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Why John Shuster Gave Up A Point

Jon Shuster on ice, curling
Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

The United States men’s curling team won’t be winning a gold medal again. John Shuster and company, the reigning Olympic gold medalists, were swept out of contention for a gold today by Great Britain, 8-4, in the semifinals of the curling tournament.

Given the team's up and down play, another gold always felt like a long shot. The U.S. was the last team to qualify for the semifinals, going 5-4 in group play and needing a win over Denmark earlier Thursday to advance. They faced a Great Britain team that ranked alongside Canada as pre-tournament favorites; skip Bruce Mouat is among the best in the world. The U.S., though, was the only team to beat Britain in group play.

They did not beat them again, but they still had a shot at the end because of a decision John Shuster made to give up the chance for a point. This is not the most unusual strategy in curling, as it happens. In the sport, the team with the “hammer” goes last, and whichever team didn’t score in the previous end gets the hammer. But sometimes a team will pass up scoring a point and just throw the final stone through the house. This is called “blanking” an end; a team won’t score any points, but will keep the hammer, which is generally considered more valuable. Teams want to score 2 or more points when they have that last shot.

In the ninth of 10 ends, Shuster had a decision to make. The U.S. had the hammer. The team was down 5-4. But Great Britain’s Mouat had placed his final rock in such a position that it was basically impossible for Shuster to take it out and also score two points. On the broadcast, you could hear him say as much to his team. Instead of attempting to tie the game at 5, Shuster threw the rock through the end, which handed Mouat’s team a 6-4 lead going into the final end. Doing this meant that the U.S. kept the hammer, instead of it passing to Britain. This is actually a strategy that Shuster has used in the past!

This video, from the 2019 world championships, shows Shuster talking about it during a competition. “Our winning percentage down two is way, way better than it is tied,” he says. Today as in the clip above, Shuster’s teammates didn’t seem so sure of the strategy.

So is it the right one? College basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy is also a fan of curling, and runs the Double Takeout curling site. He wrote about the situation two years ago. He ran some numbers and figured that the winning percentage down two was not, in fact, “way, way better.” But the strategy was defensible against the very top teams in the world. As it so happens, Shuster was playing literally one of the top teams in the world.

Here’s why this made some sense: Down two with the hammer in the final end, the U.S. could win by scoring three, or by scoring two and then stealing a point in an extra end. If they went in tied in the final end but Great Britain had the hammer, the U.S. can only win by stealing. Pomeroy goes through some math, which you can go visit if you’d like, but I think it comes out pretty straightforward in English: If your opponent is really, really good at preventing steals, then you should give up the point and keep the hammer. As it so happens, top teams like the one skipped by Mouat are incredibly good at preventing a steal of a point when they have the hammer. Though Pomeroy says he finds it “controversial,” the strategy has some grounding in logic.

So while this strategy only makes sense against one of the best teams in the world, it wasn’t a bad one for the curling semifinal. The U.S. was likely not going to beat Great Britain if Britain had the hammer in the final end, even though the game was tied. They’d have a much better shot down two, with the hammer, against a team as good as Great Britain. And, indeed, Shuster got a chance to score two with his final rock. That shot was off.

The Brits will face Sweden for the gold. The U.S. plays Canada for bronze.

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