Hitting the Bull Part I: The Game of Darts

by Bryan Schatz on December 22, 2010 · 35 comments

in Blog

Many of us have a favorite watering hole where we to go to unwind and have a good time. Some of us may prefer the dive bar, others the neighborhood brewery; some appreciate a younger crowd or the club/bar scene. I personally prefer the cozy pub, and in my town I’ve found one of the best I’ve come across. It’s an Irish pub that generally plays classic rock or doom metal music, it has an easy, neighborhood feel, and the best part? It’s unwavering dedication to one of the greatest pub games of all time: the game of darts. The pub boasts an entire room dedicated to the miniature arrows we so hazardously hurl at their Christmas-colored targets:

But this article is not about my cherished “Poet and the Patriot” pub.  It’s about darts. Today we’ll talk about the different dart games that can be played and then next time we’ll provide a primer on dart throwing technique.

Darts and a frosty glass of beer: a winning combination.

Origins of the Game

According to the dart historian, Patrick Chaplin, the game of darts has its roots in archery. Other early origin possibilities include javelins and crossbow bolts, but seeing as how the early game of darts made use of an archery-like target, and the fact that the game is also widely known as “arrows,” it becomes rather clear that archery then, is its most likely ancestor.

I have to admit–I do not understand how this transition could have happened. Imagine some muscled, bow and arrow-wielding warrior saying to his compatriot: “Dude, imagine how much damage we could do if we made these things like an eighth the size, and then we threw them with our hands!?”

Just doesn’t seem like a natural progression, does it? Maybe it was something thought up for the kids to do, who knows? At any rate, the game came to life in various disparate forms throughout England in the early 20th century. It was brought to the States towards the end of World War I by U.S. soldiers who played the game while in Europe and then brought the darts back home with them.

The world has never been the same. Happiness levels in bars throughout the world increased by leaps and bounds. Leagues were formed, events were planned, teams and friendships were forged. Despite a few traumatic pitfalls over the years regarding league recognition, the World Darts Council (now called the Professional Darts Corporation, or PDC) took the game to new levels. Currently, there is a world circuit with high profile competitions such as the Grand Prix, World Matchplay, the Las Vegas Desert Classic, and the World Championships.

Quick Note About the Dart Board

The dartboard is set up with three main areas: The single area, the double ring, and the triple ring. The ring on the outermost edge of the board is the double. If you hit a number in that ring, you get two marks, or, double points. The thin, inside ring is the triple. If you hit a number within that ring, you get three marks, or, triple points. The green bull’s-eye area is a single. The red is double. So, from outside to in, the dartboard is arranged as double ring, single area, triple ring, single area, green bull’s-eye, red bull’s-eye.

Types of Dart Games

Cricket: When you go to a pub and you see a chart on the wall next to the dartboard that is set up with the numbers 15 – 20 and the bull’s-eye, you know it is set up for cricket:

The point of the game is to “close” all of the numbers (15-20, you can ignore the rest of the board in this game) plus the bull’s-eye. That means you need to hit each number three times, or alternatively, hit a double and a single, or hit a triple.

To choose who goes first, both players throw a dart at the bull’s-eye; whoever is closest begins the game. If there is a tie, throw again. If you have closed a number before your opponent has closed the same number, and you hit that number again, then you receive that number of points. For example, say you have closed the 20. Your opponent, however, only has two marks on it and still needs one to close.  If you hit a single 20 again, you get 20 points. The person to finish with all of the numbers closed and with the most points at finish wins. The green bull is 25 points and the red bull is 50.

301, 501, 801: The 01 series are popular dart games (501 in particular) and are all essentially the same, except that you begin with a different number of points depending on the number of people you are playing with. You begin with 301 points (or 501/801/etc.) and the objective of the game is to get to zero points the quickest.

You must hit a double to begin scoring (or rather, to begin subtracting points) and a double to win. Your goal is to hit the largest number per turn (19s and 20s) in order to win quickly. But here’s the thing: if you are shooting for an out, and you throw your exact score, you have to start over. Also, when shooting for an out, if you shoot a number higher than your current score, you go bust. Because of those two rules, the end can be tricky in a game of 301, 501, or 801 darts.

The variations: Depending on who you are playing with and the game, variations can include not having to “double in” or “double out.” Doubling out is almost always a requirement, but doubling in is optional. Generally, 801 is a team game played with four players or more but has the same basic organization.

Shanghai: To find out who goes first in a game of Shanghai, use the two-dart splash. That is, throw two darts at the same time. The order of turns goes from the highest score from the two-dart splash to the lowest. Shanghai is often played with four or more players.

