Photo credit: Francois Nel/Getty

Although none of us will ever be in the same supreme physical shape as professional darts players, we can still watch them with envy. Why aren’t they aiming for the bullseye? Is that a referee or the town crier? Is anyone in the crowd driving home?

Let’s get into it. Game on!

The Objective

Although there are dozens of novelty and home variations, in professional darts, players start on 501 points, and aim to score by throwing three darts per turn into scoring segments on the dartboard. The players aim to reduce their score down to exactly zero points, finishing on a “double”, in order to win a leg. The player that wins a predetermined number of legs, or sets of legs, wins the match.

The Dartboard

You know what a dartboard looks like: it’s divided into twenty pizza-slice segments, with the value of each segment indicated by the numbers surrounding the board. There’s an “outer ring” around the edge of the twenty segments, another “inner ring” halfway to the middle, and a bullseye and outer-bull in the center.

Credit: Wikimedia 

In each of the numbered segments, the inner and outer ring act as multipliers. Take the 20-segment, which extends from the bullseye straight upwards. If a dart lands in the 20-segment, but not in the inner or outer ring—i.e., either the fat black bit between the outer and inner rings, or the skinny black bit between the inner ring and bullseye—that’s a single 20, worth 1 x 20 = 20 points. Darts landing in the outer ring are worth double the value of that segment, so if a dart lands in the red bit of the 20—segment which forms part of the outer ring, that’s a double 20, worth 2 x 20 = 40 points. Darts landing in the inner ring are worth triple the value of that segment, so if a dart lands in the red bit of the 20—segment which forms part of the inner ring, that’s a treble 20, worth 3 x 20 = 60 points.

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This single-double-treble system hold true for each of the 20 numbered segments around the board. So: a dart hitting the fat bit of the 13 segment is worth 13 points; a dart hitting the red outer-ring part of the 12 segment (the “double 12”) is worth 2 x 12 = 24 points; and a dart hitting the green inner-ring part of the 17 segment (the “treble 17”) is worth 3 x 17 = 51 points.

The red bullseye is worth 50 points, and the green bit surrounding the bullseye is worth 25 points. Darts landing outside the segments score zero points.

Scoring

The treble-20 is the most valuable target on the dartboard, worth 60 points. Therefore, when beginning a leg from 501, players aim at the treble-20 for maximum scoring potential. As the bullseye is worth “only” 50 points, it’s the fifth-highest scoring target on the board, after trebles 20, 19, 18, and 17. If you’re playing a game down at the pub, do yourself a favour and don’t go aiming for the bullseye each turn like a chump.

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Players throw three darts in a row before yielding the oche to their opponent, and the referee calls out each player’s three-dart score after each visit. The maximum score a player can achieve is three treble-20s, a one hundred and eighty! After the first two darts hit the treble, the camera dramatically zooms in in anticipation of a third sixty, the referee amps up their call like a wrestling emcee, and the crowd goes wild. Darts is the only sport that I can think of where the referee actively plays a part in providing the entertainment (Joey Crawford notwithstanding).

Strategy

Maneuvering each of the three darts into the desired target is actually quite an intricate exercise, and there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Players aim to use darts already in the board to guide their next darts into the treble. For example, Englishman Phil Taylor, 16-time world champion and the undisputed GOAT, has a throwing style that makes his darts stick straight out of the board at right angles. Taylor (and others with a similar style) aims to use his first dart as a platform on which to stack his subsequent darts. That is, if Taylor sticks his first dart in the middle of the bottom of the treble-20 bed (or just below the bed), that acts as a marker, and he’ll aim his next throw infinitesimally shorter, aiming to bounce the barrel of that second dart off of the barrel of the one already in the board, sending it into the treble. This strategy, in effect, makes the target larger, because a throw that would ordinarily have fallen short of the treble will now bounce into it by virtue of stacking on the first dart.

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By contrast, some players, such as Dutchman Michael van Gerwen, two-time and defending world champion—and who is playing at a higher level than ever seen before in the sport—has a throwing style that causes his darts to stick in the board with the flights pointing roughly 45 degrees upwards. Van Gerwen aims to under-stack, using his first darts as a backboard in which to crash his subsequent darts, sending them careening into the treble. If van Gerwen pins his first dart in the middle of the top of the treble-20 (or just above), that’s a marker, and he’ll aim his second dart infinitesimally higher, aiming to strike the flight or the barrel of the first dart with the point of the second dart, sending it into the treble. Again, this strategy in effect makes the target larger, because a throw that would ordinarily have sailed above the treble will now be redirected into it by virtue of under-stacking the first dart.

