There are few things on this planet which never disappoint. The World Darts Championship is one of them. Every year on the year, it bestows an unstoppable fortnight of dramatic brilliance, amplified by a bloody lot of bloody fun. There is nothing like it.
The game itself is simple, repetitive, comforting and compelling; sending a dart from hand to board is a rhythmic, hypnotic, idiosyncratic treat – the bass beat on contact complemented by the intellectual thrill of calculating scores and predicting outshots (the finishing sequences). Because it is immediately obvious what is going on, it is immediately absorbing, and because so many of us know how easy it is to play but how impossible it is to play well, we have a handy frame of reference to swiftly make it about ourselves.
Nor does it stop there. Darts is about far more than chucking a pointy thing at a flat thing; it tells a story of humanity that is animated and crystallised in close-up and high-definition. No other sport shows, simultaneously, action and reaction; on stage and on camera, there is nowhere to hide.
Brooking neither luck nor tactics, darts facilitates neither refereeing errors nor stalemates; excuses do not exist. Players can do nothing to affect one another. If things are going badly, no teammate will be along to save them, and there is no option to roll into the reds, deadbat a few or cover up on the ropes. Their only option is to throw better.
As such, there is no more exacting test of pressure, no examination of vertebrae more thorough. Under lights, on camera and in front of a crowd, perform a fine motor skill predicated on a steady hand and an empty mind – good luck with that.
“But is it a sport?” ask the kind of funsters who, in other scenarios, prattle on about the differences between indica, sativa, serotonin and empathogens. The correct answer, of course, is: “Who gives a shit?”
One of the most beautiful things about sport is that it allows us to share the most exhilarating, demoralising moments of people’s lives, entwining them with our own and supplying an intensity otherwise lacking – and darts takes that to another level. We see every expression of tension, fear, devastation and ecstasy – you might call it love – so feel that we know the players, and accordingly, can imagine that they know us too.
Because of that, darts offers a study in humanity to captivate not just those who like darts but those who like anything – its themes the same as those found in literature, theatre, cinema and art. Or, put another way, enjoying it is not a matter of taste; rather, there are those who do and those yet to discover that they do.
And, at the moment, darts is the best sport in the world. This is partly because others are regenerating; there are very few great teams and great individuals currently at their peaks. Darts, on the other hand, has never been played better. Michael van Gerwen won 25 tournaments last year, and 18 tournaments in 2015. He also set a new record for the highest three-dart average ever recorded on television, 123.40.
Van Gerwen is not just the best dart player in the world but the best anything in the world; one of the best anythings in the history of everything. And he is only 27.
But, as with any great sportsperson, to assess van Gerwen by his numbers is to miss the point entirely. A wondrous bolus of uncut genius, his competitive charisma is startling – a mix of passion, intimidation, egomania, and the most distinctive phizog of all-time. He throws darts like flaming javelins, celebrates like a psychopath, and because it is impossible not to know how good he is, he makes no attempt not to know how good he is. He is perfect.
But he has won only one World Championship, in 2014 – the two since then taken by Gary Anderson, his good friend and polar opposite. A laidback, likeable Scot, Anderson is prone to miscounting and, until very recently, to mis-seeing. Only recently did he start wearing the glasses that he’s needed for years. Early in his career, Anderson was the man who faltered at crucial moments, but after working through family tragedy and adding another son to the two he already had, he convinced himself that it wasn’t important whether he won or lost and suddenly became the man who peaks at the right time.
The World Championship format is to his advantage. Generally, matches take place over legs, a succession of races from 501 to zero. But here, each forms part of a set, offering a margin of error to the inconsistent and absent-minded – playing legs against someone as relentless as van Gerwen is almost impossible.
And tonight, the pair meets in the dream final. Anderson, almost disquietingly relaxed, has sailed through his half of the draw, while van Gerwen recorded the competition’s highest ever average in last night’s win over Raymond van Barneveld. It is not unreasonable to anticipate as gripping a contest as has ever been played.
Yet Anderson and van Gerwen are simply part of a sprawling ensemble cast, the limelight shared not just with their opponents but the crowd. The simple genius of an affordable piss-up stretching the length of the piss-up season has created an experience unlike any other, part fancy dress party, part community singalong.
Nauseatingly cringeworthy though that sounds, the ethos of abandon cool all ye who enter here makes an enveloping, uplifting change from the self-conscious self-regard that compromises most other places of enjoyment. The atmosphere is partisan, but in support of everything; the feeling is tribal, but as one. At the start of 2017, we have never needed darts more.