FForty years ago this month, at the height of the first big darts tungsten rush, Jocky Wilson left Jollees nightclub in Stoke holding a world title and a check for £ 6,500 – around £ 26,000 in today’s money. It is a measure of the sport’s renewed popularity that whoever lifts the PDC World Championship trophy on Monday night is pocketing £ 500,000.
And while the “Oi, Oi, Ois” final has yet to sound through Alexandra Palace, it’s already sure to hail this year’s tournament as a vintage edition. When Michael Smith dominated Jonny Clayton in a last 16-set tie-break, it was immediately hailed as a game for the ages. But such was the quality in so many subsequent matches, including Smith’s 5-4 win over world number 1 Gerwyn Price and Peter Wright’s 6-4 slugfest over Gary Anderson – in which Wright reached 24,180, a record for a world championship match. – maybe not even the best meeting of the week.
Meanwhile, a nine-dart finish was once so rare that in 1982 sponsors offered £ 52,000 to anyone who could land it – eight times the winner’s prize. No one did. Still, when Price pulled off the feat against Smith on Saturday, it was the tournament’s third – a record. On average, a million people watched last year’s final. Would anyone be surprised if that number was exceeded on Monday when Wright faced Smith?
So, what explains the popularity of darts? To these eyes, his pleasures come from his purity – dart and board, eye and nerve – combined with his relentless pressure. After all, there are few sports where the gap between perfection and failure is so slim; where the adrenaline rush of hitting a 180 can so abruptly turn into public disgrace if three darts for a double are thrown away; where a player has to think, calculate where to throw next, but not think too much, because then the tension and the heckling will make the mind tremble with doubt.
It’s a sport with so many swing changes that it could be played on a swing. And at the highest levels, when players throw for a leg, set, or match every 90 seconds or so, darts almost become a combat sport. Certainly, an opponent cannot touch. But they can constantly hurt.
Maybe it helps that darts remain a sport where you don’t have to be speeded up in an academy or born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Scottish player Peter Wright was a tire fitter before turning pro in his mid-30s. His compatriot Gary Anderson, his opponent in the semifinals on Sunday, was a builder. With their big bellies and tattoos, they look more like us than most elite sports stars.
Longevity may also play a role: Incredibly Paul Lim, “the Singapore Slinger” who played alongside Wilson in 1982, was still good enough to compete in this year’s world championship at age 67.
Wilson, of course, was the ultimate story of wealth rags and rags backs. He grew up in desperate poverty, including years in a children’s home, before starting to gamble in the mid-1970s while unemployed. Famous, he had no teeth. Early in his career, his dentures fell off during a game and in excitement he stomped on them.
When the Observer visited the 1980 World Championships, they found Wilson wandering around with “cans of beer in his pocket, in need of a shave and with bits of dried fruit in his pockets.” At one point, a girl from the sponsoring embassy gave players 200 cigarettes each overnight. “They smoke so many free cigarettes all week that they suck at the end of it,” noted our man – including Wilson, who played with a cigarette stuck in his non-throwing hand.
But Wilson could play, and how. Two years later, he beat John Lowe in the 1982 final despite arguments with the press, leaving the stage in tears after an argument with Alun Evans, and the roof of his town hall in Kirkcaldy collapsing during the tournament. “It wasn’t a particularly good finale,” Matthew Engel wrote in these pages. “Lowe was about a millimeter apart, and millimeters are more important in darts than in any sport except mountaineering. “
This victory allowed Wilson to buy his own house. Tragically over the years, his drinking (commentator Sid Waddell jokingly said Wilson “would win darts games when other people were reportedly in intensive care”) has taken its toll and the Scotsman has ended his days in the consulting business where he grew up.
Meanwhile, a sport that was once the preserve of pubs and workers’ clubs is now attracting the interest of academics. A recent study looked at 29,381 matches and found that while both players could win the match with just one dart, performance for young people and amateurs deteriorated by 10-26%, while for professionals it declined. less than 1%.
That’s a striking conclusion given the abuse that top players face at critical times. It has been particularly bad in this 2021 tournament, with the drunken mob telling the Welshman Price he was ‘a bastard of sheep’ and barring and booing non-English players. The reluctance of advertisers to call it correctly remains a lingering stain.
Meanwhile, another study showed observers could accurately decipher how a better dart player would throw based on their body language. As a rule, faces showed more expression and anxiety – with shorter preparation times – before a bad pitch than before a good.
Of course, darts have their detractors. But even they would have to accept that a sport that has zigzagged from boom to boom, from schism to long separation, and resuscitation to rebirth over the past four decades is booming, and now doing so much. Christmas and New Years party. Furniture like hangovers and failed resolutions.