For many years before the darts ‘explosion’ of the 1970s and 1980s, advice on how to play the game appeared simple and straightforward.
Players adopted a standard stance, stood rock solid still and never moved along the oche. The likes of England’s Eric Bristow, Wales’ Ceri Morgan and Scotland’s Jocky Wilson changed all that.
In this article, first published in Darts World in 1984, Mat Coward considers the changes but still has to ask himself
SO WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?
The massive television coverage of the late 1970s and early 1980s brought vast changes to our game: the big companies are falling over each other to offer sponsorships of players and events, the huge sums available in prize money and exhibition fees, the creation of a tiny elite of pros earning £100,000 a year. Those are just a selection of the more obvious ways in which the simple art of arrow-chucking has come of age in these commercial times.
But a change has taken place at grass-roots level which is, perhaps, even more radical, although it has gone largely unnoticed.
When I started playing darts – less than a decade ago, just at the start of the big TV era – there seemed to be a right way of going about the job. There was a right way to throw, a right way to stand, a right way to finish. Not everyone could do it of course, but everyone knew what it was.
Older darts players would coach beginners on that basis; the understanding that there were right and wrong grips; stances and so on. Even when the ‘coach’ was already a weaker player than his ‘pupil’, his right to play the role of tutor went unquestioned simply because he’d been playing the game longer and therefore had one thing of immense value that the novice couldn’t possibly possess: he had The Knowledge.
What did this orthodoxy consist of?
Well, for a start there was the stance: right foot pointing towards the bull, left foot behind at 45 degrees, body leaning in. Then the throw: the golden rule of which was that only the throwing arm from elbow to wrist moves during lift-off. Apart from that, you’re rigid as a statue. The grip of course was another part of the game that everyone knew had to be handled in one particular way.
There was also a smattering of lesser rules, the most memorable – and in my mind the most inexplicable and pointless – of which was “never move on the oche”. Books are still sold that contain this wonderful piece of advice. But just are you supposed to do when your first or second dart blocks your shot? Stand there like a petrified lemon and watch with satisfaction as you next dart bounces off the flight of your last?
And there were rules governing finishing. People still publish from time to time a list of suggested checkouts, and these can be very useful to bad counters like myself. But up until recently it was as if there was only one legally possible move for every number from 170 down to 40! In my local I recently finished a game in the way that I found most comfortable and easiest and one old bloke (who, you notice, was watching and not playing) went into apoplexy. “With two darts in your hand you can’t possibly go any other way except…” He said it several times: “You can’t possibly…” as if what I’d just done really was physically impossible.
And of course the big rule of finishing was: Bulls are for Cowboys.
This darting conservatism must have lasted for decades. But then telly came along, and suddenly the gaff was blown. Almost overnight, millions of young darters realised that they had been had, and that the rules laid down by the public bar professionals in about 1066 didn’t turn you into a real professional. For the first time on a large scale it became obvious that the great achievers in darts – as in just about everything else – made their own rules.
You don’t have to look any further back than this year’s Embassy to see how true that is. Look – if you can bear to – at Ceri Morgan’s throw. Arms whirling about like a windmill, his whole body jerking with the impact of every throw. And yet Morgan the Miller plays for his country – he hits things, and more often than not they’re the things he’s going for.
Or look at the Boss himself.
You may have been too busy marvelling at Bristow’s inability to throw anything but maximums to notice the way his back foot leaps up when he releases his arrows. Mine used to do that when I first started. Mind friends used to help me by standing on my left toes while I was practicing. It worked eventually, and at least I’ll never be called up – I now have one completely flat foot. But, all things considered, it doesn’t seem to do Eric a lot of harm does it?
Finally, take John Lowe – the man many of us still think of as the Master. The classic stylist, perfect stance, smooth release, the lot. But even he, like just about all the pros, slides up and down the oche like an ice-skater when he’s after an angle.
No, there’s no doubt about it, “textbook darts” is dead. The teenagers starting up today are more like to take tips from watching Cliff [Lazarenko] or Jocky on the box, than from studying a teach-yourself manual. Maybe, if they’re very lucky, they’ll even develop their own style, to do what comes naturally and easily to them, and I have no doubt that they’ll be better players for it.
