words: amos barshad
photography: catherine hyland
It’s awfully quiet in Assen, and why shouldn’t it be? This is a small town on the east side of the Netherlands on a late-morning in mid-winter. But as I walk along a road split down the middle of what I’m going to go ahead and describe as “quasi-enchanted” woods—past the tall, frosted trees, past the reindeer enclosure—I can sense imminent heat. Because I know that soon I’ll be at the Bonte Wever Hotel. Soon, I’ll be at the Dutch Open.
It is not the most illustrious darts tournament in the world, nor is it the richest, nor the prettiest. The game’s highest earners and biggest names (invariably, pudgy Northern European men) play in the PDC, another league altogether. But this tournament is, by sheer mass, the biggest. This year, 5,857 entrants have paid their 22.50 Euros to take a chance at some kind of glory while thousands more have come to swirl and gawk and cheer. And as I pop out of the tree line, there is that heat. Already, the patio of the Bonte Wever is overrun by the clamor and the smoke of hundreds of dartspersons happily getting beer-drunk before noon.
Inside, a complex of carpeted conference rooms has been made over with batches of plywood and partition walls covered in blue tarp. Before, perhaps, there would have been metal fold-up chairs. Drowsy lectures. Now, everywhere, there are the demarcation lines known as oches and dartboards, and, everywhere, there are children and women and men smashing darts into them, thwack thwack thwack, three at a time.
There is a feel here akin to the World Series of Poker—the hope, the collective desire, is that a complete unknown will make a madman-run to glory. Players are surrounded by clusters of supporters, and as they wheel around after a victory they’re greeted with fist-pounds, back-slaps, skull-slaps, howls, and sighs of relief. “Da return of da legend!” comes, in a clipped accent, from a top the din of one such cluster. They are all here for you, enjoying the reflected flow of your temporary glow.
I chat quickly with a cluster-supporter, who is barely giving me the time of day because his favorite player is making mincemeat of an opponent. “Last year he made it to the final 256,” he says, not taking his eyes off his man. “This year, who knows?!”
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“Jans! Jans Fors! He’s a new talent!”
“And how do you know him?”
“He is my brother!”
In truth, all these pub-champs hoping to Cinderella their way through the brackets are destined to be felled by the field’s few undeniable killers. In the women’s field, that means two names: England’s Deta Hedman, 59, and Japan’s Mikuru “The Miracle” Suzuki, 37.
All through Saturday, the two plow through oodles of early-round opponents. They do so mostly in the televised “purple room,” just a lane or two over from one another. Hedman, tall and elegant in gold rings and black Nike wristbands, has a long reach and a smooth, almost airy, delivery. Suzuki, in a sharp blonde bob and a knowing snaggletoothed smile, has more of a heatseeking missile vibe. She locks in on the target by bringing the arrow down to her face, then unloads with a compact snap. If the two survive today’s battles of attrition, then they make Sunday’s main event finals.
Hedman is one of the sport’s all-time greats, but she is not a legacy act. In fact, she’s won this very tournament two years running. “There is a standard I’ve fallen below,” she tells me. “It could be age. I don’t know. But when I get on the board sometimes—it’s like the old Deta.”
Suzuki, for her part, is the hottest player in the game. She showed up in European competition in early 2016 and has been on a singular tear of dominance since. That’s included, most recently, victory at 2019’s BDO World Championship. Since 2017, she has only lost one tournament.
I hadn’t actually known that until Hedman informs me, with hushed pride, of the fact. “Last year in the Winmau”—the Winmau World Masters, that is—“I beat her in the quarterfinals. Yeah. I’m the only woman who’s beaten her so far.”
In the darts rooms the players who are still alive scream but their shirts—loud ones tucked into sensible slacks—scream louder. They offer stage names like “The Devil,” “The Godfather,” “El Capitan,” “Zneminem,” “The Curse,” “The Architect,” “The Beer Seller,” “The Blizzard,” “The Mystery.” They feature dart boards engulfed in flames or wrecked by lightning bolts or smashed through by monstrous snails. They say semi-explicable things like “I’m sexy and I throw it” and “Fifty shades of art” and, in arguably unearned appropriation of an infamous football chant, “No one likes us we don’t care.” Darts is lovably full of swagger. As for how full of self-awareness it is, I’m honestly not so sure.
The game is 501, which means each player starts with a total of 501 points and shoots to get to zero. The board is segmented into numbered pie slices, one through 20, then internally circumvented by a thin ring of double scores and a thinner ring of triple scores. The highest value on the board is not the bullseye, but a triple 20. So that’s your optimization point: 60 points per dart, three darts a turn, 180 per turn.
To end the game, the rules say, you have to get to exactly zero on a double. The manner by which you get there can be tricky. A finish, called a “checkout,” is its own phase of the game, full of quick math.
But for the most part effectively everyone—everyone in Assen; everyone in the barrooms of Belgium and Netherlands and the UK, all places where the game is heavily televised and very beloved; everyone playing darts anywhere in the world—is just aiming at that one thin little bit over and over again. Deta Hedman came to aim at the triple 20 via the Jamaican parish of Saint Thomas. Her family of nine made the move to Essex, just east of London, piecemeal. Her parents went first, leaving the kids behind with extended family, then worked to earn enough money, over the span of years, to bring a sibling at a time. “Since I was two, all I had was a picture of my mom and dad,” Hedman says. Her mother seated, her father standing behind her. “All we had was a picture until I came to England.” That happened in 1973, when Hedman was 14. There she learned that her older brother had embraced British culture enough to have fallen in love with, of all things, darts. And suddenly, she was right behind him. “I used to babysit for him when he went to play,” Hedman tells me. “And when he came home I would have a game and I would never leave until I won a leg. I’m sure he’d let me win a leg so that he could go to bed! But I would never give up.”
Together, they’d play at a local pub, The Crown, where, she says, she got good by playing against men. Once she moved into the proper local leagues, she had to fight for special dispensation to keep playing against the men. Not that the average punter was particularly enthused by the proposition. “My downfall always has been that I hear everything going,” Hedman says. At pub contests, from the genuinely stunned, she’d hear, “There’s a black girl playing darts!” Then there were the explicit racists.
“Look around you,” she continues. “There’s not many Afro-Caribbean ladies, or even men come to think of it. And back in the early days there was just so much stuff being said about you behind your back. You never quite knew who it was. No one was big enough to say it to my face. But you’re just about to throw your darts and somebody is saying something … normally my friends would tackle them and never let me know.” The abuse would carry on anywhere, though. Matter-of-factly, Hedman recalls one email she received from a man in Finland: “Go kill yourself you fucking ugly n***** you’re a disgrace to darts.”
“I don’t take it as a negative. I take it as a positive.” She means a challenge. Something else to overcome. “Because if I take it as a negative, I would never throw darts again.”
During a tournament in 1997 at the Isle Of Mann, Hedman did reach a breaking point with the racist vitriol. For the next five years, she lived completely free of darts. She played football and golf, went snorkeling and bungee jumping in Australia, skied in Austria—did all manners of joyous stuff she’d held off on before, always afraid she’d injure her throwing hand. Recalling that time now, she sounds euphoric. “Once I stopped darts, that was it. Literally, it didn’t exist.” Then in 2002, her ex-partner, fellow pro Colin Lloyd, talked her into a comeback. There was a big tournament in the States, the Las Vegas Open. “He said to me, ‘Come on, we’ll go on holiday. And why don’t you have a go?’” In those five years, she hadn’t touched a dart. But on a lark, she entered. “And,” she says, “I only went and won it!” With the prize money, she bought herself a new kitchen.
Despite her successes, Hedman has never embraced a full-time darts life. She’s always, always held a day job. First it was bookbinding, then work in a kitchen-parts factory, then an office furniture factory, and finally, for the last few decades, a night shift at Royal Mail. “I know nobody can believe that,” she laughs. “I just say, ‘Darts is a hobby that I happen to be good at.’”
For now, she’s still going. “We all get to a point where you know you’re not good enough anymore,” she says. “I can still throw a good darts. I work nights. I got a dartboard up at work. My lunch is one o’clock in the morning, so I do 20 minutes or a half hour of darts. I have my lunch and I do the doubles round.”
Throughout the Bonte Wever, there are large packs of men roving in a way I haven’t seen in years. The festival tent is the official nexus of activity. There, a DJ is playing Benelux schlager jams extremely loudly and is being answered with spirited shouts of “oy yo yo” and “opa ooh ooh opa” and pointed gun-fingers and fist-pumps. One crew has assembled themselves, loosely, in the center of the room. They have long hair and their logo, featured prominently on their matching all-black gear, is the Grim Reaper chucking some damn darts.
Just down the way there’s a little row of coven-like windowless themed bars. It’s in a fake wood-canopy thing that feels somewhat like the drunkest, shittiest part of Epcot Center. And the most popping bar here, without a doubt, is named, presumably after Columbus’s boat, the Santa Maria.
The theme, anyone would have to admit, is sloppily executed and the boat paraphernalia is stream-of-consciousness-esque. But it does not matter. For some reason, the hardest drinkers, the loudest singers, have found themselves here. They doopsy-daisy one another and jump into impromptu, short-lived conga lines. They throw their arms around one another’s shoulders and then stretch them, yearningly, into the air. And every song, it seems, is an anthemic weepy singalong suggesting regret, perseverance, and communal solidarity.
There are light-up fedoras. Yellow cowboy hats. Lots of faux-animal print. Everyone is white, but there is a diversity of a sort. Fortysomething men fashion leftover cardboard Grolsch beer trays into hats; this is just a thing that happens here. The youth of Assen, who never miss a party, are here, too, with Off-White bum bags strategically slung and beards grown Hasidic long, as are loads of folks in wheelchairs here for the bustling paradarts competition.
I was, to be honest, picturing a few hard drinkers in the hotel lobby bar. This is a proper weirdo Dutch party. At one point a fellow points his pal’s attention up to the glass wall on the landing above us, and I follow his gaze as well, and I see one pale ass, being squeezed flat, right at us.
I find Suzuki in the VIP, at a round table topped with small beers and massive battles of Olichorn brand Currysaus and Frittesaus. Her doubles partner, Yuriko Yamaguchi, is here, sullenly watching the room, as is her manager/valet/number one fan, Taro, a lovely fellow in a mod haircut. Occasionally, as we chat, we’re interrupted by polite young Dutch boys and burly tatted Brits pumping her hand and wishing her luck.
In Osaka, Suzuki’s hometown, darts is a going concern. Suzuki herself, though, didn’t fall in love with the sport until her mid-twenties, when she found herself doing the darts pub-circuit incessantly. “I didn’t think to be a professional darts player,” she says. “I just wanted to get skills.” Not long after, while working in a darts shop, she met a guy. He was a regular customer and they hit it off. They got married, had a baby. “So I stopped playing for a little. But then I came back. And I wanted to go to the top stages.”
Practicing daily, for hours, she saw gains. “My family, they took care of my son, took care of everything in the house,” she says. “They pushed me to go back, to go outside.” She progressed from soft-tip to steel-tip darts and, over the span of years, from the local Japanese circuit to Europe. Her victory at the World Championship served notice. Afterwards, a Eurosport headline crowed: “Mikuru Suzuki: Japan’s new darts superstar.”
She describes her World Championship run as almost an unconscious experience. “I have too much concentration. To be honest, I don’t remember what is a tough match and what isn’t. I get nervous, but not bad nervous—good nervous. Nervous [in order to] concentrate. So I actually can’t remember a highlight of a match. I just throw, just count, just checkout, like that. Every time I play, I think about the next match. That is the motivation. So at first, [at the World Championship finals] I didn’t realize I won. But then, no more matches. So—oh, I won. I won.”
Unlike Hedman, Suzuki is a full-time professional player. And unlike Hedman, she can turn off the noise. At home, she practices with music, singing along, working on zoning out into the sound. And while she’s become famous for celebrating victories with the ubiquitous “Baby Shark,” for the most part, she says, “I like loud music.” Her all-time favorite is the Japanese art-rockers BABYMETAL.
Before matches, she goes through a concentration practice, sometimes ducking into a bathroom to do so. And by the time she’s on the oche, “I concentrate on the board and the crowd is a landscape,” she says. “Like a picture.” She says she loves “the really big crowded places.”
That mental aspect may be the one thing least understood by outsiders. This game can wreck you. In the afternoon, there is heartbreak in the boys division: postloss, a small lad with slicked-back hair stomps past me, tears in his eyes, muttering. He slams his darts down, with his dad mutely following behind to pick them up. And I just can’t help but think this could be it for this kid, forever. Suzuki’s own little boy, she told me, played until he got the “yips” and she shut him down. Suzuki’s poise is key, and it’s no easy feat.
“What’s next?” I ask her.
“I want to play against the men and I want to beat the men,” she says. “I want to play every tournament in the world. Undisputed—undisputed champion.” She laughs.
“Nobody can beat me. That is the goal.”
By the end of the night, as you may expect, the festivities at the Bonte Wever have curdled, gained an edge. The floors are sticky and the smell of melted cheese wafts and wafts. Fans, wobbly on their feet, compare dart-celeb selfies. The food stand employees devour leftover brats. A requisite fight breaks out after one fellow bonks his pal in the head with a rolled up poster and then tries to defuse the tension by kissing him. Sana, a snackbar cashier and darts fan, says to me of the Dutch Open, with love, “This one is for the duuuummieees.”
Walking out I fall in step with a pack and they briefly adopt me. A fortysomething woman FaceTiming ropes me in: “Say hi to Kimi! Say hi to Bodie!” Her thirtysomething friend explains, kind of, “Bodie is her colleague.” Then she tells me, “We go to Shawarma Tent and then we go to Cafe Onz to drink and party.” Another friend shows up, a twentysomething man. “He doesn’t speak, he’s just a stupid farmer,” the fortysomething says, and everyone laughs.
I try to get back on topic. “What is it about darts that makes it so popular here? Is there a reason it, like, captures the imagination?” “No,” the thirtysomething says. Then, maybe seeing I’m dissatisfied, she adds, “I don’t know about darts. I know about drink”—and here she adds the universal crooked-elbow up-and-down chugging-a-beer motion—“and party.”
Before all that, the darts. Suzuki sails on, beating Anneke Kuijten four legs to one to claim what feels like her predestined spot in the final. In the quarterfinals, Hedman stumbles. The year before at this tournament, she’d similarly stumbled in the finals, going down by three legs. But then she kept saying to herself, “‘Keep going, keep going, apply the pressure.’ That’s what you do: apply the pressure. Either they crack or you crack.”
She walked the length of the big stage, collected herself, and won. “I just kept coming and coming.” This time, it was her turn to go up big, then bottle it. Up three legs to one on Laura Turner, she watched Turner claw back to knock her out. “I just keep going until it’s over,” Hedman told me later. “I was hoping it wasn’t over too early. I was dreaming of a hat trick.”
The next morning, a main event oche has been put up on a stage at the big room at the Bonte Wever. “Gooooood morning and welcome to the finals of the biggest open darts tournament in the world!” an announcer booms over a PA. “The best of luck! Game on!”
It’s a whole different feel to yesterday’s free-for-all, and possibly even rowdier. The players enter the stage by walking through a steel rig with late-era White Snakestyle mini-pyros. (I watch one man, clambering over for high-fives, come closer than he possibly realizes to burning the whole top of his head off). There is a tuxedoed announcer ticking off the scores and bellowing,
“Oneeee huuundreeeeed eiiiighty” to the roar of the crowd whenever a player smashes that utopic number. The players mug and preen and indulge themselves in the “make some noise” motion.
Visually-speaking, all that is happening is that two people are taking turns throwing a dart three times. The motion is nearly identical. The thwack is identical, too. But excellence is being acknowledged in this room and that is impossible not to get carried away by. The fans stand on tables and bellow along to the schlager. The creepy metallic ba ba ba ba basof DVBBS and Borgeous’s “Tsunami” clang endlessly, over and over again, driving me happily insane.
Suzuki’s competition in the final is Aileen de Graaf, a Dutchwoman and so, naturally, the crowd favorite. De Graaf is an accomplished player, but you’d never know it here. Suzuki is nearly impassive as she rolls. She lets her face drop a bit when making a rare mistake, maybe takes a few seconds to look off to a side. But that insular world she has created for herself is intact. She is somewhere else, and she is untouchable.
Up four legs to two, needing one more leg for the title, Suzuki finds herself again racing ahead in the pursuit of zero. Working quickly, she’s up at the oche with three darts and a score of 82, and in line for a checkout. She knows her route without thinking.
The first hits the outside bullseye ring, worth 25 points. She’s at 57.
The second goes to the single 17. Down to 40.
She has one dart left, then, to finish this right here, right now. She takes the smallest of steps back, the smallest of sighs, the smallest of look-aways. Then bang, cool as you like, she smashes the double 20.
In celebration, arms outstretched, she takes a bow.“Baby Shark” is still banging, Deta Hedman is long gone, and Mikuru Suzuki is on to the next one.