A Spectator's View of the Annual Windy City Open Dart Tournament
It's only in the past 12 months that I've become a dart player in the Windy City Darters Open League. My dart team meets on Wednesdays at a local pub, enjoy a few beers, and plays a few matches against another dart team from the area. We try to pick up new strategies, make new friends, and attempt to get out of last place. Like any other sport, darts requires psychological as well as physical skill; you need the correct darts technique. For us steel tip darters, it even requires the ability to do math--and stay out of the way when those darts fly. No soft points or automatic scoreboards here. It's darting old school style at the correct dart board height, all according to official dart board specs.
This past weekend we got to see darts taken to the next level at the Windy City Open Dart Tournament. It may seem unusual for a simple pub game to acquire such intense devotion, but if curling can be an Olympic sport, why can't darts be serious too? Like baseball or bowling, darts can be a fun pastime for some and a money-maker for others. Professional darters compete and collect big prizes. In the UK, dart tournaments are even considered worthy of television coverage, and can be found on cable in America as well.
Begun in 1976, the Windy City Open is North America's longest running dart tournament. The Open is also one of the few tournaments in the United States sanctioned by the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), a major darters association that originated in the UK. The Windy City Open draws international dart competitors from England, Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland to compete head-to-head with local and national players.
The intriguing thing about this dart competition is that whoever coughed up the $145 registration fee could play with the big dogs. Those with less coin could try the $40 qualifier round, which allowed entrants to compete for a spot in the game. The outcome of the Windy City Open Dart Tournament generally favors the professionals, particularly the Brits, but crazy things can happen. It's a motto on our team that any player can be beaten at any time. Darts is a game that allows for spectacular come-from-behind wins. It all depends on how many chances that other darter leaves you to get back into contention.
Darts gets as flashy as boxing in the UK, with catchy nicknames and music and smoke-machines enhancing the dart players' entrances to competitions. The Windy City Open was, by contrast, a subdued event. Held in a banquet room at the Holiday Inn in Skokie, there were no frills, no film crews, and little fanfare. Most of the people present were dart competitors and their family and friends. The beginning rounds of the tournament were played simultaneously on sixteen dartboards, with tables and a few chairs set up for the darters and their supporters. Spectators had to stand--for the seven hours it took to get to the final match.
Despite the lacklustre surroundings, watching darts can be as exciting as any other sport. Professional dart players normally play the game of 501; it is a game where you rack-up big points that are then subtracted from the total until you reach zero. The trick is you must end on a double. To get a dart into that tiny double band around the edge of the dartboard, on a specific number, is not a simple task. It can be just as nerve-wracking watching those darts fly as it is waiting to see if a football gets between the goalposts or a puck into the net.
Like watching pro bowlers who get strike after strike, it was incredible to see so many dart players consistently making 100 points or more per turn. Amateur darters are thrilled to get those throws more than once per game. In lower divisions of amateur dart league play, a single leg of 501 can take a half hour and two score sheets for points. These dart professionals started getting through games with only four or five turns apiece, racking up points so fast the match was over before the scorekeeper even had a chance to calculate.
Dart professionals at the Windy City Open also stood out visually from the more casual amateurs and buy-in crowd. There's a dress code for finalists--no jeans, tee-shirts or sneakers allowed. The UK folks especially were stylishly coiffed and, I suspect, well-moisturized. They were camera-ready, every hair in place, names blazoned across the backs of their immaculately pressed shirts. These guys also smelled good, cologne wafting gently from even the toughest, tattooed contenders.
There was some chatter in the main dart competition room, and friendly affection between many of the dart players. During each match, however, the tone was generally serious and silent. A particularly narrow win might earn a shout of triumph, but there wasn't a lot of grandstanding or tantrums. Alcohol was available, but most of the professionals drank ice water. I've since learned this is to stay hydrated during the long games, but also to remove the stereotype that all dart players are drunken pub boys.
