ON the surface, it’s just two players, a round board, some numbers, a couple of darts and some fast-thinking mental arithmetic.
All pretty simple stuff. Yet this weekend Edinburgh will go slightly darts crazy as the sharpest shooters in the world arrive for an oche showdown that comes complete with fancy dress, pumping rock signature tunes, crazy nicknames and extreme fans.
The Professional Darts Corporation Coral Masters tournament rolls into town today, hitting the Royal Highland Centre for the first time with the world’s top 16 darts aces in attendance, a £50,000 top prize up for grabs and a colourful crowd that is expected to attempt to blow off the venue’s roof.
Among the players will be 16-time world champion Phil “The Power” Taylor and Scottish top flight heroes Robert “The Thorn” Thornton – who usually brings a teddy bear mascot along as he struts into the arena to the sound of The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) anthem – and colourful Peter “Snakebite” Wright, with a mop of brightly coloured hair and who, despite his south of England accent, was born in West Lothian.
While they focus on hitting triple top, away from the oche the real stars of the show are in the crowd, decked out in extravagant fancy dress, voices at full throttle and waving a selection of banners – some saucier than others – at their heroes. For having languished for years in the bar room doldrums, the humble sport of darts is now in the grip of an incredible transformation, heaving it from pub hobby game to something closer to a religious experience. While the live crowds go darts daft, millions tune in to satellite channels to watch the professionals slog it out.
The sport even has the royal seal of approval – Zara Phillips and Prince Harry have been known to join in and watch.
It’s a boom time for the sport that stretches not only across the UK but to places most of us hardly think of when we imagine Jim Bowen’s Bullseye such as China and Russia.
The sport is also no longer the preserve of the “working blokes at the pub”. You’re just as likely to encounter white collar professionals, young women fans swapping the nightclub for the darts and even children at the big matches.
“I’ve always been a darts fan since it was on TV years ago and the likes of Jocky Wilson and Eric Bristow were on,” says accountant Alan Robson, 39. “When I was young, I had a dartboard in my bedroom. Now I’ve got a dartboard at home and both my sons, Thomas, 11, and Joe, who’s eight, have got boards up in their room.”
Alan, who lives in Kelso and will be at the Edinburgh contest, has been a live darts regular at showdowns in Newcastle, Glasgow and Blackpool. And although he’s so far opted against fully embracing the fancy dress madness, he says it does add to the lively atmosphere.
“Darts is a very social game. There’s not many sports where you can get four hours of entertainment for a £20 ticket.
“You do have to be up the very front to see anything on the board, so you’re looking at the screens mostly and then reacting to what is happening there. But you go for the atmosphere, you feel part of it all, you’re there, you’re shouting out for your favourite player. It’s great.”
Meanwhile, trying to make himself heard over the rabble and whipping up the atmosphere will be master of ceremonies John McDonald, who’s become as much of a feature of the darts tour as the players and the lively crowds.
He agrees there’s more to it all than just a couple of chaps throwing a dart at a board.
“It’s the party atmosphere, everyone gets involved, sings songs, it’s a great big party,” says the Londoner.
“There are lots of groups of men and women, everyone’s dressed up and having a great time. It’s like Glastonbury only with darts.
“Once you go, you’re hooked. It’s great to watch on TV but you can’t quite feel the atmosphere. It’s the way a guy dressed as the Pope walks in with five nuns and sees another guy dressed as the Pope, who’s also got five nuns in tow. Or Superman who thinks his costume is totally original and he finds there’s another 11 of them in the front row.
“It’s like the circus coming to town,” he adds.
“It’s a great night, 100 per cent adrenaline, 200 per cent fun, nothing sinister, everything about it is totally innocent and it’s nice to be in a family environment.”
For darts sharp shooter Snakebite, 43, currently ranked 15th in the world and who makes his presence felt at the oche with a shock of brightly coloured hair, the three-night Edinburgh showdown will be particularly special – a chance to play in front of his home crowd.
Because while he talks with an English accent, he was born just a few miles from the venue in West Lothian and regards himself as Scottish through and through.
“This most definitely means a lot to me,” he says. “As soon as I saw Edinburgh come up on the darts circuit calendar I knew I wanted to play here.
“I was ranked at number 20 in the world at that point – in terms of money, I was about £20,000 to £30,000 behind – but I knew I had to be in Edinburgh. I knuckled down and managed to get up the ranks.
“It’s brilliant to be coming to play in front of my home crowd.”
Dad-of-three Peter left West Lothian when he was still young and worked as a mechanic before quitting to pursue his dream of becoming a darts world champion.
“You’ve got to set yourself targets,” he says, “and you’ve got to believe you can do it.”
His arrival in the arena will be accompanied by the pounding beat of Pitbull’s Don’t Stop The Party – his theme tune – and McDonald’s booming introduction aimed at whipping the crowd into a frenzy of support.
Peter, who often sports a brightly shaded Mohawk haircut, says he’s planning something special for his homecoming, probably involving lots of hair colouring.
He says: “It’s the wife that does it, and I’m usually not sure what she’s going to do until the last minute, depending on how I feel.
“I’ve got a nice dark shirt to wear and I’m all set to represent Scotland.”
But surely it can’t be easy to keep a steady hand when Superman, The Incredible Hulk and the Pope are screaming in your ear?
“The darts crowds are brilliant – you have to love them, they’re behind you all the way,” he says.
“It can be mad but sometimes you’re so focused you can’t really hear them.”
• Jocky Wilson: Fife-born Jocky, who died aged 62 last March, was a Scottish darts superstar. After turning pro in 1979, he quickly established himself, winning the world championships in 1982 and then again in 1989. He retired from the game in 1995.
Bobby George: Perhaps the game’s biggest personality, known for appearing bedecked in jewellery, making his entrance on stage wearing a crown and cloak and holding a candelabra. George, 67, was also the first full-time exhibition player. He works as a co-presenter and promoter of the sport on TV.
Eric Bristow: Known as The Crafty Cockney, he is credited with helping turn darts into a worldwide spectator sport. He is a five-times world champion and still entertains audiences on darts exhibitions. He also appeared in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here last year.