But on the whole I don’t regret the discipline I was taught: there’s no denying that – though I says it as I shouldn’t – after a few years’ practice I do have a near-perfect stance and not-bad throw. I don’t actually hit anything, but it’s nice to watch.
So tell, Orthodoxians, I challenge you: why can’t I play as well as the Big E, when I’m doing everything right and he’s doing half of it wrong?
© 1984 Mat Coward
Mat’s website: http://homepages.phonecoop.coop/matcoward/
I’m hardly in a position to comment on Mat’s article.
At the time wrote his article (1984) I was certainly not an ‘orthodoxian’. I used to throw my darts with my left hand but line up and aim each dart with my right eye and throw each dart in an arc across the body. Diane Paul, an expert in ‘handedness’, mentioned my darts-throwing action in her book Living Left-handed published by Bloomsbury in 1990. She wrote that I was ‘a mixed lateral by all accounts.’
England’s Bobby George plays very well indeed throwing in a similar way, although with his right hand, yet he’s a top player and I, well… I’m a pub player of mixed ability. I informed Bobby one day that he was a mixed lateral. He paused, looked at me, grinned and said “Yeah. Right” and continued his game of darts.
However, some years ago I suffered from ‘dartitis’ and cured the condition by correcting my throw so that I lined the dart up with my left eye. It was difficult to make such a major change but I succeeded. Mind you, I still play rubbish but, like Mat, hit the things I aim at occasionally.
Mat’s absolutely right about the ‘standard rules’ of grip, stance and throw. Darters before the 1970s did appear to be set in their ways and it seemed a rigid law that there was a correct way to throw a dart and any number of incorrect ways. In the early 1950s, East Anglian darts champion George Caley wrote of the stance
‘…stand rock-firm. Don’t flex the knees. Don’t move the head. Don’t move the shoulders. Don’t lean forward. Don’t crane the neck. Don’t sway from the hips. Don’t stoop. Don’t throw so that a jerk seems to run through the body. Don’t rise on your heels.’
Put simply George was saying ‘Stand firmly from start to finish of your throw and move only the forearm and hand of the throwing arm.’
However, on the point Mat raised about movement along the oche (or ‘hockey’ as it was in George’s day) he wrote ‘Personally, I do not see much advantage in this’, preferring ‘if my first dart covers up the treble 20 badly, to come right away from there and throw for the treble 19’. George qualified his advice by saying ‘I think it is a disadvantage to break the natural rhythm of your throwing by moving to a new position’ adding finally, ‘And what is the difference in score? – only three after all.’ I think that last comment says it all to the modern player! However, George’s book How to Improve Your Darts was a top seller in its day and many would have followed George’s ‘golden rules’.
In his book, Caley’s methods more or less confirm Mat’s view that the rules were rigid in the days before the TV darts boom. However, alternatively, here are some wise words from dual News of the World winner, the late great Tom Barrett, who in the early 1970s wrote:
‘If the target is obscured by darts already in the board, I move to the left or right. Many players criticize the idea of moving on the hockey, but it seems to me that you must move if your target is obscured. By moving slightly to one side or the other you can sometimes go ‘in off’ another dart as in billiards. Once you have taken up your new position, however, you should again remain perfectly balanced and still throughout the throw.’
So the advice was there for anyone reading Tom’s book Darts which was published by Pan Books in 1973, but I get Mat’s drift. I too learned my darts in a local boozer, with local boozers and adopted a throwing action that often bemused and on occasion confused my opponents. The fact that I also threw a set of brass Unicorn ‘Village’ darts, shaped like beer bottles, probably did not help the development of a consistent, winning style.
It will be interesting to learn whether or not the rigidity of style of folks like George Caley (and others), which fell out of fashion when the likes of Jocky, Eric and Ceri (and more recently professionals such as Co Stompe) won hundreds of tournaments throwing ‘the wrong way’, will return in the coaching methods adopted by the new darts academies that are growing up across England today.
© Patrick Chaplin 2008-2012