A short history of darts

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Related tags: Darts, Professional darts corporation, Phil taylor, Pub games

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In the run-up to the Carlsberg UK and MA Holsten National Pub Darts Competition, Arthur Taylor charts the game's rise

The history of darts as we know it, using the standard London or "trebles" board, is comparatively short.

It began with a letter written in 1924 to the MA, by Ted Leggatt.

Leggatt was a dartboard manufacturer who, together with other manufacturers, trade organisations and existing darts leagues, eventually set up the National Darts Association (NDA). Wanting uniformity (everyone using the same style of board) and respectability (gambling was strictly discouraged) they put a lot of effort into showing that darts was a game of skill.

Rise to respectability

In those long-gone days between-the-wars, several towns and cities in the UK, including Liverpool, Glasgow and Huddersfield, had actually banned darts since the authorities thought it encouraged "ne'er-do-wells".

I remember a late, disreputable uncle of mine growing apoplectic as he recalled how the assistant librarians of his home town would cut out all references to horse and dog racing in the newspapers on display in the public reading rooms, for exactly the same reason.

The NDA struck gold in 1927 when the News of the World sponsored an individual championship. The first of these events, in the London area only, was won by Sammy Stone, a Boer War veteran from the New South West Ham Club. By 1935, the competition had spread throughout the Home Counties and in 1939, encompassed the south of England. It became truly national after the war, when play was resumed in 1947.

This was the era when darts began to muscle other pub games out of the way. I recall talking many years ago to an elderly landlady in Kent, who remembered when "a little fellow from the East End of London came round the area in an Austin Seven with a boot full of dartboards in 1947 or 1948 and that was that - all the skittles tables disappeared".

Fighting for TV coverage

There were similar stories of the game of rings - quoits thrown to land on numbered hooks on a board - which was played all over England up to the 1940s. Rings simply vanished, now found only in Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight. There was a hiccup in the 1990s, when the News of the World abruptly stopped its sponsorship and both BBC and ITV suddenly dropped darts from their schedules. This coincided with the popularity of a newish game in the pub.

Pool was introduced in the 1970s. "You only have to go into a pub these days to see the dartboard empty in the corner," said a spokesman from the magazine Darts World, in early 1991. "The youngsters are all playing pool instead".

He was worrying a tad too much. Darts is back on TV, in all its bizarre, over-the-top glory - dry ice, rock 'n' roll, daft nicknames, and a great deal of money. For those who may wonder why there are two separate and distinct World Championships either side of Christmas - the Ladbrokes.com World Championships (on Sky) features members of the Professional Darts Corporation, a breakaway group of the game's hotshots, while the British Darts Organisation's World Championship (on the BBC) features everybody else.

Attitudes to gambling on darts have changed, too. Over £2m was bet on the Ladbrokes event.

What would Ted Leggatt have thought?

Arthur Taylor is the author of The Guinness Book of Traditional Pub Games.

Catch the final of the Holsten Premier League Darts on Sky Sports 1 this Monday from 6.00pm

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