Television cameras, spotlights and the raucous chants of 4,000 people … Adrian Lewis is able to obliterate all of this from his mind when he stands in front of a dartboard. A former double world champion who left school at 16 with few qualifications, Lewis’s intense focus has brought him more than £2m in prize money and the nickname “Jackpot”. My own darts career started and ended in the family garage, playing against my brother.
Next weekend Lewis competes in the 2014 World Darts Championship at London’s Alexandra Palace. It’s also his chance to regain his title. First, though, is the Players Championship Final, held a fortnight earlier in Minehead, Somerset. Lewis uses the event to hone his throwing skills against 31 of the top players in the country, and we meet during a break in the competition.
Darts may not have the glamour of Formula One or tennis, and the sport has yet to bid to be included in the Olympic Games, but tickets for the World Championships sell out fast.
Lewis first won the Professional Darts Corporation World Championship in 2011 and again the following year. “It’s a sport that anybody can enjoy,” he says. “You don’t have to be super-fit and it’s played at all levels in the pub. After school I went to work at a builders’ merchant in Stoke. After we finished on a Friday, it was down to the Duke of York for a drink with my mates and a game of darts. Unfortunately for them I had a natural talent and nobody could beat me. Then I started throwing against some of the better county players who came in and realised I was quite good.”
Lewis turned professional when he was 21, borrowing £50 a week from his mother to travel to tournaments. Still only 28, he is a favourite for the World Championships – even though he went on to suffer a shock defeat at the Players Championship on the weekend we met.
Darts has moved upmarket in recent years, with Zara Phillips among the guests at the 2012 World Championships. At the previous year’s competition, Prince Harry joined in the noisy celebrations at Alexandra Palace.
“This bloke came up to me after I won the semi-final leg and gave me a big bear hug,” says Lewis. “I was hot, sweaty and ecstatic, so I kissed him on the cheek. Then I realised it was Harry. There can’t be many blokes who can say they have done that.”
I have challenged the former champion to a standard game of 501. The winner is the first person to reach a score of 501, throwing the final dart in a double number or the bullseye to secure victory. The highest total possible with three darts is 180, scored by hitting the treble 20 three times. The acme of dart-throwing is the “nine dart finish”, amassing all 501 with just nine arrows. Lewis famously threw a “blind” 180 in 2006 – turning away from the board before the last dart had even hit the treble 20.
The room is hot and I start to sweat the moment my foot is pressed against the oche – the wooden toe line behind which every darts player has to stand to throw. The board is 7ft 9¼in away. I may be feeling slightly uncomfortable but in truth I’m pretty sure I can land a few treble 20s. I have been practising every day for a week. It doesn’t help having a world champion looking over my shoulder, of course, but I land a 14 with my first dart. Not bad considering I aimed at the treble 20. My second dart thumps into the double-four slot and the final arrow sticks into the bullseye. Lewis smiles politely and jokes that I might be left-handed, before offering some more practical advice.
“I always wear flat shoes for darts because a heel can put me off balance. I press the side of my shoe against the oche, not the toe. That puts my throwing arm a few inches closer to the board. Not everybody is the same but it works for me,” he says. “The shirt is baggy so that it doesn’t restrict my arm movement in any way. I also use chalk on my fingers, so that the dart doesn’t slip from my grip as I throw.”
Lewis throws 124 with his first three darts. I have been lent some chalk and a super-loose shirt to play in, but by now I’m not sure either is going to help much. Then Lewis adjusts my throwing arm, so that my forearm is more upright and I can see “through” the dart to the board, like a gun sight. It doesn’t feel natural at first and I collect a score of just 45 with all three arrows. I’m told to let my arm follow through after releasing a dart, allowing a smoother throw.
As Lewis steps up to the oche, I notice that his tungsten darts look tarnished and old. He uses 21g pencil darts – the narrow shaft leaves more space around the treble-20 slot for his second and third dart to slip in unhindered. “When I play under bright lights on TV, the reflection off the dart barrel could be distracting. It’s not high-tech stuff but I use the flame from the gas cooker at home to blacken the metal and dull them.”
Lewis scores a maximum 180 with his fourth set of darts, while I still require 355. He easily makes the 96 needed to win with his final three darts, hitting treble 20, 20 and double eight to finish. His mental arithmetic is incredible, so I ask what he would need to throw for a 122 finish. “I’d go treble 18, treble 18, then finish on a double seven. Another option would be treble 18, single 18 and bullseye. I’m brilliant at working out numbers up to 180 but if you ask me to split a restaurant bill I’m rubbish.”
It doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to work out that Lewis has given me a sound beating. I may have practised before meeting him but he trains for eight hours a day for major tournaments. “Some people think we just sit around in pubs all day, drinking beer and having a laugh,” he says. “I’ve no idea why darts players are often fat because we walk miles to and from the dartboard training. It probably doesn’t help that my favourite pastime is snooker but I do get some natural light when I go fishing.”
After 30 minutes I feel as if I am suffering from tennis elbow. My aim hasn’t improved but at least all the darts are now hitting the board. Could I be a champion darts player in five years? Lewis throws yet another 180 and replies: “It’s all in the mind really. You do have to put in the practice, and great hand-to-eye co-ordination helps. If not, there’s always fishing.”
The Ladbrokes World Darts Championship 2014 starts on December 06 and runs until January 1 at Alexandra Palace, London