Paul Nicholson focuses is on board management and counting in this week's edition of his darts column.
I’ve always been a subscriber to the fact that if you want to win world titles and big majors, you have to give yourself the maximum amount of opportunities to win legs.
There will be times when you aren’t as clinical as usual and need as many chances as possible to hit a double!
Previously, players would just focus on the treble 20 pretty much all of the way through a leg until they get to the finishing phase. Now there’s so much forward planning half-way through a leg about which scores they want to land on.
I remember a few years ago when I went from covering the PDC World Championship to the Lakeside in the space of a few days and the gulf in tactics and board management was like night and day.
For example, in the PDC, players are routinely making sure they will leave 161, 164, 167 and 170 whereas the BDO guys were still ending up on bogey numbers due to their poor counting.
The gap between the WDF/semi-pro ranks to the PDC is getting a lot smaller because players up and down the country are taking more interest in the scoring routes that the elite guys are taking - but I still don’t think everyone is on the same page in regards to counting.
One of the very best in the business at maximising chances has to be Michael Smith – and the speed at which he uses the board is remarkable.
He’s educated many players over the past few years about the different ways to take out the bigger outshots and the smart reasons why. A good example is when he’s left on 112 – the obvious route is treble 20, single 12, double top. If he hits a single 20 first he leaves 92 and there’s only a couple of ways to do that in two darts. Most players will persevere on treble 20 even if the segment is blocked slightly. But in that scenario, Smith quickly goes for treble 18 to leave double 19.
Other players started to take note of this such as Joe Cullen and newly crowned European champion Ross Smith because they’d rather have sight of a clear treble than one that’s partially blocked. This kind of board management is really coming to the fore amongst the elite.
When Smith has a 100 left and doesn’t hit treble 20 with his first dart, if he doesn’t fancy going tops-tops, I’ve seen him go treble 18 double 13, which is a nice movement around the dart board in a bid to find open targets.
Staying on segments when darts are in the way of the preferable targets can be costly in this day and age.
If you give Cristiano Ronaldo three footballs and can position them where he likes outside the box, do you think he’d choose to put one behind a wall?!
Nathan Aspinall is at the forefront of counting and board management as well. One of the things he’s particularly good at are the scores he leaves himself on.
He’s called ‘Mr 170’ because he leaves it so well. No matter whether he’s stuck on 271, 263, 303 or 315, he’s the man who can find his way to 170 better than anyone and give him that chance of a big checkout.
Sometimes he will catch the cameraman off guard with his choice and then we suddenly see he’s brilliantly left 170. Take a number like 261 – if his dart was blocking the treble 20 bed, his automatic switch is to 17. If he hits the treble with his second dart, he’d go back to the 20s and leave 170 or 130, but if he hits single 17, he’d then go up to the open bed of treble 18 to leave 170 again.
If you go for treble 19 with that second dart and fail to hit it, you won’t leave a finish.
Dimitri Van den Bergh is also one of the best board managers around and a good example of how he operates is when he’s on 271.
If you start on 19s and hit a single you’ll leave 252, then go for treble 20 and then the 25 to leave 167. You have to make sure that with dart three, you have a chance to leave a finish. And the use of the bullseye and 25 has become more important than ever.
When you’re on 270, it’s easy – just score a ton, 140 or 180. When you are on 271, you have to be more creative.
In recent times there has been a focus to leave two-dart finishing scores rather than just be happy to be on a three-dart finish.
In the past players would have the mentality of ‘I’d rather have one dart at a double than none’ but now it’s ‘I’d rather have two darts at double than one”.
So if we go back to 271, if you hit three treble 19s then you leave 100, which is potentially a two-darter. You don’t want to be leaving 99 or 101 because you need three darts to finish those.
The tactics behind counting is all about leaving greater probabilities to win you the leg. You’d rather leave yourself 128 than 133 for example. With the latter you need two trebles and a double – or a treble and two doubles - but with 128 you are allowed to hit a single.
When players reach 201, they’ll try to score 105 or more because 96 is a two-darter and 101 needs three. It’s all about getting more shots at doubles.
Another example is when players use bullseye or 25 to get under 131 with their last dart because we always say in this area of finishing, 131 and 133 are the hardest. You need to go treble for two doubles or two trebles for a double to get it; whereas 130, 129 or 128, you can still hit a single first and go out.
There’s a culture in the Netherlands and Belgium where they can count better than anyone else on the planet, and it’s only been relatively recently when others have learned from them.
They almost always seem naturally gifted counters – but it’s all down to how they are taught darts at an early age in schools. They get more exposure to the sport as kids and they experiment with the counting and the mathematical elements of darts.
From there they go to the café culture of darts and start hammering out these kinds of things between themselves and that kind of behaviour is ahead of anywhere else around the world. They are game changers and always have been.
