For the last six months, a small storm has been brewing in Western Siberia. The tight circle of expats that I know, along with some equally dedicated/sad locals, have gathered to play a sport that has a long way to go to reach the popularity it has in Britain, and it is slowly gaining momentum. I say sport; I have wavered on the line between whether I consider it more of a game in the past, but now I am convinced. Whatever the categorisation of darts, mark my words – it is going to keep growing in Russia.
Anastacia Dobromyslova has been tearing through the women’s professional game for the best part of a decade, having won the BDO World Championship three time in her last six entries and is the undoubted poster-girl for Russian darts.OK, the best a Russian man has managed at the PDC World Championship so far has been to squeeze into the First Round proper, but it won’t be long before a male player will begin to make greater strides.
On a more local level, the first shoots of organised darts in Tyumen began sprouting about six months ago in a Lord of the Rings-themed bar on the far side of town on a Sunday night. Hobbit Hole is a charmingly-decorated bar piping out endless Irish woodwing music that serves meat, meat, and meat, and on a Saturday is packed to the rafters. It is part of a hotel and restaurant complex, and is actually below ground level so has no natural lighting, but that enhances the earthy atmosphere – no problems so far.
An Inauspicious Start
On Sundays there is absolutely nobody there, at least not until the handful of tungsten aficionados traipse in towards the end of the day. Once a month the regular darts competition (Grand prize: 1,000 roubles behind the bar) used to attract about 10-12 players, and the organiser, bless him, had no clue of the rules of darts, or even of arithmatic, but thankfully we filled in the gaps and organised darts was off on its fragile way.
After a few rounds, a cruious old man appeared. Before, other than a few friends of mine, the entrants had been made up mostly of curious 20-somethings up for a bit of a drunken laugh, but Igor was different. He actually cared, for starters. It turned out he was motivated to take matters up a notch, and was thrilled to see some ‘native’ darts players.
Igor told us he oversaw training at one of the city’s universities, and had ambitions to set upthe first official Tyumen Darts Federation with proper affiliation to the Russian Darts Federation. Chuckle if you wish, but the winner of the RDF’s Open Championships earns a place in the qualifying round of the PDC World Championships, so effectively being one step below would in theory be no mean status. We did chuckle a bit though, as we just couldn’t see how Igor in all his excitement could find his way through the red tape to achieve his goal, even if he was being serious.
The Tyumen Darts Federation
As it turned out, he was very serious. The Hobbit Hall monthly competition was already petering out to the extent where the organiser himself forgot to turn up, and we decided enough was enough. Igor’s determination had secured the necessary paperwork, and the first official Tyumen Darts League was born. Feeling quite far from the PDC split from the BDO in the 1990s but equally buoyant, we realised that before long we, at best a bunch of pub enthusiasts with one or two exceptions, would have official Russian Darts Federation ranking points within a few months.
If you drive along the River Tura towards the end of Respubliki, you arrive at Lovers’ Bridge high above the water, and adjacent to the walkway leading to FC Tyumen’s Geolog Stadium. The Race of Champions biathlon meeting takes place through the stadium, and a few hundred metres past it lies the Sports Palace, home of the city’s ice hockey team Rubin Tyumen. Venture a little further, however, and you will wind your way past the stunning Architecture University and Svyato-Troitskiy Monastery until you reach Tyumen’s greatest sporting arena; the West Siberian State College.
In the college gym, there are eight Harrow’s boards that are hung for each league meeting (sensisbly, it must be added, with protective wood behind and under for errant darts), and mercifully proper lighting. Igor brings decent quality equipment for those who need it, as well as a whole range of utterly bonkers charts and tables detailing strange points totals to qualify at different levels of darts. It is strangely alluring about his conviction of the use of all these techincal measures; one thing that can’t be levelled against him, however, is being undemocratic.
Girls are given a headstart of 151 points when playing men, for example. “It’s to keep them interested, otherwise they wouldn’t play,” he says with what I honestly believe is unintentional mild sexism. Quite why a pursuit that doesn’t rely on physical strength or size at all needs to offer female players any help is beyond me – a headstart helps bad players, but has nothing to do with being a man or a woman, surely? – but at least it was intended to encourage participation.
For the record, the format of the Tyumen Darts League functions is as follows: there are five scheduled league meetings taking place three weeks apart, with the top 12 finishers each meeting receiving league points. Each player’s best three scores would be added up, and the top eight points totals will qualify those players for the Grand Final in August. Each meeting divides players into four groups, with the top two from each going through to a knockout stage to help determine a placing for that meeting.
After four meetings, there have now been about 30 different players, which has seen the standings become very close indeed coming into the final round. The sign of the progress of the TDF was marked last weekend when none other than Vladimir Gut, vice-president of the Russian Darts federation, and Master of Sport and Junior World Championships player Diana Vechelkovskaya arrived from Ekaterinburg for the fourth meeting, as well as a team from Zavodoukovsk.
Best of all however was the presence of a TV crew from local news agency ASNTA, whose presenter Sergey Schneider – two-time Tyumen State University Oympiad Darts Champion – currently sits in the qualifying places for the Grand Final. Sergey is a good friend of mine and a first-rate broadcast journalist, so when he asked if he could grab a few words with me I didn’t take much persuasion. What I didn’t realise was that the report would be broadcast on TNT at prime time on Monday evening – this channel shows one of the country’s most popular comedy shows “Interni” (Russia’s answer to ‘Scrubs’), and there, wedged between shows, was my segment.
I have memories of spending Millenium Eve trying desperately to complete ‘Around the World’ (hit 1 – 20 in order, then ’25’ and bull) and failing miserably, but now the game has taken on a whole new meaning. My fellow competitors practice, and have set the bar high; I am just trying to keep up. With the focus of genuine competition in the shape of the Tyumen Darts League, and the progress of my fellow expats, the sportsman inside won’t let me settle for ‘OK’.