Curling up in Chicago

By Lindsey Woods

In a cozy-looking wooden building tucked away in Northbrook, Ill., people throw stones, and shout and slide around on sheets of ice. They’re eating, drinking and chatting, as well, enjoying the company of friends and competitors. In other words, they’re curling.

The season for the Chicago Curling Club is just beginning. Starting in mid-October, the club has begun hosting its weekly competitions, called bonspiels, and interclub play.

Most people hear about curling during the Winter Olympics, according to David Geake, president of the Chicago Curling Club. The club even has Olympic ties through member Joni Cotten, who competed in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics as an alternate for the U.S. curling team.

“It was only the second time [in Olympic history] that curling was a full-medal sport,” Cotten said. “So there was a lot of exposure to the game from a media perspective. When they picked me as the alternate, I was honored beyond words.”

The Chicago Curling Club was created long before curling became an Olympic sport. The club will celebrate its 64th anniversary in 2012, whereas curling only officially entered the Olympic arena in 1998.

Many club members became curious about curling after watching the televised Olympic Games. Adam Faust, a member of the club, said the Olympics drew him to curling, although it took some time for him to actually try the sport.

“I saw the Olympics and wanted to try it for probably a decade,” Faust said.

When he tried it, he was hooked. Now a longtime member and player, he said the sport keeps him sane during the colder months.

“It’s just a great thing to do inside during the winter to avoid going stir-crazy,” he said. “It’s nice to have indoor sports that aren’t completely trying to escape the cold.”

Cotten added that people come for the curling and stay for the social aspect, affectionately calling it a “cult sport.” The club, as well as having four “sheets,” or playing areas, has a full kitchen and well-stocked bar.

“It’s a very social sport, especially at the club levels,” Geake said. “Common etiquette is winning team buys the first round, losing team buys the second round. Without the bar, there wouldn’t be much curling.”

The finer points of curling require a sober mind, concentration and finesse, according to Geake. The “stone,” the object propelled across the ice, is pushed by one of four team members, who all push two stones. Two other teammates use brooms to sweep the ice, melting it just enough to allow for a smoother surface, making the stone go further. The ultimate goal is to be the closest to the center of the “house,” the target-like shape at the other end of the ice.

In order to win, a team must have the most points at the end of eight rounds, called “ends,” which entail eight stones on each side being thrown. At the conclusion of each end, points are tallied based on which team’s stones are closest to the “button,” or the middle of the house. Only the team with the closest stone scores for that round, and however many are closest to the button without being interrupted by the other team’s stone is the amount of points awarded.

“It’s a combination of bocce and chess and shuffleboard blended together,” Geake said. “Chess for the strategy, bocce for the scoring elements—you want to be the closest to the target in the end—and the shuffleboard in terms of pushing something along the board.”

There’s also endurance involved, according to Cotten. Games typically last between two and two-and-a-half hours, she said. It also requires a strategy, including knocking other team’s stones or physically blocking them from the head.

“It’s definitely a thinking man’s game,” Cotten said.

The club competes around the U.S. and internationally, mostly with Canadian teams, who make up the largest curling population in the world, according to Geake. They also play with another club, Exmoor, which is currently the only other club in the area. The Chicagoland area used to have three curling clubs, but the North Shore club closed its doors in spring 2011 for unspecified reasons.

Despite other clubs closing, Geake said membership is on the rise, especially during Olympic years. He also said the demographic is changing because the Olympics have given the sport more exposure.

“The average age of our members [has] come way down because of the Olympics,” Geake said. “Before, the average age might have been mid-60s, and it’s in the lower 50s now. A lot of new curlers [in] their 20s and 30s [come] up from the city.”

Cotten explained that the average age may be influenced by the longevity the sport provides.

“You can play this game from the age of 8 all the way to 88. It’s amazing,” she said.

According to Geake, curling is one of the easiest sports to learn, although perfecting it can take years.

“Maybe after three or four weeks [of learning], you will have that sense of touch and balance,” Geake said. “It’s just about improving from that.”

Cotten and Geake agreed that one of the coolest aspects of curling is that, unlike other sports, men and women are on a relatively even playing field.

“What I love about the sport is the difference between men and ladies is so slight,” Geake said. “I can’t think of another sport that’s so easily matched between men and ladies.”

For more information on how to get a membership and joining a learn to curl program, visit