Canadian sharpshooter Ross “The Rock” Snook is in the world’s biggest darts tournament.
He won the North American Finals in August and is now among 72 qualifiers for the William Hill World Championship.The darts begin to fly on Thursday in London. CBC Sports chatted with Snook about his breakthrough year, but first, some background on the raucous history of professional darts.
Walk into any tavern, square up to a busy dartboard, and ask the players if what they are doing counts as a sport. If you are lucky, a big bloke will glare around from the triple 19 he just missed, wipe the foam from his moustache and tell you to get bent. He may be blunt, but he has history on his side. Because darts, in fact, is actually a sport. Sport England made it official in 2005 after darts lobbyists leaned into them for nine years. Olly Croft, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, who runs the British Darts Organization, proclaimed “our players can at last describe themselves as sportsmen and sportswomen.”
To celebrate, British darts pros joined fifty MPs in a scrappy game at the Houses of Parliament. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also recognize darts as a sport now. But even if they didn’t, it is worth considering: everybody has had a crack at darts. Hockey is popular, but it can’t make that claim.
For almost any sports fan, there comes a moment of awareness that their beloved game is being played on more than one level. Familiarity, expertise, backstories, it can all come together in a way that suddenly clicks. The serious fan realizes that they understand games within the game. A gesture, a raised eyebrow, can telegraph whole narratives to the committed watcher. That kind of zen viewing can take years to develop for most sports. Watching darts, you can get there in a single evening. You can sense the moment a player zones in. You can see a tempo change in their throws…a surge in confidence. You can predict when a player will start aiming lasers. And just as often, you can see their focus slip away. Even the greats will sail through tournaments, and then suddenly founder. A single dart will go astray. Concentration fizzles, the throwing slows, and they’re finished. Everyone in the room can see the lights going out before it happens. It’s a terrible thing to witness.
A casual watcher of darts, if you can find one, stumbling across a match on ESPN 17, might ask “how did this become a thing?”
Here is how darts became a thing:
Henry VIII was the sportiest monarch England had ever known. Jousting, croquet, swan-eating contests, you name it, Henry was there with regal gusto. He also kept big standing armies, and loved hanging out with soldiers. So it’s not too surprising that darts began with Tudor archers, throwing arrows at targets for sport. Somebody figured out that shorter arrows were easier to aim, and even easier to take inside the pub when English rain soaked ye olde leotards. Ann Boleyn gave Henry a set of snazzy darts to delight his majesty. Back then, people used overturned beer barrels for targets. Hockey fans will recognize the French “but!” meaning “goal” from Habs’ home games. They say “but” because the bottom of a beer cask is the “butt.” which was the goal in darts.
There’s another odd hockey connection. The line which players stand at to throw is called the “Oche” - pronounced like “hockey” minus the H. “Oche” comes from “Hocken,” the old English word for spitting. Early pubs used to have spitting contests…the players would line up and make with the old “hock-pitoooey!” about nine feet away from the wall. So that became the oche line. Butts and Hocking. Who can resist? Pilgrims played darts on the Mayflower, which makes the game 400-years-old on this continent. The greatest North American player ever known is Oshawa’s own John Part. He won the world title three times. He also has a fantastic nickname.
Ross Snook will tell us about that.
So you are heading to the William Hill Tournament. Can you describe that for Canadians who may not know the game so well?
RS: It'd be pretty much like the Masters to a golf fan. And there’s not really any other tournament in the world like that one for darts.
This is your first time?
RS: I played in the World Masters choice in England, which is a different Federation, the British Darts Organization, but they're separate from the Professional Darts Corporation, which is running this tournament. (Ross has represented Canada at three international tournaments. Twice (2008 and 2014) at the World Masters in England, and 2014 at the Americas Cup in Florida.)
So what is your strategy going into the big one?
RS: I just try to control my nerves. Stay calm when you're up there on stage. There's nothing that I've ever experienced before like that. I know a couple people who've gone and played in this before. So talking to them. Get some advice from them too.
What sort of things have they been saying?
RS: Pretty much the same thing as my strategy. Just try to not let the crowd get to you.
Tell us about the crowd. What do they do to your game? Would you rather play in a quiet room?
RS: No! A quiet room is worse. You can hear every little thing then. At least when it is a noisy room you can block it out and just focus on the dart board.
Those crowds over there...Viking hats and Where’s Waldo outfits and pitchers of beer. They're pretty rowdy. Do you ever get spooked by crowds like that?
RS: No, I don't think that will bother me.
Talking about nerves. What are the rules for darts and performance-enhancing substances?
RS: Some people have a couple of drinks before they play. Just to calm down a little bit. Once you get on T.V. there's none of that. You're only allowed to drink water.
How about beta blockers, to settle the jitters?
RS: I've heard people use them in their darts too but they're actually banned. And they do random drug testing, so…. I'm not 100 percent sure but as far as I know, those are banned.
Personally I'm a lousy golfer because I get the yips. If I have a single bottle of beer, it will make me a better golfer. But then if I have two, I have traded off my accuracy and I am back where I started.
RS: Yah, It’s a fine line there.
In big tournaments will you have a pint?
RS: Yeah, yeah. I mean you know, North American tournaments are a little different. You're all playing on the floor. So you’re allowed to drink while you're playing. You just can't when you get on stage. The big tournaments that are televised you can’t because everything is on stage. Between matches you can go have one if you want but while you are playing? Strictly water only.
What would you consider to be a good result for you at William Hill?
RS: Definitely getting past the qualifying round. After that you play again the same night, but you're playing one of the top 32 players in the world. So if you can get past that one you are doing REALLY good.
Nicknames are big deal in your sport. What’s your nickname?
RS: The Rock.