Watch Taylor and van Gerwen go about their business here:

A dart may land awkwardly in the board, blocking the desired target and making it unlikely that the next dart will be able to be thrown past the offending dart and in. In this situation, players simply switch to a lower-value target, such as the treble-19, which is worth only three fewer points than the treble-20, and much more than a single 20. Players also switch so as to aim for a target which would leave them with an out shot (discussed below).

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These days, a visit scoring 95 to 100—say, by one treble-20 and two single-20s—is around cruising speed, and anything under that is probably a poor visit. A 140 (two trebles and a single) is a very, very good score, and naturally a maximum 180 is the desired outcome. (The 20-segment is flanked by the 5-segment to the left and the 1-segment to the right, and so the classic amateur’s score is a 26—a single-20, a single-5, and a single-1—which you will score again and again the next time you play.) For the professionals, a three-dart average of 100 across a whole match is probably above average, while 105 is very good, and anything near or over 110 is excellent.

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The point of the dart must be touching the board at the time you fish it out in order for it to count toward your score. A “Robin Hood” whereby the dart sticks into another dart counts for nought, as does any dart falling on the floor:

Finishing

To win a leg of darts, a player must reduce his or her score to exactly zero, with the last throw landing in a double. All targets in the outer ring are doubles, as is the bullseye (but not the green 25-segment surrounding the bull).

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So, let’s say that you have reduced your score such that you have 20 points remaining. You cannot win the leg by scoring a single 20, because although that would reduce your score to zero, that’s not a double. Instead, you would aim for double-10, which scores 2 x 10 = 20 points and wins you the leg.

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Let’s say you aim at double-10, and miss the target to the outside, so that your dart doesn’t land in a scoring segment. That dart scores zero points, so you still have 20 points remaining, and would aim for double-10 again with your next throw. If with that throw you miss and land in the single-10, you would now have 10 points remaining, and would need to aim for double-5 with your next dart.

The player throwing first in each leg has a distinct advantage, because they get the first three cracks at the board. If the player throwing first wins the leg, that’s a hold of throw, and if the player throwing second wins, that’s a break of throw, just like in tennis. In a close match, a single break of throw can be the difference between winning and losing.

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A player hitting 40 percent of their doubles across a tournament is doing very, very well, while bumping up on 50 percent or more is superb.

The mathematics of darts allows for myriad choices in setting up an out shot. If a player has 72 points remaining, there are a multitude of available combinations which will get them to zero in two darts: treble-20 + double-6; treble-16 + double-12; treble-12 + double-18, double-18 + double-18, and so on. A graphic shows up on the TV coverage to let the audience know which checkout combination the player should aim for, and plenty of pubs have charts showing the optimal combo for each out shot.

So, if our player requires 72 points with three darts in hand, he or she may aim for the treble-20, hoping to hit it and leave double-6 to win the leg with the second dart. If he or she instead hits a single-20 with the first dart, they have 52 points remaining, and may again choose from several possible combinations: single-12 + double-20; single-20 + double-16, and so on.

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A finishing double must necessarily be an even number (there’s some sabermetrics, folks!). So, if a player has 14 points remaining, and misses to the inside of the double-7 to hit a single-7 and leave 7 points remaining, he or she is stuck on an odd number, and will need to burn a dart aiming for an odd single number (e.g., a single 3), to leave a double with the dart after that (here, double-2). For this reason, players prefer to set themselves up on even-numbered doubles: D16, D20, and D8 are the most popular. So, if a player has 41 points remaining, most would opt to aim for single-9 + double-16, so that if they miss to the inside of the double 16, they can immediately aim for double 8 with the next dart, and then D4, D2, and D1 if required.

Here’s a compilation of high-scoring checkouts. While we’re here, have a look at each player’s vastly different throwing styles. One of the most interesting quirks of darts is how the best players have all managed to develop wildly different techniques in performing such a simple physical action: check out the variance in their speed, rhythm, release point, posture, and even in their lining up in front of the board.

Darts requires a bit of mental math in order to calculate the number of points remaining and therefore the optimum target to aim at. If you understandably don’t seek out sports so that you can relive the misery of high school algebra, just know that the arithmetic required isn’t any more complicated than working out whether to take a long field goal or go for two in a football game, that you pick up the common combinations pretty quickly, and it’s amusing seeing the professionals miscount every once in a while:

If a player reduces their score to below zero, or to exactly one, they “bust” their score. That player loses their turn (even if they have one or two darts still in hand), and their score is reset to what it was at the start of that last visit.

