The U.S. men's curling championships have never before been held on the West Coast, and when they began last week the city of Seattle played up to the playdown—curler's term for their finals—with sunny, springy days that brought residents out blinking like owls in the sudden brilliance. "A drought," said one. "It hasn't rained in four days." They looked affectionately at the Cascades and the Olympics, their mountains which the mists disclose once or twice a year, and then the curlers among them turned their backs on these newly visible wonders to retire into the Granite Curling Club for a rigorous six days of competition to determine the ninth winner of the Marshall Field Cup and the rink (the four-man curling team) to represent the U.S. in the six-nation world championships next week in Scotland.
A Boeing engineer, Al Sundquist, calculated that the 48 men of the 12 assembled champion rinks each heaved about four and a half tons of granite down the ice, the sweepers swept some 14.2 miles apiece and each man was on the ice for at least six hours a day. Viewing the gentle sport of curling in this rather new light, it is no wonder that youth proved to tell. It is the Wisconsin rink, an infant team with an average age of 25, that will leave for the Scotch Cup matches in Perth.
This may be a little damaging to the idea of the curler as a middle-aged storehouse of canny stratagems and mystic ability to read the ice, but as a member of the Granite Club says philosophically, "It's like any other sport. Experience helps, but you can't beat the young ones." Evidently not, if they are Skip (team captain) Bud Somerville, Bill Strum, Al Gagne and Thomas Wright, and if you are going to put your contenders through round-robin, rather than elimination, play with 11 other teams for six days. It is a process that separates the boys from the men.
The playdown began last Monday, with ceremony and bagpipes and The Star-Spangled Banner. "Our national anthem." came the usual announcement and, "Oh Canada?" the whispered question. Irreverent, possibly, but pertinent. An estimated 75% of the contending U.S. curlers were Canadian-born. Curling is Canada's No. 1 sport. Contrary to popular belief, more boys curl there than play hockey, and there are about 500,000 Canadian curlers. In the U.S. only 20,000 people curl, but the number is increasing.
By Tuesday night in Seattle the rinks seemed to be sorting themselves out briskly. After 24 matches four rinks were undefeated, three were without a win and five had divided up the victories in a more equitable fashion. As expected, the eastern rinks were making a good-natured but not intimidating show of it, with Nebraska and, not expectedly Michigan, for company. Minnesota, Illinois, North Dakota and Wisconsin were undefeated.
Over the next few days the look of things became progressively less tidy, and it finally dawned upon careful followers that, except for Washington and Illinois on Monday, none of the strong teams had been competing against each other. They had been playing the weaker rinks, which accounted for a scoreboard full of unblemished, and wholly blemished, records. When the top teams did get down to business, they traded a few losses that did little to indicate where things were going. Illinois defeated Minnesota, Minnesota defeated Wisconsin and Wisconsin defeated Illinois. If not indicative of much, all of the matches were magnificent.
Minnesota and Illinois were the first of the four undefeated rinks to meet, and they were interestingly matched. Minnesota, despite the presence of a fairly stolid grownup in the person of 47-year-old Sibley (Mike) Stewart, is a jumpy rink, skipped by a 22-year-old whippet named Bruce Roberts. Young Roberts, of course, is new to skipping a team in national competition, and he did a cagey, unorthodox job of it. He has said that he lives and dies curling, and has proved one or the other by losing 40 pounds this season. This has left him a chain-smoking, blade-faced wraith, and it is little wonder he has trouble settling down. The difficulty does not extend to his curling, however, which is brilliant and steady under pressure; if he were a bullfighter—and he curls with all the style and the passion of a bullfighter—Bruce Roberts would be shaping up as El N�mero Uno.
The Illinois rink, on the other hand, skipped by Bob Warner, is not a nervous rink. It is steady, cheerful, solid and excellent, with all of its members decently on the far side of 30.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, curling is a combination of shuffleboard, lawn bowls, chess and pool, played on ice, which in the particular cumulative quality of its interest resembles baseball. It is a superficially simple game to describe. You have 138 feet of ice, with 12-foot, 8-foot, 4-foot and one-foot circles marked at each end, and toward these circles you propel heavy granite stones. The object is to have your stone, or stones, nearest the center of the rings, or house, at the end of each inning, logically enough called an end. Curling terminology is, on the whole, logical. The game is called curling because the stones curl, slowly and majestically, as they slide down the ice. An end is the end of both teams' delivery of their eight stones apiece—16 stones to an end. There are 10 ends. Sweeping means sweeping. Bending refers to the arc of the path of the stone from delivery to destination (and bend is surely as forthright a word for it as curve).
The placing of stones closest to a mark and knocking away your opponent's stones are simple enough ideas. The stones themselves and ice as a playing surface give the game its particular physical quality, and the number of stones and the question of who has the advantage of the last one in an end make it strategically demanding. As in chess, there are certain usual opening moves, certain necessary responses and certain daring, unconventional moves which, by contrast with chess, you have to be able to execute physically once you have thought them up.