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Stuck In The Middle: Darts

Despite Recently Added Glitz and Hoopla, Darts in Britain Remains a Sport of Accuracy, Smoke and Beer
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

With a smoky haze shimmering in the spotlights, Birmingham, England's Aston Villa Leisure Centre resembles Madison Square Garden in an old fight film. The master of ceremonies plays to the mood. "Lad-i-e-e-e-s and gentlemen," he begins, dragging out the words in bald-faced imitation of a ring announcer. The 32 video screens behind him flicker with color, and--as if the fumes from innumerable cigarettes and cigars aren't atmospheric enough--a smoke machine cranks out a billowing cloud. "From Peterborough," the emcee says, "the England captain...Martin Adams." The crowd parts and a paunchy, bearded man in a formless white shirt with his name stenciled on the back parades to the stage, a TV camera keeping pace.

"And now...the five-time world champion...'The Power'...Phil Tay-y-y-lor." Lights flash and a rap song by C & C Music Factory thunders throughthe sound system: "I got the power!" The crowd, seated in plastic folding chairs at metal tables, applauds mightily. Taylor, a thickset man with a tidy mustache, bounds up the steps and onto the stage, looking like a bloated Dan Aykroyd. The lighting man pounds his toggles like legendary keyboardist Billy Preston. The smoke machine erupts again.

This is professional darts, as stage-managed by Rupert Murdoch's Sky Sports television network. It is not, the darts people take pains to remind you, the familiar pub setting you'd usually associate with the sport, but a new brand of packaged darts entertainment aimed at a new following. "Darts comes with a lot of baggage," admits Dick Allix, the tournament director of the World Darts Council, one of the sport's two feuding governing bodies. "If you wanted to write a profile of someone who wouldn't appeal to advertisers, you'd probably come up with the stereotypical darts supporter. That's the stereotype, mind you. But you can see that there's more to darts than that."

Sky is trying to grab the world market with a dressed-to-kill version of the sport, orchestrated for the living-room viewer. Starting this year, Sky's televised darts will hit the United States, where 75,000 throwers and 250 annual tournaments are sanctioned by the American Darts Association. "That is the great untapped market," intones Allix, who plans an August telecast from Caesar's Palace as the U.S. debut of darts-as-spectacle, which bears the same relationship to traditional tournament darts that a football half-time show does to the Boston Pops.

Still, when the music stops, you get the same game you find at the pub. You can put a darts tournament in the Leisure Center's multipurpose auditorium hall ("The perfect venue for weddings & parties, dinner dances, skittles and shows," boasts the promotional literature), in the midst of the tangle of turnpike intersections that is England's second-largest city, but the arena will always take on the atmosphere of a pub, only with longer lines for the restrooms. You can't tell on TV, but the darts throwers feel right at home.

For this event, smoking is not only allowed but encouraged; ashtrays are filled to overflowing and the emcee periodically announces that the sponsoring cigarette brand is available at reduced prices. Mixed drinks are sold in the back, along with oceans of lager. Linda Jones, a huge woman who will eventually win the women's competition here, walks the floor with a plastic cup of beer. Earlier, Julian Bullock won his Round of 16 match and marched straight up to the VIP lounge for a frothy glass. "The darter has to drink," states Keith Talent, the dart-obsessed protagonist of Martin Amis's novel, London Fields. "Has to. To loosen the throwing arm. Part of his job."

In 1993, at the World Championships outside London, 16 of the top British Darts Organization throwers sat around a table to plan a revolt. The sport's popularity was waning, down to a single televised tournament a year from a high of 11 in the mid-'80s because of inept marketing, and fewer and fewer throwers were able to make a living playing darts. "It had to be done," says Phil Taylor.

So the rebels split off from the BDO to form the World Darts Council, player-run like the pro tennis tours. They were promptly banned from BDO tournaments, barred from competing for their country and denounced by the darts establishment, but they didn't look back. Taylor now earns six-figure prize money every season and, with little else to do, practices four hours every day. The BDO's Martin Adams, by contrast, worked as a computer programmer for 22 years and only lately has earned enough to devote his full energies to the sport.

Even as they play the Birmingham match, talk of lawsuits to remedy the situation is rampant in darting circles. In the months that follow, the arguments from the WDC and BDO will, in fact, be heard in British courts. In the final days before a judgment is scheduled to be made, representatives of the two organizations would announce that they have reached, in effect, an agreement to agree, the details of which would be resolved later. It would all sound very hopeful, that an era of open competition would soon be at hand. But all that is in the future, and a long way from the smoke-and-lager atmosphere of the Aston Villa Leisure Centre.