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In setting up an “out shot,” players may pick and choose their targets, even when no dart is blocking the way, so as to leave themselves with an acceptable number of points on their next visit. For example, the highest three-dart out shot that is possible is 170, achievable by T20-T20-Bull. It is not possible, however, to achieve a three-dart out shot of 169, because no mathematical combination ending in a double is possible. Therefore, a player with 189 points left with one dart in hand would not aim for a treble-20, because of the possibility of hitting a single-20 and leaving a bogey 169 for the next visit. Instead, the player would switch to the 19s, hoping for a treble but knowing that a single would leave a possible out shot of 170 next time at the board. The bullseye is often utilized for this purpose, because of the presence of the 25-segment.

A nine-darter is darts’ equivalent of a perfect game, the fewest number of darts in which 501 points can be conquered. There are thousands of potential nine-dart combinations, but the most common is for a player to hit back-to-back 180s, followed by T20-T19-D12 for a 141 finish. Only five players have scored more than two televised nine-darters. Adrian Lewis is the only man to achieve a perfect nine in a World Championship final, while Phil Taylor was the first to take out two in one match, the 2010 Premier League final, one of the greatest matches of all time:

Matches can be played under different formats. Most are simply won by the first player to win a predetermined number of legs, such as the best-of-21-legs Premier League final. Some matches are played over sets, with each set a best-of-5-legs contest. The World Championship final is a best-of-13-sets contest. The World Grand Prix is played under the unique “double-in, double-out” format, where players must start and end each leg with a double, and cannot earn points until a double has been hit.

The Live Darts Experience

Darts has traditionally been considered a working man’s sport. As it entered the mainstream and its popularity grew throughout the 1980s and ‘90s and exploded since the turn of the century, darts has not forgotten its purpose. A big darts match oozes entertainment, drama, and fun.

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In big tournaments, players enter the arena to boxing-style fanfare. The best walk-on in the sport belongs to the best player in the sport, using the best sports song. Turn this one up loud, for as Rod Studd correctly notes in commentary, this reception for Michael van Gerwen is adulation that few sportsmen can dream of receiving:

The biggest matches are played in arenas in front of thousands of fans, with the action projected on a big screen up front for the crowd to see. Fancy dress is a tradition. Further, I have it on good authority that alcohol is often served at darts matches.

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Singing in the crowd is a huge part of darts culture, as it is in sports like soccer and rugby. “Chase The Sun” by Planet Funk has become synonymous with the darts as Sky Sports’ live coverage’s theme. Fans have songs and chants for their favorite players: in addition to MvG’s Seven Nation Army chant, “There’s Only One Phil Taylor” is sung to the tune of Bing Crosby’s “Winter Wonderland”; Raymond van Barneveld’s “Barney Army” call is adapted from the chant of the Barmy Army cricket fan squad; Gary Anderson’s fans cry “Oh, Gary Gary!”; and Peter Wright, Mensur Suljovic, and Vincent van der Voort all have their names sung to the tune of KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Give It Up”, of all songs. Football’s Yaya/Kolo Touré chant gets a run, as does the traditional “Please Don’t Take Me Home”, and DJ Otzi’s “Hey Baby”. “Stand Up If You Love the Darts”, based on “Go West” via Pachelbel’s “Canon”, is darts’ unofficial national anthem.

Darts regularly serves up terrific sporting entertainment and drama, with high scoring and big checkouts serving as massive crowd-pleasers, and missed doubles and big comebacks ramping up the pressure and providing plenty of twists and turns. The in-arena experience is one of the very best live shows in all of sport.

The Global Context

Darts is played all over the world, but professional darts is biggest in the British Isles, the Netherlands, and Western Europe. The Professional Darts Corporation was formed in 1992 when 16 leading players, disillusioned with the British Darts Organisation, decided to form their own breakaway league.

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The PDC is world’s premier competition, featuring players from and holding tournaments all over the world. The calendar runs almost non-stop all year round, with tournaments usually following a tennis-style seeded knockout format. The main tournaments are the World Matchplay, the UK Open, the Premier League (a ten-person invitational run over about 16 weeks each year, featuring weekly matches all over the British Isles and the Netherlands), and the World Championship, which concludes with a best-of-13-sets final right around New Year’s Day each year. The winner of next year’s Sid Waddell trophy—named after the beloved late commentator, one of the greatest announcers in any sport—will pocket a cool £400,000.


I hope you enjoyed this tour through the rowdiest sport going around. Darts is a simple sport with intricate tactics, where success on the stage is measured in millimeters but success in the crowd is measured in pints, and which has made the jump from obscurity to the big time while maintaining its identity.


Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes darts.