Seduced by simplicity, a slave to the complex I now am

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Darts World Championship 2009
Alexandra Palace (and Lakeside), January 4th, 2009

Is darts the best game ever? Does sport get any better than a bunch of invariably fat (or fattening) guys throwing tiny arrows at a board as a crowd of pissed old-timers, fancy-dressed larrikins, pseudo-WAG chicks, dignified parents and B-grade celebs hold up signs with things like ‘I am The Stig’written on them and singing the darts song, all while going mental as a guy on a microphone shouts out ‘wuuuuuuuuuun-huuuundreddd-aaaand-aayyyyyteeeee!’?

Possibly not.

I recently posted an article on 10,000 Weekends that was written by an entrant in The Guardian’s Big Blogger 2008 competition. Blogger D’s treatise on the beauty of darts lay in the idea that darts, like life, is devastatingly simple: you’re either throwing good darts or bad darts. Sport is not some grand Rushdie-esque metaphor for life, but a rather more simple exposition. ‘The rest,’ as Blogger D points out, ‘is just window-dressing.’

And having spent the last three days glued to the telly, watching the action at both Lakeside and Alexandra Palace, I now know what Blogger D was really talking about.

In darts, unlike any other sport, there is simply nothing to talk about but the points. Leg by leg, set by set. Just the points. That’s it. The  pundits can’t rely on talking about different tactical formations, managerial mistakes, the strengths of kicking over running, beating a world record time, or any of the myriad other details other sports are predicated on. At one point during the Lakeside coverage, the commentators resorted to commentating on rugby  when they spotted some members of the Gloucester club side in the audience, particularly on how Wales are a very real possibility of doing the Grand Slam in the Six Nations this year. Then of course, there are moments like this that the commentators must dream of.

But back to the action. In darts you either ‘play well’ or ‘play badly.’ The analysis, if you were to call it that, only goes so far as discussing efficiency in the checkout and whether they could hit what they needed to hit. For example, when Raymond ‘Barney’ van Barneveld needed a double top to take a leg, and missed, the commentator sagely noted ‘he needed that.’ It was as refreshing as it was absurd.

(On a side note, if Roy Keane does get involved in sport again any time soon, I hope it’s in darts commentary. It seems custom-made for him. You can just hear Keano now: ‘he missed that because he’s a hack.’) 

But this is where I diverge from Blogger D, and from Martin Kelner writing on the Guardian Sportblog today. They argue that darts is simple. But they have been seduced by darts’ simplicity into thinking it is simple. Simplicity and simple-ness are two very different things. Simple means no substance; flimsiness; a ruthless reduction. 1 + 1 = 2 is simple. It is what it is.

Simplicity is divine. Simplicity is the art of somehow squeezing an endless complex of information and ideas and effort and skill into a bite-sized chunk. E = mC2 is simplicity. Yet the theorem invites exploration and proof and challenge, again and again, forever, with new results and ideas yielding themselves to the explorers time after time.

Of course darts is about getting to zero before the other guy. But the audience sits behind you. And they’re loud. And drunk. It’s like performing an appendectomy while your nurses sing karaoke. They say in football that when you take a spot kick the goal shrinks. But that’s nothing compared to those improbably small spaces on that improbably small board, which must feel leagues away from the oche.  Its complexity defies belief. But hey, it’s still just about getting to zero before the other guy, right?

Van Barneveld went from throwing a nine-dart finish in the quarter finals to being demolished by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in the final. His assessment? ‘Clearly practising 10 hours a day is not enough.’ What? Practising anything for 10 hours a day is bound to make you a millionaire at that thing. But such is the nature of darts that the seemingly simple act of throwing a metal pin into a bristle board is but the next exploration of the theorem. And some theorems elude and defy the best practitioners going around forever. Well, at least a year. Roll on Alexandra Palace 2010 for yet another attempt at cracking it.

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