A Brief Story of Tyumen Darts featuring Russian TV Interview

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.

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Anastacia Dobromyslova, three-time world champion

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.

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That’s more like it – proper boards, proper lighting, now all we need are more proper players…

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.

Media Coverage

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’.

 

 

Tyumen Musings Part Fifteen: Hipsters & Hair

My mother will probably kill me for this, but here goes… I have decided to grow a beard.

Beards

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Sorry Mum…

In the past I have dabbled in facial hair, but mostly because I was simply too lazy to bother shaving for a while, and I did once grow a quite brilliant (even if I say so myself…) handlebar moustache for Movember. That experiment ended swiftly, as in two years I managed to raise the grand sum of 10 pounds, but this time is different. As I leaned against the parapet of the promenade by the River Tura in my home town of Tyumen last week on a quite sublime summer evening, with the breeze gliding past my cheeks, I realised the time was right.

It’s not just that it keeps the face a little bit warmer, but in my humble opinion the beard has grown a new life in modern Russia. Let’s be honest for a moment – 20 years ago, the thought formula probably went something like this: Russian man + beard = tough, grizzled & unsophisticated. Nowadays there are so many variations on beards that they can represent anything from historical grandeur to sharp fashion, but take my word for it, there is no deep-lying reason behind mine, and certainly not fashion. If you don’t believe me, have a look at my track record of hairstyles.

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Looking so Italian in Venice 10 years ago

No, this beard is being grown for one simple reason: I like it. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to follow a trend with disastrous consequences before; as someone once said, to be old and wise, you must first be young and foolish. I’m not quite sure at what stage of that scale I lie right now, but I am at least aware enough to know my limitations. While living in Italy as a 21-year-old student, I thought it would be a great idea to grow my hair as long as possible, ostensibly because I thought “that’s what Italians do”. I apologise to everyone who had to suffer the monstrosity of my flowing locks for most of that year; it must have been truly terrifying.

Male Grooming

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Trendy London

The attitude towards male grooming in this country has altered dramatically to the extent where there are now more male-only hair salons than female or unisex ones. Vaguely presentable is not enough any more. Opposite my old workplace there is a faux-red brick building that holds one such establishment, “Trendy London”, which to be fair does a booming trade from the name alone. Wedding parties have even decamped outside the doors to take pictures such is the originality and cool surrounding it. I resisted the pressure to attend these types of places on a number of grounds, chief of which was that it pains me to pay 1,000 roubles for something I could do myself at home, but after a cunning move by my wife I had no choice but to cave in.

My New Year present, you see, was a certificate to “Like Bros” (like Trendy London, the sign is written in English as is the fashion). In fairness, it wasn’t as pretentious as I had dreaded, and my stylist – I still cringe using that word – even spoke excellent English. OK, I admit it; it was very reasonable value. Given that I take my daughters to a daily fashion parade, I mean take them to kindergarten every morning, I realise I have to keep up standards. You would not believe the height of the heels or skirt hems that the tottering mothers wear to drop their kids off; I’m not talking work suits, but full on nightclub-worthy attire. It’s mental, but in fact is just an extension of the obsession with appearance in Russia today.

In fact I am in a distinct minority as a husband who appears at Kindergarten. The ones who do turn up are either in very odd-fitting jeans and those ghastly dated bluetooth earpieces for their phone that were about as popular as MiniDisc players (remember those??), or in their work suits with about as much time for being there as Nigel Farage has for foreigners. A gruff, short “Stras-jay” is grunted, no more, between the male species of parents, as most aim to get out of there at the first opportunity. Male fashion? No time for that nonsense here.

Hipster Life

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Milya & Johnny; so effortlessly cool…

Outside the kindergarten gates, however, it’s a totally different story. When my good friend Johnny revealed he even has his beard trimmed professionally every so often at Trendy London, my initial reaction was to groan, but then after a while I thought: why not? His wardrobe used to be filled with tracksuits and simple t shirts, but now his skinny jeans and hipster sunglasses would not look out of place on the boulevards of Paris or Milan. Or Moscow.

The young professionals of Modern Russia aspire to more than life in their own town, or even country, but aim for loftier ambitions. 15 years ago, there were a very small handful of Italian restaurants in Tyumen; now you can take courses in Indian Kathak dancing, enjoy Thai massages or listen to authentic live samba music. If you had to pinpoint what exactly the Modern Russian character is, it would be something vastly removed from the stereotypes that still bandy themselves around casual conversation in the West. One thing is certain; the younger generation is deeply in touch with global trends, or at least wants to be seen to be so.

Anti-Cafes and Warehouse Cinemas

From ‘anti-cafes’ to warehouse cinemas, there is a whole range of hipster locations for hipsters to admire each other’s hipster style springing up at a dizzying rate. One cafe charges you by the hour, not by what you eat or drink, and in principle you can consume as much as you like as you play boardgames or just chat. Instagram has spawned a whole army of accounts that will be represented at any evening at such places, which everyone knows. This has the odd effect off people desperately trying to enjoy a ‘deconstructed’ atmosphere while simultaneously trying to preen themselves to the nth degree.

Another place, Fabric Loft, for me sums up the best and worst of this whole hipster craze. It is a three-storey warehouse with all manner of paint-splattered woodwork tools and half-mended doors hanging loose as you clamber between them to make your way upstairs. You pay what you like to watch as eclectic a mix of films, all in original language, and sit on a random but comfortable assortment of stools, benches and futons, but then are more often than subjected to a snooty talk about the deep meaning of the Korean art-house monstrosity about to come on.

Perhaps I am being a little bit harsh; if people enjoy the discussion about films with others of a similar persuasion, who am I to judge them for doing so? The same people might mock me for watching four back-to-back football matches on TV, even if I can’t imagine why they would. What I object to is the swelling number of those who flock to these places because they want to be seen to be doing so, not because they genuinely have a passion for art house culture.

If you do come to Russia any time soon, don’t expect to see bears walking down the High Street and men weilding Kalashnikov rifles and swigging vodka – they’re more likely to be rocking Ray Bans and Cuban heels.