While the dart professionals were tackling elimination rounds, amateur dart league members were having their own competition next door. With twice as many boards stuffed into the space, there was barely enough room for the dart players, let alone any possible spectators. Vendors sold dart products, beer was flowing, and it was noisy and crowded. It felt like some kind of street market rather than a serious competition.
Back in the big room, it was down to the final 16. I was sorry to see the top woman dart player, Vegas native Stacey Bromberg, get knocked out of competition. Winner of two straight North American dart tournament titles, she was a tough contender, but had the misfortune of playing against the PDC professional Ronnie Baxter. Losing 3-0 just shy of the quarter-finals hopefully stings less when your top-ranked opponent ends up winning the whole darn thing.
A big crowd formed for the last American in the series, Stephen Panuncialman, playing against Adrian Gray, a young up-and-comer from Southern England. Panuncialman gave it his best shot, but lost 3-1. The crowd largely dispersed after that, apparently not interested in watching the UK darters finish out the final games.
We stuck it out, choosing to watch the matches with competitors we'd been following earlier in the day. Steve Brown, ranked way down at 117th on the PDC charts, muscled into the final eight. He unfortunately lost 3-2, in a tight match to the perpetually sour-faced Kevin "The Artist" Painter.
James Wade went against Gray who was the victor in the match against Panuncialman. Wade has incredible skill, like a machine, executing perfectly throw after throw. With close-cropped hair and angular glasses, he resembles a mild-mannered accountant, suiting his obvious emphasis on precision.
Shirt collar flipped up against his moussed hair, Gray gave it his cool-boy all, but missed a few key throws. Despite his hot streak the whole day, the 45th ranked Gray was hugely disappointed with a 3-0 loss to Wade. The other games ended; we'd hit the final four of the Windy City Open Dart Tournament.
The match between Kevin "The Artist" Painter and Ronnie "The Rocket" Baxter was the big upset of the day. Ranked 15th and 14th respectively, the players were evenly matched and the game was tense. It came down to one leg that could throw the win to either darter. Painter is no doubt still kicking himself, as he missed all three shots at the double 16. Baxter immediately took advantage of the slip-up and took out 106 with his final 3 darts, thus winning the match.
The 11th ranked Wade had used his razor-sharp skills to take down 3rd ranked Colin Lloyd, so the final was set between Wade and Baxter. The competition moved to a stage set-up in the next room, where the audience's view of the game was unfortunately not the best. Luckily, there was a commentator to call out the scores. His ringing, British-accented calls of "One FOR-teeee" stirred applause from the spectators every time.
With scores that size, the games went fast. The youthful Wade appeared slightly more tense than his 46-year-old opponent from Swindon. Baxter was no doubt confident from his crucial win against Painter just a quarter of an hour before. Wade's machine-like precision faltered after the first set and Baxter scooped up a 3-1 win.
The jocular Baxter was delighted with his victory, happily giving the thumbs-up and good-naturedly agreeing to pictures for fans and journalists. He and Wade even joked around for the cameras, holding each other and posing like a couple from Dancing with the Stars. Baxter had good reason to be excited; a somewhat erratic player that has big highs and lows over his two decade career, this is the first tournament he's won in 18 months.
All in all, the Windy City Open Dart Tournament was an exciting event. Windy City Darters Association board members have been disappointed at attendance for past tournaments, but they need to jazz things up a bit if they truly want to attract interest. The board room feel of the event didn't do much to highlight the sport, and there was no communication of the action until the final showdown. Players weren't introduced, scores weren't posted, information was scarce.
There's definitely room for improvement. A few ushers, programs, and some kind of central posting of results would be immensely helpful. More chairs for spectators would also be nice, and elevated seating for the final event would enhance the experience of the competition. Like bowling, darts is a difficult game to get spectators a proper view of, but it can be done. With dart players like "The Artist" and "The Rocket", the competition deserves a little flash. Who knows, maybe down the line we could even get a few smoke machines.