Smoke signals a new era for rebels of the arrows

Greg Wood reports from Purfleet, where the unofficial championship of darts gives the best players in the world the chance to underline their superiority
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The Independent Online
As Keith Deller and Kevin Spiolek took their final practice throws before the first match at the World Darts Championship yesterday, a technician made an adjustment to a smoke machine at the back of the auditorium: he turned it up. This, after all, was darts, the sport in which you can't just feel the atmosphere, you can see it as well.

A few years ago, the spectators could be relied upon to provide more than enough smoke of their own, but no longer. Fog machines, not to mention giddily-spinning spotlights, pounding disco beats and highly inventive camera angles, have been part of darts for three years, since most of the world's best players broke away from the ruling World Darts Federation and signed up with Sky television. As a result, the championship currently taking place at Purfleet's Circus Tavern is unofficial, but few who know the game will dispute that its winner will be the best player in the world.

When the "rebel" World Darts Council was formed, many of its members were accused of putting their own interests before those of the sport. Fading talents such as Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson and Cliff Lazarenko, the giants of its mid-80s heyday, could now delay their retirement for a few more seasons. Yet the very best players went with them - Dennis Priestley, Rod Harrington, Alan Warriner and, above all, Phil Taylor, reckoned by many to the finest thrower ever to toe an oche. Whoever wins the official championship, which starts on 1 January, would need a three- set start to get close to the WDC's best.

The split has also cost many of the players money. Harrington, last year's runner-up at the Circus Tavern and rated No 2 in the world, estimates he has lost pounds 30,000 in the three years since, as WDC players are now banned from all other darts events. "I used to go to say the Austrian Open, I'd get maybe pounds 1,500 for a few exhibitions beforehand and then if I won the tournament I might go home pounds 4,000 better off for a week's work. I'm not doing too badly now, but the wife's still working."

Harrington won his match with Nigel Justice yesterday, but after his defeat by Larry Butler the previous evening, Justice must beat Butler today if Harrington is to advance from the round-robin first round to the knockout stage. The defeat by Butler still rankled yesterday - the American, it seemed, had engaged Harrington in some distinctly unsporting backstage chat between sets.

When a millimetre either way is the difference between pounds 1,250 or - in the case of the overall winner, pounds 14,000 - the pressure on a throwing arm is considerable. "Right now I can feel some nerves in my stomach," Harrington said an hour before his match, "but as it gets closer the nerves turn to adrenalin, your eyes start popping and you can get really aggressive."

Match or not, you can coax a similar reaction from any darts player by describing their sport as a game. A game, as Steve Davis once responded to a similar accusation about snooker, is something you do for fun. With its demands of physical skill and mental resilience, darts is a much of a sport as any other, and one which, in WDC-land at least, grows stronger by the year.

The new sponsor for this year's tournament, Vernons Pools, is an encouraging departure for a sport which had previously been restricted to fags, booze and the News of the World. Up in the Sky control room, meanwhile, the director was delighted with his latest angle, the miniature "Dennis-cam" strapped to Priestley's waist to pick up the nuances of flight and spin as he moved around the board.

It may need a little refinement - or Day-glo darts - before the waist- camera becomes an essential part of the coverage, but even from Priestley's waistband, Bristow's decline was all too apparent. It was the match the punters had come to see, but Priestley had it wrapped up, 3-0, in barely 40 minutes.

As the Crafty Cockney's star begins to wane, however, his sport is again on the rise. As the music system blasted out before the start of play: "Things Can Only Get Better". True, they were playing it so that the MC could yell "Deller" instead of "better" at the end of each line, but after all, this is still darts.