The object of the game is to score the highest number of points by shooting at one number each round, for twenty rounds, thus making your way around the dart board. Begin by shooting at the number one in the first round, two in the second round, three in the third, etc… until you have covered the entire board. You only score points when you hit the number that correlates to the round you are on. The winner is the person with the most points at the end of the game, or, the person who hits a “Shanghai.” If you score a single, a double, and a triple of one number on its correlating round, you effectively “shanghai” the game and win immediately regardless of your opponents’ points.

Read Part 2: Technique, and impress your friends every time; maybe even win a few bucks!

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Garrett December 23, 2010 at 12:12 am

My fondest memories of playing darts is when I was living and teaching in South Korea. I met a lot of people around the dart boards at the local bars, both expats and Koreans. One of my favorite bars to play in gave you a free shot of tequila for scoring over 300 and two for scoring over 500. Also I met a girlfriend playing darts against her and her friend while I was practicing.

2 Ren December 23, 2010 at 1:18 am

I’ve been playing darts since I was a child (none of that plastic safety crap either), but haven’t played in the last few years. I don’t ever having to restart if you get an exact on 301. I always assumed that was the point of the game. If you get less it’s not really 301, its just another number less than that.

3 Kevin December 23, 2010 at 5:22 am

Excellent topic. I’ve been frequenting bars and working on my pool/billiards skills over the past 2-3 months and played cricket once or twice as well. This should be a good source of wisdom to build on my existing limited knowledge of darts.

4 Jonathan December 23, 2010 at 6:09 am

the middle circle of the twenty is better than the bulls-eye?

5 Jon December 23, 2010 at 8:58 am

So let me get this straight; in 501, lets say, you have 40 left and you hit a double 20, you have to start over? How do you win? I’m sorry but I am a little confused. Probably why I only have played cricket before.

6 Brian December 23, 2010 at 9:03 am

Classic rock and doom metal music at an Irish pub, blasphemy I say, but I transgress. While I’ve enjoyed many a game of darts, snooker is my standby pub game. Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s hard to find many pubs with snooker tables in the US.

7 Ryan Tyler December 23, 2010 at 9:17 am

I must admit that I’m nearly as bad at darts as I am at pool. I’ve always found it a little surprising that we allow these sharp objects into pubs, but on the other hand, I’ve never heard of anyone being darted in the eye (except in William Gibson’s last novel, come to think of it). Speaking of surprises, I found this line a little odd. “It’s an Irish pub that generally plays classic rock or doom metal music, it has an easy, neighborhood feel.” I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that I wouldn’t normally associate doom metal with easy feelings, but I guess one man’s easy feelings is another man’s doom metal.

8 Adam R December 23, 2010 at 9:27 am

I’m with Jon above, a little confused on the start over section of Cricket…please explain.

9 Michael December 23, 2010 at 9:36 am

@Jonathon – yes in Cricket a trip-20 is worth sixty and a double-bull is worth 50.

@Jon – I don’t quite understand what the author meant about throwing your exact score. Generally in the ’01′s you have to double out as he said, which means if you have to have an even score remaining. So if you have 14, you have to hit the double ring of the 7. I don’t know how you couldn’t go out if you throw your exact score.

I was also confused by the comment under Shanghai: “If you score a single, a double, and a triple of one number on its correlating round, you effectively “shanghai” the game and win immediately regardless of your opponents’ points.” You score points per round by hitting the correlating number, you would shanghai just by scoring a point.

Another note about playing Cricket – don’t score points on purpose. It’s a douchebag way to play the game. Be a gentleman and close your numbers.

10 Wayne December 23, 2010 at 10:16 am

@ Jon, et al. I agree. The only way I’ve ever played 301/501/etc. is to go out exactly. If you are shooting to go past 301 (which is what the author basically said), then you’re not really playing 301.

@ Michael – I’ve never played shanghai, but according to the rules stated, the only way to get a shanghai is to get a single, double and triple of the same number in the same round (with your three darts). You can easily score three singles on the same number in the same round, but that would not be a shanghai. Also, concerning cricket, I am of the philosophy that if you win by your points total and by closing out all the numbers, you have to attempt to score points while you have the opportunity. Obviously, though, running up the score is never called for.

11 Curt December 23, 2010 at 10:29 am

I am sitting in my man cave here and the marks from my last dart game are still on the board. My Bud beat me at 301…I am pretty sure he cheated…somehow. Great way to spend some good time with friends old and new. Great article!

