Sport - Benjamin Markovits can't get worked up about darts

Darts is competitive sport pared down to its essentials, but without much to cheer for

I've started to watch darts: the world title at the Lakeside in Frimley Green. It's the first sign, I think, that I've been living too long in this country. (The second is using the plural verb for football teams, as in "England are going to win the World Cup". The third is using the first person collective: "We should drop Rio Ferdinand.") The rhythm of darts is wonderfully lifelike: nothing happens. If you continue to watch, nothing will continue to happen, endlessly repeated, with tiny uninteresting variations.

It's sport reduced to pure result. To put it another way, it's a game in which the ticker-tape report of the scores is almost indistinguishable from the game itself - just add a barful of drunken fans. Last summer, people stuck in offices tracked the progress of the Ashes series on their computers. I imagine that what they saw looked a little like this, for each over: 0 0 4 1 0 1, etc. Darts, I suppose, provided this sort of sporting tension before the invention of the internet. Though the numbers, to be fair, tend to run higher.

Yet I couldn't help wondering, as I watched, the ordinary wonder of all sports: why is someone winning and someone losing? What are they doing differently? The throwing motion looked familiar enough. I'm a basketball man, myself; and rules one and two of shooting a jumper in basketball are: keep your elbow in; point it at the target. In any case, that's what the dartsmen did (though they did not, it seemed, either bend their knees or release at the top of their jumps, and there wasn't anyone waving an arm in their faces. There was no defence; I'd have liked to see some).

A young Dutchman, I forget his name, was being puffed up by the TV commentators as a bit of a rock'n'roll boy wonder - largely because he appeared to have shaved. He heaved the darts as if he wouldn't mind hurting the board, and tended to throw in streaks, hot and cold; the older, pubbier Englishman up against him in one of the matches was more circumspect. Every throw seemed to disappoint him afresh. He had the air of someone rising above his own instinct peevishly to complain.

What kept me transfixed is that I couldn't begin to explain the run of play. I might as well have been watching dice. This, in fact, is just what I wanted to know: where were the dice being rolled? In their heads, as they imagined the next throw - confidently, anxiously? In their wrists, as they threw the dart? In the sweat of their fingers, as the dart rested in them? In the air, as it held up, with just a touch of influence, the dart in its flight?

The only thing that was clear was that dice - psychological, physiological, atmospheric - were somewhere at work. If it was just a question of intention, of course, they would never have missed; but they did miss, and the variations in their precision were surprisingly great. It's a sport, after all, in which the factors are almost all human: there isn't a muddy pitch, or a gusty wind to blame. Yet sometimes they could pinch a third dart into the speck of corner left by the other two in that half-inch smudge of the treble 20, while at others they were equally capable of missing, on three successive throws, a clinching double.

The difference between dartsmen could be explained in percentages. There's an error in our machines. Athletes work to reduce the force of it. The ones who have reduced it most will win, time and again. This is the calculation that casinos count on: if they slant the odds just a little in their own favour, the longer the punters play, the more money they'll lose.

What's interesting about darts is that there seems to be no other grace to admire but the grace of efficiency. There isn't Rooney's power or Thierry Henry's fleetness to distract us from the numbers, to dress up an athlete's advantage as beauty or courage. When David Beckham stood over that free-kick against Greece, what were the odds of his scoring? One in eight? He could have flipped a coin instead: three straight heads and we win. But would we have cheered as much?

Hunter Davies is away

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists