The game of darts is hundreds of years old...rumor has it that the sport originally began as a contest between bored warriors during respites from battle. The soldiers hurled short throwing spears into the upturned ends of wine barrels. As their competition progressed, a more critically marked target became necessary, which led to the use of a slice of a tree as a target. The natural rings of the tree proved perfect for scoring purposes, as did the radial cracks which appeared as the wood dried out. The winter forced the sport indoors, and shorter darts and basic indoor rules were adopted. As the game caught on, even the nobility tried their hand: in 1530 Anne Boleyn gave Henry VIII a set of "dartes of Biscayan fashion, richly ornamented," and even our Pilgrim fathers are said to have played darts on the Mayflower (1620), using the butt of a wine cask as a "board".
The game retained its military affiliations through to the establishment of the British Empire, when soldiers' drinking clubs with their built-in dartboards stretched over the whole of the Empire. Locals in many countries adopted the sport, but the British players remained dominant until very recently.
The dart itself became more or less standardized as the practice of throwing "missiles" at targets became a general pastime -- the barrel was typically a piece of wood about 4 inches long with a metal point stuck in one end and feathers on the other. An American patented a folded-paper flight in 1898, and the all-metal barrel was patented by an Englishman in 1906. Also around this time, the numbering system on the dartboard was devised and gained acceptance.
The standardization of the throwing distance took place around the same time,
although there is still more than one "standard" in use. It is said
that the throwing distance was marked by placing three crates end to end from a
brewery called Hockey & Sons (which supplied beer to the Southwest of
England). The crates were three feet long, making the distance from the line to
the board nine feet. The size of the Hockey & Sons crates was eventually
reduced to two feet, and four crates lined up to mark the distance (eight feet).
The 8-foot distance remained the standard for many years -- and still exists in
The phrase "toeing the hockey" is said to have been brought about by the use of the Hockey & Sons crates, and the toe line is still called the "hockey", though it is more often spelled oche, and is pronounced without the "h".
The first major step towards making darts the international game it is today occurred when The News of the World, a British Sunday newspaper, instituted its championship in 1927. Originally confined to the London area, the event nevertheless drew large numbers of participants, and due to its success became a national competition after World War I. This event grew into one of the most prestigious and sought-after international titles in the sport, but was suspended in 1990. It returned in 1997, but is now restricted to players in the UK.
Major credit for promotion of the game goes to The News of the World and also to the National Darts Association of Great Britain (NDA), formed in 1954, for their contributions in creating both an international forum for the sport, and establishing basic acceptable rules of play.
The NDA drew together various county and London groupings, and began holding English national competitions in 1957. The British Darts Organisation (BDO) was formed in 1973 by Olly Croft, and coordinated the strengths of the various county associations and the development of various county championships, with the organization of international events following soon after. The BDO's primary focus at that time was acquiring sponsors and running special events for television. In 1978 the BDO organized the Embassy World Professional Championships -- one of the biggest events in darts.
In 1976 the BDO was a major force in setting up the World
Darts Federation (WDF), which was formed by representatives from 15
countries to govern and promote the sport of darts on an international basis.
Among the first decisions of the WDF were the recommendation of a standard
throwing distance for all countries, and the inauguration of the World Cup, an
international event held every two years since 1977 in which top players compete
for their respective countries. Today the WDF is comprised of the national darts
organizing body from each of 49 member countries, representing six continents.
Other tournaments have been established (also on a bi-annual basis) to further
promote the sport:
The Asia Cup, open to WDF member nations in Asia
The Europe Cup, open to European nations
The Pacific Cup, open to Pacific Rim nations (which includes the US)
The WDF maintains an individual ranking system for members based on participation in more than 30 regional, national, and world events staged by the organization itself and its member organizations.
The American Darts Organization was formed in 1976 under the guidance of Tom Fleetwood, and is the only governing body of darts in the United States recognized by the WDF (1977). The Organization was chartered with 30 local member clubs, representing approximately 7,500 players. Today, more than 300 associations, representing some 75,000 players in all 50 states, Guam and Puerto Rico, are affiliated with the ADO. The ADO is a "grassroots" organization, meaning that every player has the opportunity to compete to represent the US through the ADO Playoff Program. Local winners advance to the Regional level, and Regional winners advance to National competition. National winners comprise the ADO Pacific Cup, All-Star and World Masters teams. Almost 300 tournaments a year are sanctioned by the ADO. Players earn Championship Points by placing in singles events at these tournaments, and the ADO keeps a national ranking system based on these point totals, as well as naming a Men's and Ladies' National Champion at the end of each year.