“Gobsmacked”: A History of Darts, in Miniature

Thomas Waddill ‘19

Sports & leisure correspondent

Ever since Summit Outpost hung a dartboard on their wall, I’ve become completel obsessed with the game of darts. I reached out to Thomas Waddill ‘19, a fellow enthusiast, in the hopes that he could research the history of the game and explain our mutual fascination. The following is, to the best of our knowledge (and despite all evidence to the contrary), completely factual.

     —Lucas Weals, Arts and Culture Editor 

Believe it or not, the game of darts had, at one point, a “voice.” English sports commentator Sid Waddell (1940-2012)—relation to yr. writer uncertain but hopeful—was dubbed the “Voice of Darts” in his nearly 20-year run at the BBC. He was known for one-liners that are funny, it seems, because of their grandiosity (e.g., “It’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus!” and “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Bristow’s only 27!” [a click on the hyperlinked “Bristow” takes you to the Wikipedia page for the late professional darter Eric John Bristow, nicknamed “The Crafty Cockney,” a five-time World Champion, five-time World Masters Championship, and a four-time World Cup singles champion who dropped out of school at 14 to play darts]). 

Waddell’s penchant for myth and history, combined with the ostensible banality of darts, is often what makes his jokes funny—after all, the competitors at, say, the World Darts Championship, who shuffle up to a line on the ground to fling a 23-gram piece of sharpened brass at a cylinder of segmented cork 68 inches away, tend to look at lot more like Bartolo Colón than Alexander the Great. But, like Colón, they work magic with whatever tendons and ligaments involve the minutely accurate placement of objects at a target at absurd speeds. 

So, on the one hand, the central comedy of Waddell’s commentary—the proffering of greatness to something small and ostensibly non-great—wouldn’t work if we didn’t view darts as essentially meaningless and menial. On the other hand, Waddell, like the competitors whose competition Waddell narrates, basically dedicated his life to the sport, with a zeal as sincere and entertaining as Harry Carrey’s for baseball. Just listen to (or read) Waddell’s on-air reaction to Raymond van Barneveld’s 9-dart finish against Denis Ovens at the 2010 PDC World Darts Championship, where Waddell, voice cracking in ecstasy, screams into his mic, “HE DID IT – HE DID IT – I DO NOT. KNOW. WHAT TO SAY. I’M GOBSMACKED – I’M GOBSMACKED – HE’S DONE IT – I’M GOBSMAAACKED!!” So not for nothing did the PDC decide to rename their World Darts Championship trophy the Sid Waddell trophy in 2013 after his bowel cancer killed him in 2012. Waddell lived in darts and he is remembered in darts. 

Waddell’s knowledge of Western history in his commentary came from his degree in Modern History from Cambridge. My knowledge of darts history in this article comes from dartsinfoworld.com, which is full of facts (hopefully) about the frankly surreal history of the sport. For example: one section describes the transition of the game from one of blowing to one of throwing. Apparently, a game called “Puff and Dart” originated in 1844, where darts would were fired at the board through use of a blowpipe. However, it wasn’t long until a London blower accidentally sucked the dart into his esophagus (bullseye!), which made its way down to his digestive system. He died a couple days later. When the Puff and Dart was banned shortly thereafter, blowpipes were thrown out in favor of the wrist and the game became what it is today. 

Or take the section that describes how darts won legitimacy in the eyes of the British legislature after it was briefly banned (again):

Talking of public houses. [sic] In the early 1900’s, legislation prohibited “games of chance” in public houses, and the game of darts was considered to fall in this category. In 1908, a pub owner from Leeds, Yorkshire, by the name of Foot Anakin was taken to court for allowing people to play darts in his establishment. He decided to challenge this ruling, and offered to prove that darts was not a “game of chance”, but a “game of skill”. [sic] A dartboard was set up in court and Foot Anakin proved his skill by throwing 3 darts in the number 20. He then challenged any court official to do the same. One of the court clerks decided to take up the challenge and failed. The judge then ruled that darts was in fact a “game of skill” and dismissed the case. 

Just a quick recap in case you skipped that: a defendant named Foot Anakin set up a dart board in an English court of law and nailed the 20 three times to prove a mathematical/athletic/legal point, and the judge dismissed the case. But maybe what’s best about the “History” tab of this website is the fact that there are separate sections for “Interesting Facts,” for which, it seems, the Foot Anakin story doesn’t qualify. I’ll let you explore those.

I’m only scratching the surface. What is it about this game—ahem, sport—that has given rise to not only a raucous history but also a vibrant and active present culture (tickets for this December’s PDC World Darts Championship at Alexandra Hill in London are nearly sold out), where men and women give their lives to the sport and travel the world to compete? Where an impoverished young ceramic toilet-handle maker could, by sheer fate, get taken under the wing of the greatest dart player in the world, only to eventually eclipse him, apotheosizing himself into myth (which look up Phil “The Power” Taylor)?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the best way I can think of describing the game is that it’s entrancing. Three weeks ago, my housemate’s Dad’s dartboard arrived in the mail. We nailed a 4×4 piece of plywood to our living room wall and hung the board in the center of it, this red and green and black map of the Ptolemaic universe. The thing has taken hours from me—when I’m at home, alone, trying to do homework, I can’t seem to resist getting up every thirty minutes or so and flinging four or five rounds, in vain, at the bullseye. But more and more often, it’s been hitting that central pinprick of red cork, and I’ll yell out in triumph to an empty house. And then I go again. And again. 

Throwing a dart is sort of like praying, and hitting the bullseye is like receiving, against all odds, a response. For a moment, I am Nolan Ryan in miniature; I am The Crafty Cockney. And I sort of get it. I’m sort of, for a moment, gobsmacked.

Thomas Waddill ‘19 is an English major from Beaumont, TX. He can be reached for comment at thwaddill@davidson.edu.

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