12 Bryan Schatz December 23, 2010 at 10:29 am

Many apologies for the confusing sentence about having to start over with 301, 501, etc… Since you have to double out to win, if you hit your exact score (say you are at twenty and need a double ten to win) and hit your score without a double (so you hit a single twenty instead) you start over from that score. Hope that clears it up. And agreed, normally I wouldn’t think of the music choice as being easy feeling, but somehow it is pulled off there…

Wayne explained the Shanghai rule perfectly. Cheers.

13 Wholesale Leather Hides December 23, 2010 at 10:40 am

Darts, Brew, and Snacks a man’s best friend. Here’s to the inventor of Darts!

14 Cody December 23, 2010 at 11:44 am

I can’t think of a better way to enjoy the company of friends than a game of darts. It’s nice to hear that there are many who still appreciate the game.

15 DR December 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm

@Michael and others

I want to clear up this “douchebag” bit about scoring while playing cricket. Is that the general consensus? I’ve only played with a set of friends (maybe 6-8 people) and we always try to score as much as possible. It *is* part of winning the game. There is no element of douchebaggery ever even hinted at.

Just 3 days ago I came back from a 138 point deficit with only bulls remaining to win the game. You can’t be getting comfortable just because you’ve got a strong lead.

Lastly, the only thing that I’ve ever had occasion to feel was “douchey” in cricket would be the time when I was soundly whooping-up on someone. It just wasn’t their day and I was on fire. We’re normally very evenly matched. Part of me wanted to not keep running up the score and just end the game but the other part of me knew that if someone played some “mercy” nonsense on me I’d feel like a real moron. When I play someone, I want their A-game and nothing but.

16 Jim December 23, 2010 at 2:20 pm

In cricket, you play to win the game.

If that means scoring, you score. If that means closing, you close.

If you don’t like your opponent running up the score, then play better. The only thing “douchey” is complaining when being beaten at a game.

17 Bruce Williamson December 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm

It’s part of the game. Learn to deal with it. If you can’t then you shouldn’t play and shouldn’t be on the AoM web site at all.

We once played against a guy from the Netherlands. He was complaining that scoring/pointing wasn’t the way to play the game. Our reply dude “we’re winning and you’re not so how could we be playing wrong?”

18 Tyler Tervooren December 23, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Bryan, I have a pub just like that in my neighborhood. I don’t go there often anymore, but a game of darts with a few good friends a couple of dark beers is one of the best nights I could have.

19 Tubby Mike December 23, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I’m no expert on darts but I believe 501 is the professional standard. You need an exact score to get out and that must include a double, so if you require 11 to out, you need 1 double 5. You can’t just hit the 11. Of course, if you go over 11, you loose your turn and your opponent gets to reduce their score. When it’s your turn on the ‘oche you have to score 11 again. Also, the outer Bull is traditionally 25 and the inner Bull 50. I believe with 501 the “perfect” game is a nine-dart out, but I could be wrong. As I said, I’m no expert and there are lots of people in Europe and the UK (especially) who could put me right.

Incidentally, for all you chaps in the US, if you enjoy the atmosphere of your local pub, do all you can to support it, the traditional local in the UK is being butchered wholesale and we’re losing part of our ancient heritage over here. Don’t let it happen to you.


20 Drain 52 December 24, 2010 at 1:03 am

Ok, my give up. I hate to think that I’m that dumb, but here the explanation for the rings and scoring makes no sense. I see the dual-colored bullseye, a thick black outer ring, and two thin outer rings separated from the others, with space between themselves and between them and the bullseye. I don’t see a “double ring, single area, triple ring, etc.” as the articles describes from outside in.

21 lamont December 24, 2010 at 9:36 am

Drain: The thick black outer ring with the numbers is a nonscoring area. Going from the outside in, the thin outer ring is the double area, the next large area is a single ring, then the triple ring, then another single ring, and then the dual-colored bulls-eye.

22 Thomas December 24, 2010 at 11:19 am

I’ve been playing this game nearly 3 decades. I’m glad to see it profiled here. Urban dart leagues are in a bit of a lull right now, in many areas, so I’m hoping articles like this will help rekindle interest in The Sport.

23 Captain Teeb December 24, 2010 at 2:09 pm

“Dude, imagine how much damage we could do if we made these things like an eighth the size, and then we threw them with our hands!?”

Dude, I liked your article, but may I call your attention to the fact that the word ‘dart’ has other uses? For example, the prehistoric cultures of the North America used a device called the ‘atlatl’ for adding leverage to the casting of large arrows, known as ‘darts’. This type of device, under different names, has been found in prehistoric sites around the world. So the connection between archery and darts is not so illogical.