When I was growing up, someone who could count was someone who could score! They could take away the score and tell you what was left. That was it. There were no tactics about leaving certain numbers for greater finishing probabilities or anything like that. When I started playing competitively in 1997, the idea of using the bullseye didn’t really exist. Unless you were on 235 and got two single 20s, you’d go for the 25 to leave 170. That’s about as advanced as it got. We were way behind.
When Vincent van der Voort, Michael van Gerwen and Jelle Klaasen all came to the PDC in around 2007, they were trailblazers about the use of the bullseye.
Peter Manley will probably say he was the first at doing it, but really it was the Dutch contingent that started using the bullseye a lot more regularly to teach the rest of us.
The best example I can give you of a player who was well before the trend was Erik Clarys of Belgium in the 1990s. When he won the World Masters everyone thought he was crazy – and he was, because he’d find finishes that nobody else had thought of.
Some of his methodology behind how he took certain shots out was easily 10-15 years ahead of his time.
Obviously you need to reach a certain standard before you need to worry too much about which finishing scores to leave.
But good Super League and county players will now be starting to mimic what they see on TV because they certainly can play at the level to make those tactics work for them.
They watch a lot of darts and understand the reasons behind the methodology.
A big part of the commentators’ job these days is to educate the public about what the pros are doing and why.
We need to explain quickly and clearly why a player has opted for the 25 or why they went for 19s first when on 271, otherwise it’ll only be the ardent darts fan or keen player who’ll understand.
You’ve got to be up with the current trends of scoring and as good as a spotter in regards to what double they’ll leave. When Michael Smith leaves 112, I’m already tuned into the probabilities of what he’s going to use. Very few players surprise me now and if they do, I’ll write it down and see if it becomes a habit for them.
The biggest education for a lot of darts fans came when Rob Cross was on 302 and went 18s first to get the 162 that left him 140, which he’d take out to win his first world title against Phil Taylor!
That is now a very common option to try since Cross made it famous. Cross doesn’t actually get as much credit as he deserves for his use of the board. He only ever uses the 20s, 19s and 18s for scoring – and will only go to the 17s if it’s absolutely essential because he’s trying to make the board smaller. So, his methodology means he’ll very rarely leave himself on a number which will require him to go for treble 17. It’s very interesting to watch once you pick up on it.
Back in the day you’d see players leaving a lot more bogey numbers than they do today. They’d be positioned on something like 265 or 263 and often score a ton!
These days there are probably only three players that people talk about as notoriously bad counters; Steve Beaton, Jonny Clayton and Jose de Sousa.
Beaton is a traditionalist who hasn’t really evolved his game from a counting perspective. He’s evolved his levels because that’s why he’s been a top pro for 30-odd years but his counting has hardly changed.
We sometimes make fun of him about it but he really isn’t bothered! He doesn’t care and just plays the game how he likes but I dread to think how many legs he’s lost because of it over the past few years when everyone else has become much wiser.
As for Clayton, when people started to point out his errors, he wanted to learn how to put things right and become more canny.
He still doesn’t have the same prowess of board management as players like Dimitri Van den Bergh but he’s getting there and making clear improvements.
As the errors have got fewer, his titles and ranking have improved immeasurably.
Jose de Sousa gets a lot of stick for his bad counting but he does occasionally hit the headlines for his showstopping finishing, such as when he hit three double tops in the Premier League play-offs.
It wasn’t actually the first time he tried it; he once attempted the same against Michael van Gerwen in a European Tour event but didn’t quite pull it off.
He doesn’t care about the tournament or the venue – he has a way of playing and doesn’t care what people think.
He’ll always try to do things like hitting double 18 to leave 36 for the next visit because he used to do it in soft tip darts where the targets are slightly bigger. It’s leg suicide in steel tip darts and I have no idea why he does it.
If for example you have 80 left with one dart left and go for double top, if you miss high then in your next visit you might only end up with one dart at a double instead of two or one. These mistakes cost legs, sets and tournaments.
Remember, bad counting doesn’t just cost yourself an extra dart or two to hit doubles. You could effectively be giving your opponents more visits to beat you.
I want to end this column by mentioning one of the worst counters of them all, and it will surprise you. Phil Taylor.
He left bogey numbers more than anyone else on the planet.
Sometimes I think he did it on purpose to put players off and sometimes it was just because he wasn’t bothered. He just wanted to score as heavily as possible to leave a double and if he was on 162, 163, 165, 166 etc he didn’t care.
In the earlier years of his dominance it didn’t really cost him and he would rarely get punished for laying up for doubles instead of going for the bullseye – but he learned that off Eric Bristow.
A peak Taylor now would have more pressure on him in legs and wouldn’t be so far ahead to leave as many bogey numbers as he did.
Towards the end of his career he found himself getting punished more and more for laying up instead of going for the bullseye because opponents became better at taking out those big shots he didn’t think they would.
I once hit a 170 when he laid up for 32 in the semi-final of the Players Championship Finals that I went on to win! Mark Webster did the same to him a couple of years later and Phil said to me ‘why do players keep hitting 170 against me?” and I replied “Because you keep rejecting bullseyes and laying up you idiot!”