In the meantime, the darting audience has split between the warring factions. The controversy rages on the letters page of Darts World, the seminal darting monthly. "As the majority of the WDC's players came through the early stages of their professional careers, the BDO shamefully disregarded their talent and now have deservedly lost them," writes 17-year-old Mike Woodhead of Upton-by-Chester, Cheshire, in a recent issue. One column away, Phil Jones of London put a pox on both houses, saying that "the players could have nullified any problems years ago by saying 'I'm a dart player not a politician, and I want to make my own decisions about where and when I play.'...I still can't see the sense in it."

Set against that backdrop, this afternoon's matchup at the Leisure Center is perhaps the most important of the darting season. Adams, the top-ranked thrower in the BDO, and Taylor, the defending WDC champion, are clashing in a semifinal of the News of the World Big D Championships, inaugurated in 1928, discontinued in 1990 and resurrected by Murdoch money after a six-year hiatus. Perhaps because of its history, and the fact that its demise predated the organizational split, this serves as the only tournament in which both WDC and BDO members are allowed to participate, although the coming agreement will undoubtedly change that. The winner will earn almost $75,000, plus a trophy and symbolic golden darts.

The symbolism is important to Taylor, who has won every other important competition but never this one. And Adams, strapped for cash playing in the BDO, wants the paycheck. On the other hand, Adams does get to represent England in the international competitions, for which the BDO is the official national governing body. That's like playing tennis on your country's Davis Cup team, except that no country outside Britain--which traces its darting history to the time of Henry VIII--is any good at darts, which makes the concept of international competition somewhat less than compelling. "This is a darts culture here: darts is what Brits do best, in the afterglow of empire," wrote Amis.

Taylor is considered the best darts thrower in the world. A former ceramics industry worker from Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield, he happened upon the legendary Eric Bristow giving a darts exhibition at a pub in 1985 and immediately became taken by the idea of making a living at the game. Bristow, nicknamed the Crafty Cockney, was at the time the world's No. 1, but to Taylor he didn't seem unbeatable. "I said, 'I can do that meself,' " Taylor says, and he somehow convinced Bristow to sponsor him while he tried. In 1988, Taylor started touring as a pro. By 1990, he had beaten Bristow to become world champion.

These days, the two are friendly rivals and co-favorites at most every World Darts Council event. Each has won five professional world titles, and each desperately wanted to be the first to win his sixth at the WDC World Championships at Frimley Green in Purfleet, Essex, this January. "You can't teach the kind of ability he has," says Bristow, a large man in a sport jacket and flared collar who is serving as the color commentator for Sky in Birmingham. "But I did give him pointers along the way."

The News of the World tournament also marks the only chance for a pub-level amateur to compete against the pros, and its format almost insures that at least a few of them will. Unlike the marathon sessions of two-hour matches that make up the standard tournament, this event features lightning-quick, TV-friendly, two-of-three eliminations that each take about 15 minutes. Darts is a big betting game, but there's no betting here because the outcome of such a brief match is far too uncertain. The long odds that both Adams and Taylor could have survived all the way through the brackets to meet in a semifinal adds even more spice to their match; Bristow, for example, started slowly and never made it out of the first round. It's as if, the throwers are fond of saying, they played the entire Masters golf tournament over three holes.

There are probably as many kinds of dart games as there are variations of poker. In the most popular tournament version, each player begins with 501 points and must work down to zero by throwing three darts in a turn and totaling the scores. The narrow outer band scores double points and the equally narrow inner band scores triple. A bull's-eye is 50, the ring around it 25. And you must end on a double, so the mathematics gets interesting.

Dart throwers must keep their feet--though, interestingly, not their arms--behind the toe line, or "oche," pronounced AH-kee, positioned for tournament play at seven feet, nine and one-quarter inches from the board and as far as nine feet away in bars. Throwing technique varies. Some throwers touch the dart to their cheek as a checkpoint. Others establish a rhythm, swinging their right arm down to pluck the next dart from their left hand immediately upon release. One thrower, who mercifully lost in Friday night's preliminary competition, pushed back his eyelid with the feathers of the dart on every back swing, discomforting viewers as far north as Hull.

