that drives shot calling is the speed of the ice. Fast ice (24 seconds or higher) will favor the aggressive shots like the freeze or the tap back. Sweeping is usually more effective on faster ice therefore players can be sweep a rock to a more precise location. Slow ice (23 or less) does not favor aggressive shots but favors the conservative approach of heavier hits or hits and rolls.

Remember, ice conditions change during the game. The pebble may be heavy to start then as it begins to breakdown the ice gets faster. If the pebble breaks down too much, the ice may slow down again. This is the best reason to time shots to determine relative change in ice conditions.

5 & 6. Skill Level

This refers the skill of you own team as well as the skill of your opponent. Skill is broken up into two categories.

  • The ability to hit the broom on line
  • The ability to throw the proper weight

You should already know the basic skill level of your teammates. Common sense applies here. Don't call delicate draws for someone who can't even hit the house. You are usually better off with a rock in play than with a rock in the garage. On the other hand, heavy hits are not a good idea for someone who can't throw more than draw weight. Just as you avoid these weight-based situations with your own team, try to exploit them from your opponent. Try to force the opponent to a draw and so forth.

When it comes to hitting the broom and line, avoid hits with the person who can't hit the broom. The draw may a better option.

Now is a good time to watch the releases of your opponent. Many curlers (even the advanced players) throw rocks off line during the release. Try to spot patterns with your opponent. If your opponent has the tendency to toss out the out turn, then force that person to throw that turn. Sometimes a partially covered rock is better than a rock fully covered because it tempts your opponent to go after it, perhaps on their weak side.

Basic Shot Calling

The following are some standard shots when not playing the Free Guard Zone.

With the Hammer.

Of course, if you have last rock, you will need to wait for the opponent to throw before you throw your first rock. Where the opponent's rock ends up will then determine your course of action.

Let's use the above examples and respond to each.

If the opponent places the rock directly in front of the house about one foot, then the most aggressive response would be to draw behind it. For the most part, the Free Guard Zone game is played inside the four foot and the first team in has a definite advantage. This is a difficult shot, particularly on straight ice. You run the risk of leaving it wide open where your opponent can hit it and roll behind the guard.

Your options are limited here. Another choice would be to draw to the side of the house, ignoring the center guard.

Another would be to split the guard and the shooter onto the rings. This is effective when you're trying to keep things clean because you can remove it with your next rock if it's in the house.

Without the Hammer.

The aggressive starting shot without the hammer is to place the rock in front of the house, on the center line anywhere from 1/2 in to 2 feet out. Since it cannot be removed from play, it will allow you to build up front guards in order to draw around or promote. Remember, asking your lead to throw this shot is like calling for yourself to hit the button.

A conservative starting shot without the hammer would be a draw to the four-foot. If this is the decision, be sure that the rock is not behind the tee line. Your opponent may take the opportunity to freeze to it, forcing you to throw more difficult shots.

Free Guard Zone Strategy Guidelines

The Free Guard Zone rule is now played in almost every league, bonspiel and championship. To understand its impact on the game let's understand the rule itself.

The "Free Guard Zone" Rule

"No rock lying in the free guard zone can be removed from play by the opposition until the first four rocks of the end have come to rest. The free guard zone shall be the area between the hog line and the tee line, excluding the house."

Note: The rule states that; no rock can be removed by the opposition; this means that you can remove your own rock from the free guard zone.

Because rocks thrown into the free guard zone cannot be initially removed, teams are forced to play with one or more rocks in front of the house. This creates a certain degree of excitement with more aggressive shots being played.

Figure 7-1 The dark grey area represents the Free Guard Zone.

Generally, there are three tactical approaches to playing with the Free Guard Zone Rule when your opponent places the first rock short of the house:

Be the first team to the four-foot by drawing around the center guard.

  1. Ignore the first two opponent's rocks and begin clearing rocks once four rocks have come to rest.
  2. Ignore the center guards and draw to the sides
  3. Like regular tactical guidelines, deciding when to use the above guidelines depends more on who has last rock, the end and the score.

Below are the standard shots called in these situations. Remember, hammer determines the opening play. Let's assume the opponent will play a center guard. The following shots are to counter the opening play.

