This question hovers over darts like a cloud of stale cigarette smoke seemingly never blowing away, writes Lee Sulby.
Wikipedia will tell you that darts is a sport in which small missiles are thrown at a circular target fixed to a wall. It will also tell you that it is a professional competitive game and that it is a traditional pub game – so not really that revealing or definitive.
On occasion I’ve debated this question with my darts team mates but never settled on anything conclusive. To be frank, the blokes I played with (they were nearly always men) had bigger things to worry about; avoiding spending the end of each leg in the “mad house” and managing the next day’s hangover at work.
Chucker, Freak, Posh, Chav, Dutch, Spook and Cid were the guys I bounced around east London pubs with, playing in amateur darts leagues for the best part of 10 years. Pub darts doesn’t rely on a team kit so a nickname (you never choose your own) gives you your amateur darting identity and confirms your place as a fully-fledged member of a team. If you’re ever in a pub and watching a darts team and you hear someone referred to as ‘Simon’ or ‘Mark’ it’s more than likely that they’re standing in for one of the regular’s and haven’t yet earned their flights.
The standard of darts was predictably erratic. 26’s and stray non-scoring darts punctuated every game by an unexpected 140 or unintentional bullseye. Most players had played for years (in some cases sixty years) and retained a place in the side due to their reliability, not of hitting doubles, but of turning up and paying their subs. The rumoured presence of a former ex-country player (looking for a cheap ego boost) in the opposition was terrifying and in a game (or sport) that relies on steadiness of hand (and head if you’re very technical), fearing a thrashing from a ‘ringer’ doesn’t help. 60 tended to be the three dart average – before getting to the doubles – that kept you respectable and at a safe distance to avoid the captain’s indignation.
The format of team darts meant that games were played in pairs and the biggest choice of the night for the captain was whether to frontload a team with his best pair or spread the talent. Weighing up the risk of the inevitable demoralising annihilation of the worst pairing versus sacrificing your best player’s first dart every throw to tidy the mess left for him by a lesser teammate was an unenviable but necessary pastime for skippers.
Amateur darts players are a discerning bunch. Much time is spent pre-match inspecting the oche, the board, the length of throw and when you’ve forgotten yours, the weight of each other’s arrows (borrowing darts a gram too heavy or too light can have calamitous consequences). It’s amazing how many players can accurately deduce just by glancing whether the ‘throw’ is regulation (7ft 9 1/4 inches) or not. Realistically most pubs aren’t designed around the needs of darts so the length of throw can vary dramatically and the height of the board is more often than not determined by the age and shape of the pub.
The leagues relied on three things: the administration and hard work of a few enthusiasts to organise the fixtures, the hospitality of the hosting team (and associated pub) and each team fielding the necessary number of players (usually six). The ability of each player to score/chalk (often without an electronic scoreboard) was a bonus. Chalking quickly and correctly correlated directly to the player’s beer consumption. A player’s mental arithmetic agility was regularly tested due to the unpredictability of the darts under the intense gaze of a dozen vocal backseat scorers.
Unlike football, golf or even cricket, darts is unique in offering a chance for the ageing, non-athlete, gymphobe to be part of a competitive team in an environment that actively encourages sedentary, alcohol and snacks. Participation in amateur darts is probably not the first thing most people should admit to on their tinder profile if they want to be swiped right. Think of a typical darts players and your brain will – perhaps unfairly – conjure up an overweight, balding, sweaty, beer guzzler.
At the end of each night the post-match analysis would consist of a quick tally of the individual scores and a nod to the one or two players who managed half a dozen deliberate ton plus scores. There was tacit agreement that we were unlucky and only our inability to score consistently and hit doubles more efficiently was hindering our fated success. The thought of practicing more (or at all) or drinking less never entered our minds. But however disastrous the result or the extent of individual embarrassment the same dogged guys turned up week in week out, summer and winter. I couldn’t decide if it was admirable dedication or simply the lack of a better offer.
Is it a game or is it a sport? From my experience it really doesn’t matter. Darts is open to anyone, fun, full of characters and for many a passion; long may that continue.
Read more from Lee Sulby – Darts The Ultimate Sporting Leveller