It’s around 9:30 on a Friday night, and instead of bar-hopping, about 40 people, most in their twenties and thirties, step gingerly onto the freshly smoothed rink at Bellerive Ice to learn the basics of curling.
If you’ve ever played shuffleboard at your neighborhood bar, you’ll have some idea of how the game works. In the simplest terms, teams slide stones down the ice, trying to get as close as possible to the target, or house. The winning team is the one whose stones end up closest to said house.
But shuffleboard, of course, doesn’t have sweepers. In curling, each four-person team has two of them, and they use their brooms to smooth the ice and try to keep the 43-pound granite stones on course. Patrick Jefferson, a member/teacher with the Curling Club of Houston—the city's only group devoted to the game, which is way more popular in places like, oh, Canada—tells Houstonia he’s aware that the uninitiated find sweepers amusing.
“The impressions of curling are, It kind of looks funny—you got a broom as part of the equipment?” he says, “and also, That’s easy, anybody can do it.” But the fact is, the sport is quite difficult. There’s a reason people call curling “chess on ice.” It’s a game of strategy."
At the Sharpstown-area rink, the would-be curlers try their hands at pushing their feet off a wooden fixture called a hack, sliding forward without slipping, and gently curling and throwing stones down the ice, before learning to sweep. The players get more confident as the game progresses, yelling “Sweep!” to make their teammates work their brooms faster. Everyone, regardless of team, cheers a well-thrown stone.
Afterward some of the participants hang around in the lobby to drink beer and chat about curling, parenthood, and upcoming trips. “It’s extremely social,” says Jefferson, who teaches special education and coaches football and track at Lamar High School.
The post-game soirée is called “broomstacking,” because traditionally players stack brooms beside a fire before drinking. Here there’s just drinking. “The winning team buys the losers the first round. It’s Canadian—that’s just how it’s done,” says Jefferson. “That’s part of the fun.”
Like nearly half of the club’s 60-odd paid members, Jefferson attended his first Learn to Curl event during the 2018 Winter Olympics, at which the U.S. men’s team—a bunch of everymen mostly from Minnesota—shocked the world by winning the gold medal. Most people who attend one of the classes don’t return, but some end up joining the club’s seasonal leagues.
League players’ abilities and backgrounds vary wildly. A given team might have a teenager, her parents, maybe even a grizzled veteran who’s been around since the club’s formation in 1973. “Our club is about half people with a year’s or two years’ experience, and half with a lot more,” says Jefferson. “And with Houston being so diverse, we have Canadians; there’s a guy from Norway who plays. It’s people from all around the world and the U.S.”
The local league is mixed but splits into men and women for national competitions. The Houston men’s team won the 2017 title for arena clubs, defined as groups that play at rinks not solely dedicated to curling. The club’s members would love to shed the arena designation someday—get their own private ice surface, have more time for league games and practice, up the chances that Houston might one day produce its own Olympic curler—but growing their membership is the immediate goal. “We’ve actually had a good bit of participation,” says Jefferson, noting that several dozen Rice students recently showed up for a lesson. “There’s definitely a lot of interest. At the next Olympics cycle we’re hoping for 30 to 50 members more.”
It’s an added challenge, of course, that players have to keep their Friday nights and Sunday mornings free, when the rink’s available for classes and league games. But take it from Jefferson: The sport will pull you in. “Once you try it,” he promises, “you realize it’s not so easy, but it’s a lot of fun.”