Hammer Option #1 - Draw Behind

Early in the game or in a game where the score is close, even with last rock advantage, many teams decide to draw behind a rock in front of the house, after all, your options are limited because you cannot remove the front rock from play. This is a fairly aggressive shot. This is an attempt to be "first in" meaning the first team into the four foot. There is risk however, when deciding to play in the house. Don't be behind the tee line. The opponent will draw to them and lock in a rock for a steal. Once you decide to play in the house, "the game is on".

Non-Hammer Counter-Shot

After you draw behind their opening center guard, they will follow into the four-foot. If they are down several points or late in the game, their opening center guard suggests they want to steal, possibly at all costs. If they're desperate, they will follow with another center guard.

Hammer Option #2 - Corner Guard

Even if they put up a center guard, put up a corner guard and try to force the opponent to the sides. Eventually, you will have to move the front guard and play aggressively for multiple points.

Non-Hammer Counter-Shot

After you place the corner guard, they will still draw behind the center guard. Again, if they're desperate, they'll put up another center.

Hammer Option #3 - Clear

Another option, particularly if you are ahead on the scoreboard is to wait a few shots then begin clearing the front rocks in order to expose the four-foot. Usually, by the time you're allowed to remove rocks, there are multiple rocks in play. Teams that have players, the second in particular, who can throw heavy weight are more likely to be successful with this option. The key to this approach is the heavy weight take out. The weight needs to be heavy enough to move multiple rocks.

After the first rock, some teams try the "tick" shot. This is a regular or hack weight shot designed to move the center rock to the side without removing it from play. Be careful, missed shots here may result in more clutter. The pro-side here is missing it wide.

Non-Hammer Counter-Shot

After you throw through or tick, they will either draw in or place another center guard.

Hammer Option #4 - Draw to the Side

The last option is used primarily with weaker teams. Try drawing to the sides. This increases the risk factor for the other team to steal. If they truly need to steal, they will ignore the side rocks and concentrate on center guards needed for the steal. If they are not committed to stealing, they will chase you to the sides. Eventually, one team will hit and roll behind the center.

Non-Hammer Counter-Shot

After you draw to the side, they will either draw in or place another center guard.

Two Rules of Thumb

Don't expect to steal if you don't have a rock in the four-foot. This doesn't mean you won't ever steal without a rock in the four-foot. It means don't expect to steal. Good skips can find way to the four-foot in many cases. Don't guard rocks outside the four-foot. You're better off trying to get a rock into the four-foot.

Don't make the opponent's shot for them, particularly when you have the hammer. Many inexperienced skips try to prevent their opponents form making good shots only to help them make it with a poor shot. Most experienced curlers can remember a game when the hammer team was shot rock in the four foot after the opposing skip's first rock. The opponent had a fairly difficult shot to get shot rock and the hammer skip elected to try and remove the potential opponent's rock. The takeout was a little wide and heavy and he chipped the opponent's rock in for shot. The opponent guarded his new shot rock and the hammer team was unable to get to it, losing the game.

Don't throw the rock if it's the only way the opponent can win. If the opponent is running out of rocks, they hope you'll help them. An extreme example of this, team A and B are playing the final game of a regional playdown. The winner advances to the national event. Team A was up by three points playing the last end without the hammer. Team B had one rock in the house, one rock out front (ten feet out) and one shot left. It was impossible for team B to split the front rock on to rings. Team A elected to try and remove the front rock and end the game, running team B out of rocks. The shot was a little narrow, hit the front rock, driving it onto their corner guard and spilling into the house. Team B now sits two and draws for one more, tying the game. Skip A was so distraught, she missed her two shots in the extra end and lost the game. Clearly, if skip A had not thrown her last shot, she would have won the game and advanced to her first national event. It's ok to not throw a shot.


Obviously there are a lot of variables that come into play with game strategy and shot calling. As you see more and more situations, you'll begin to develop a sense of what works and what doesn't.

Never criticize anyone's strategy until you have all the information. It is very difficult to understand all calls from behind the glass. What seems to be an obvious strategy blunder may turn out to be a game-saver or a brilliant assessment of conditions. It's better to ask, "why did you call that shot?" than to assume the call was bad to begin with.

See the Advanced Strategy section for more strategy and tactical option for your team.