From the Newfoundland Association?
RS: Yeah. That’s where I grew up.
How about another good nickname: Darth Maple?
RS: My Buddy! John Part!
Will he be calling at the worlds this year?
RS: Oh yeah all the televised events for Sky Sports he's at, doing commentary.
Might he call your match?
RS: They probably won't put him calling my round just because we are friends and he’s from Canada so they won’t want him to be biased I guess. He is the only true professional ever to come out of North America. Three-time world champion.
Has he given you advice?
RS: He says just to relax and to enjoy it while you're there because you never know when you're going to get a chance to go back, right? I'll see him this week. I'm going to a tournament this week, he'll be there. When he comes out to play, his walk on music is the theme from Star Wars. (Humming the intimidating Darth Vader tune) Doo doo dooooo doo dee doo?
That’s the one!
I'm watching darts on T.V. Tell me how to watch it critically.
RS: I have always been a fan of darts. I'm always glued to it when I'm watching it, but if you can watch the follow through, and if they're not following through properly, they're a little stiffer, too tense. You know that they're off their game. A bit nervous. And you will get some really slow players to begin with which throws off some of the quicker players. It is a little harder for them to get their rhythm.
What’s the tempo of your own game?
RS: I'm not slow, I'm not super fast, I'm fairly quick. I have a hard time playing slower players.
Darts is such a huge deal in England. And England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, it's an official sport there. Is Canada going to follow suit?
RS: The NDFC, the National Darts Federation of Canada, has had a petition for the last few years trying to get it to become a sport in Canada. Haven’t heard any of the progress lately.
Well it took them nine years in England. Speaking of which, is Brexit affecting the sport?
RS: No, it doesn't seem to be, yet. It takes time. Some of those players who are not from England actually live there. Some of the pros. That's where 80 per cent of the tournaments are!
What is Canada’s place amongst dart nations of the world?
RS: Probably very low, although we have some really good talent in Canada. Except they don't get to travel overseas to play much and so they're not playing against the top players in the world every weekend like these guys are. So probably we’d rank down fairly low.
Everybody has picked up a dart and thrown it at least once. Do you think people feel connected when they watch pros because they can imagine themselves doing what you guys do?
RS: Yah for sure. I mean, everybody's been to a bar, picked up a set of darts. They watch these guys on T.V. They think: I can do that. But it’s a little harder than it looks.
You come from a long line of darts players?
RS: All my family played darts. They weren’t really competitive dart players. They just played leagues and had people over on the weekends. Always playing darts. But I never started playing til I moved to Ontario.
We know what an ideal basketball player looks like. Or a rugby player. What's a good physical makeup of a darts player?
RS: There is none really. I have seen some guys who are tall and skinny or short and fat or just normal height - all playing just as good. Phil Taylor is the best ever. Sixteen-time world champion and he has always been short and chubby.
There’s hope for us all! How much time do you devote to your sport?
RS: Not as much as I used to. I used to practise a lot more. But now with my work and family and the house, I still try to throw as much as I can. Like I’ll play two nights a week, I throw in a league and whenever I have time at home I’ll throw in a couple hours practice. And I travel to maybe 10 tournaments a year. When I do get a chance to practise I’ll throw for like three or four hours at a time.
And do you play against yourself to keep it lively?
RS: I'll start off practising my finishes, practising all the doubles and different types of finishes for the first hour or so but then I have a computer program that I can just play against as well. It's just an app that I downloaded onto my tablet and you just put in your scores and the computer randomly puts its score, and you can set it for different levels of players. You can play against a pro or an amateur or whatever.
Have you beaten the computer?
RS: Yes. But not at the highest level because that's a little crazy.
Nine darts every time?
RS: Pretty close.
How soon do you go rusty if you aren’t throwing?
RS: I know some people can put them down for a couple of weeks, pick them up and it doesn't bother them. I have to keep throwing every couple of days at least. If I go a week without throwing, if I pick them up and it just feels like I can't hold the dart any more, I forgot how to hold it. It takes a couple hours to get back into it again.
Back to the tournament for a second: who are you keeping an eye on?
RS: I don't mind. I’ll play any of them. I know I can compete with any of them. It just depends on the day. You don't really want to run into one of the top-five players anytime right off the bat….
Is it a random draw?
RS: First thing is a preliminary match against another qualifier. And the winner of that plays one of the top-32 players at the end of the night, and that is just a random draw. You might get number one or you might get the number-32 seed.
Have women ever been in the world championship?
RS: It has only ever happened once. Actually a woman from Canada! Gayl King! The PDC [Pro Darts Corporation] was trying to promote the women one year (2000), trying to get a women’s championship going. The other governing bodies, like the BDO (British Darts Organization) told their female players they did not want them to play. And she was the only one that accepted the invitation, and she sort of got blacklisted from the BDO for doing that.
(Gayl King threw a terrific round, winning a set off Geordie champ Graeme Stoddart, and came off the stage to thunderous applause. The Edmonton native was the catalyst for the creation of the Women’s World Darts Championship.)
Your wife Aoife is reputed to be a solid player herself.
RS: Yes, she throws well. We have won a few mixed tournaments together. She and my daughter are both coming over to watch. Her family’s still in Ireland, so after the first round we’ll all scoot over to Dublin for Christmas. That’ll be awesome. Real Guinness!
Note: CBC Sports heard from Ross as soon as the world championship draw was announced. Wouldn’t you know it, if he survives the preliminary round, the first player Snook will face is the No. 1-seed in the world, Michael van Gerwen.
For Canadian Darts fans, watching live is a challenge. Online is perhaps the easiest way to go.
Snook’s first match is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. ET.
(Large photos courtesy Getty Images and Dave Holmes)