Seeing as how it’s now fall, winter sports have started to ramp up. This is, for example, the first week with two hockey ‘games’; I’ve mentioned before that I ‘play’. That started in practically the first week that I was in grad school. I was sitting in my office (more like a small barn, really, there were four of us in there) looking for the error in a recent paper when in walked a ‘senior’ Master’s student. “Grad hockey is Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Be there.” “Umm, I haven’t played since I was ten years old and I was no good then.” “Doesn’t matter. All grad students that aren’t jerks play hockey. Tuesday and Thursday morning, 8 til 9. Be there.”
That was thirty-one years ago, practically to the week.
So, as mentioned this is the week I go from one game to two, from one evening of drooling and feeling like I’ve been beaten with a Louisville to two. Exercise, however, is good for me. At least, it’s supposed to be. As long as one ignores the seemingly gleeful stories on the CBC about Yet Another Weekend Warrior who played his first game of the season and died on the bench after his second shift.
The title of this story, though, doesn’t refer to hockey, although with the skill that I routinely display it could. No, I’m talking about curling.
Curling is a peculiar sport for any number of reasons. Briefly, it’s a game played on a rectangular (roughly forty metres long by four and a half wide) sheet of ice between two teams of four. The teams alternate in ‘throwing’ twenty-kilo stones the length of the sheet. When each team has thrown eight, the team closest to a fixed target point scores points. Repeat for about two hours. (It’s called ‘curling’ because the stones do not slide down the ice in a straight line; they curl. The physics behind this is not well understood.)
Winners buy the first round at the bar. And there’s a bar in virtually every curling club in the country.
‘Most’ games are played at the club level. These range from the purely recreational to fairly competitive; it depends on the specific league. For the truly competitive set there’s a range of playdowns that culminate in regional, provincial, national and world championships. For the less ambitious there are tournaments called ‘bonspiels’ that often revolve around the themes of competition, prizes, food (curling clubs often have well-appointed kitchens in addition to bars) and drink. Some have free beer — it’s always important to know your audience.
For many years there was a local ‘spiel each fall that ‘my’ team often entered. The format changed a bit from year to year but it was typically a three-day affair (Thursday to Saturday) with three games (and at least three meals) guaranteed.
One year when we arrived to play our first game on Thursday night we discovered that we were playing one of the stronger teams in the event, one of the ones you could imagine contending for the overall title. Not good. It got worse.
We looked at the overall schedule and found that, should we happen, somehow, to win, we would almost certainly be facing another very strong team. And if we won that, another very strong team in the third game. The must-win one.
We stared at the chart and examined possibility after possibility — our ‘corner’ of the draw was pretty damned scary. Except for us. But one thing quickly became obvious: losing the first game would get us out of that ‘corner’; once that happened the teams we would be likely to face, while still strong, weren’t nearly as scary. So it looked like the optimal strategy was to lose the first game.
“Well,” we thought “let’s give it our best shot but we won’t be disappointed if we happen to lose.”
Well, we gave it a shot all right, just not a very good one. They won. In fact, they crushed us. We didn’t score a single point (which is a little unusual; normally I’d expect to take at least one or two).
In short, they skunked us.
With that out-of-the-way, though, and having left the scary corner of the draw, we sort of found our level and reeled off four straight wins to make us an event winner, which meant a decent run at the prize table. And a record of 4-and-1 isn’t too shabby. We were all pretty satisfied by the spiel. Food was pretty good, too.
Until I next played hockey. I was in the locker room and a guy (I don’t remember his name; he was a blur — I take my glasses off when in locker rooms. After all, a roomful of naked men just isn’t pretty.) said “I saw your name in the paper.” Oh? “Oh?” “Yeah, they said you got skunked in a game a few days ago.”
Apparently they published the results of the first game — and ONLY the first game. So ‘everyone’ knew we were inept, but ‘no one’ knew we were pretty good overall. Oh well.
The moral of this story (if there is one) is that you should probably assume everything you read in a newspaper is lacking… context. And not everyone is as inept as they look.