24 Paul December 25, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Thanks for the great article. I am looking forward to the next one in this series. I have an electronic (taboo?) board in the garage that I haven’t used in years. I think I wil plug it in and relive some memories.

25 Davey Mars December 26, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Dude, thanks for caputuring the “manly” aspect of darts. Yeah, you can play in mixed leagues, you can play with the girls, but pub darts for me is about hanging with the guys, competing at something, talking all the usual men-only, smack talk and beer.

You’ve been the manly-man when you haven’t had to buy any of your last six pints because you’re throwing better arrows.(Usually, this is when you take your leave, promising to give them another chance next week. The real reason to stop is, of course, that you’re drunk and can’t really see the board anymore.)

At dartstechnique.com, I blog about the “how-to” of darts at my site, but this has me thinking about a man-darts post for my guys.

Of course, then I’ll have to post an article about darts for girls: “Should your nails match your flights?”, “How to Talk about your Feelings when Playing Darts”, “Does he Love me? What to do when your Guy won’t Double-in”……
(can you believe they read this crap?)

….might need a guest-blogger for that one.

26 corbin December 26, 2010 at 8:49 pm

The Poet! I’m getting my Teaching Credential at UCSC (AND went there as an undergrad) and shoot darts at the Poet all the goddamn time. Terrific freakin place that has made me really love the game.

27 Martin December 27, 2010 at 12:13 am

Nice article, Bryan. I admit to a complete lack of savvy about the odds and ends of scoring, but I do like throwing them at a wall (and sometimes even the dart board). Look forward to the next one in the series.

28 Bryan Schatz December 27, 2010 at 12:58 pm

@Corbin – What a small world! I did the MA/CR program at UCSC a few years back as well. You enjoying it?

29 Zack Jacobs December 31, 2010 at 12:58 am

According to an old John Lowe video, the history of darts stems from arrows originally shortened and thrown by hand to give soldiers training in archery a beginners understanding of an arrows trajectory. The soldiers than began carrying the darts to their favorite watering holes and throwing at barrels. Not particularly useful info as far as throwing goes, but interesting I think.

30 Ryan Olstad January 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Is this in Santa Cruz or is there another one?

Thanks for the article!

31 Ryan Olstad January 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Nevermind.. I should have read more.. haha! Nice to see a local post.

32 Kevin Moore January 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm

“Poet and the Patriot” is one of the best places to learn darts. The Thursday night beer league and a pitcher of cider made me the master i am today. Great article, the Winter league is starting up here in chicago and this will provide some good reading material for the newbies on my team. Thanks

33 Steve Mencik January 11, 2011 at 8:59 pm

The perfect game of 501 is indeed 9 darts. T80, T80, 141 out (the last three being trip 20, trip 19, double 12).

For those that don’t know, a score of 100 or more is called a “ton” and abbreviated ‘T’. Thus, T80 is three triple 20′s or 180 points. That is the maximum you can throw with 3 darts, so I’m confused by the reference to 300 or 500 points in a post above.

Typically, 501 and above are played free-in (no double required) and double-out. Only 301 is played double-in and double-out. Also, to clarify, if you “bust” (throwing exactly or more than what you have left without ending on a double), you just score zero for the turn, and your turn is over. You do not go back to 301. When trying to double out, a good strategy is to try to leave yourself with 32. That way if you miss the double 16 and hit single, you can shoot double 8. Starting from 32, each single just cuts in half and leaves another double, all the way down to double 1. The next best is to leave yourself with 40.

As for cricket and points scoring, Tony Payne, a British star of the 1980′s and a writer for BullsEye News, coined the term “Thermonuclear Cricket”. His theory was to pound points at nearly every opportunity to build an insurmmountable lead and then close out numbers later. If he threw first, and hit trip 20, the second dart would be right back at it. even if he only hit a single, that would force you to close 19′s and hit 2 19′s to take the lead. It essentially gave him a free dart. See http://www.bullseyenews.com/Featured_Articles/thermonuclear-cricket-relaunched-parts-1-a-2.html for more info. Back in the 80′s I had the fortune of playing with him as a partner in a tournament in DC, and the following year, the misfortune of playing against him! That idea of points scoring makes sense, and is quite the norm.

You can also play cricket with 3 people. Instead of getting points you give points to those still open on the number, and you must have least points when all numbers closed to win.

34 sean January 17, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Great article about a great game. I was recently out at a bar and had the opportunity to play some cricket for the first time in years. The bull is still hard as h*** to hit.

35 Wendy February 17, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Is the person who is marking the score allowed to watch the player shot their darts

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