Serious darts is an easy target for ridicule: one look at the protruding bellies on nearly every one of competitors reveals them as something short of Olympic-caliber athletes. Yet the game has an alluring tension to it that makes it difficult to flip the channel once you've tuned in. That's what Sky has going for it most, not its state-of-the-art graphics; the occasional BDO event presented in typically understated fashion on the BBC is, if anything, even more enjoyable. There's a solemn intensity to the ritual of the thrower launching three darts in quick succession, each shattering the respectful silence by landing with a pleasurably loud thwack at a meaningful place on the board. And when the throwers happen to each be the best in their rival organizations, it means you've happened upon a "special darts moment."

That's the way dart throwers really talk. And this: "There's not a great deal to choose between me and Phil." That's Adams talking, though it's perfectly obvious that anyone who watches the two of them through a tournament bracket will spot differences. Taylor throws his darts from the shoulder, while Adams uses more wrist. Taylor is stronger-willed, less emotional and more machine-like in his consistency, while Adams' success derives from a visible artistry with the darts. Adams has the smoothest throwing motion of anyone in the tournament, but Taylor's darts more often go where he wants them to, especially under pressure. That makes him the favorite, but in a best-two-of-three format, nothing can be taken for granted.

After the smoke has cleared somewhat, the two get down to--as darting supporters like to say--"serious darts." Taylor earns the first turn by landing his preliminary offering closest to the bull's-eye. Two turns later, he's down to 277 points while Adams is at 406, a substantial advantage. But such leads can easily evaporate: the highest possible total for a turn is 3 times 60, or 180, so it is entirely possible to go from a standing start to victory in just three rotations. That rarely happens, though, even at the game's highest level.

With his fifth turn, Adams registers a score of 100 to reduce his total from 171 to 71. At 118, Taylor can win with a triple-20, a double-20 and a double-9, but he misfires and ends his turn with 19 points. He'll need, say, a single-9 and a double-5 to take the first game if Adams can't reduce his score from 71. But Adams takes advantage of the opening with three precise throws and goes up 1-0, and a murmur runs through the crowd.

In the second leg, however, Taylor is a metronome. His score proceeds from 501 to 401 to 301 to 201 in clean, hundred-point increments. On his fourth turn, he lands a triple-20, triple-20, triple-19 combination to score 177, leaving him with 24 points to go. (While the three triple-20s is the most desired result, a thrower may occasionally feel he doesn't have enough room in the narrow triple-20 area to force a third dart in. Instead, he'll attempt a triple-19. Any score of 177 is likely to arise from just this circumstance, as 19 and 20 are nowhere near each other on the board.) Taylor converts that final 24 with a simple double-12 and ties the competition, 1-1.

Even the beer sellers are quiet now. Taylor wins honors for the third leg and opens with a 144, reducing his score to 367. But Adams, helped by consecutive 100-point rounds that take him from 396 to 196, stays on his heels. Taylor then shows why he is a true champion, "unchallenged as the greatest living dartsman," as the News of the World newspaper's breathless darts columnist John Morris would put it the following day, by swiftly reducing his score from 148 to 8. He converts with his first throw of the next turn, a neat double-4, then punches the air in exultation.

The rest is anticlimactic. Against Ian (Diamond) White, a roofer from Cheshire who has never made the final of a major tournament, Taylor jumps to a 42-300 lead in the first leg and wins easily, then records six consecutive triple-20s and takes the second leg, the tournament, the $75,000 first prize and those golden darts. "He has the consistency of a planet," Sid Waddell, the Bud Collins of darts, exclaims across the Sky airwaves. "He is set in a darts orbit."

In the players lounge afterward, Adams and his wife, Sharon, fantasize about the day when he can regularly play Taylor for purses as large as this one. "The animosity between the organizations is starting to dwindle off a bit," he says, presciently. "The players on our side are seeing the problems the others saw a few years ago, so we can sympathize with what they did. Tennis players and golfers are involved in the management of their sport, and we should be, too."

The thousand or so spectators who have filled the Aston Villa Leisure Center on this drizzly Saturday know they've seen a bit of darting history. Yet as they file out into the rain-swept parking lot, stopping in the doorway to light another cigarette or rekindle a cigar, they're envisioning the pub they'll visit that night to throw a few, and the story they'll tell about watching Phil Taylor toss out triple-20s as if he were flipping a Frisbee--not the soon-to-be-resolved feud between the WDC and the BDO that has led to these made-for-TV darts, complete with loud music and smoke machine.

"Darts is darts," Eric Bristow quips when asked about the impact of Sky's hyped-up production on the game that he has played as a professional since age 15. And then he goes off to find a beer.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer living in Colorado.

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