Played well, darts is a graceful, fluid, effortless-looking sport. Put a dart in the hands of a good player and it looks like the easiest thing in the world.
Try it for yourself, however, and you'll find out that it takes a great deal of skill to nail bullseyes — or the board itself, for that matter. Darts wobble, hit the wires, and bounce off the board for no clear reason. If you're playing in public - the local pub, for instance -- getting the basics down can be an embarrassing process. Save yourself some frustration: follow these pointers and you'll be be, well not nailing bullseyes, but doing a fair share better than the amateurs around you.
Learn the lingo
A dart has four segments: the point -- either sharp and metal, or soft and flexible, if you're playing electronic darts -- the barrel, which is the wider, metal section you hold, the long, narrow shaft, and the flight, which helps stabilize the dart's trajectory. These days, the best-regarded darts usually have steel tips, tungsten barrels (the purer, the better), composite metal shafts, and acrylic flights.
[Related: Top Five Tips for Buying Darts]
That line on the floor? It's called the "oche" — pronounced like you were in some sort of Guy Ritchie wintersports flick ("Ockey"). The origin of the word is unclear, attributed most often to a corruption of "hockey," itself thought to refer to the furthest distance a player standing in front of the dartboard could spit. Wherever it comes from, keep your feet behind it. You wouldn't want them to get spat on.
Oh, and that round thing on the wall? That's a dartboard. Don't stand in front of it. You probably knew that, though.
Set yourself up for success
Dartboard's on the wall, you're standing about ten feet away, and you're ready to go, right? Not so fast. There's a right way and a wrong way to set up your darts practice area. Get it right, and you'll be developing habits that'll transfer easily to any other properly configured darts venue. Which is what you want.
So grab a tape measure, and hang your dartboard so the center is five feet and eight inches from the floor. Next, measure exactly seven feet, nine-and-a-quarter inches along the floor away from the dartboard, and mark your oche there. Why isn't it a nice round eight feet? Actually, it is, if you're using soft-tip darts. But for traditional steel points, that's just the way it is.
Get a grip
Check out footage of a few pro darts players, and you'll see there's no broad consensus on the best grip. It's a personal preference, depending on the size of your hand, the shape of the dart's barrel, and most of all, whatever feels most comfortable to you.
Some favor a pencil-style, thumb-and-forefinger grip; others employ two, three, or all four fingers to stabilize the barrel. It's sometimes said that grips involving more fingers are inherently more stable and secure, but that doesn't stop pros winning championships with just a one- or two-finger hold. Try 'em all.
No matter what you end up with, the fundamentals don't change. Make sure you're relaxed and are balancing the dart comfortably around its center of gravity. Don't hold it too loosely, or too tightly. If you have fingers you're not actively using, keep them well out of the way of the action, and don't ball them into the palm of your hand. You're looking for a relaxed, reproducible grip, and a smooth, fluid release.
As any physicist will tell you, darts don't fly in a straight line. They fly in a parabola, arcing gracefully under the effects of gravity -- and this means you're going to need to point your dart a little above your intended point of impact. Build that into your grip technique, and concentrate on getting it the same every time. Assuming you're not standing in a crosswind, the rest should come naturally with a little care and concentration -- and if you are standing in a crosswind, we suggest you reconsider your choice of darts venues.
There are three crucial parts to a darts throw: the backswing, the release, and the follow-through. Don't make the beginner mistake of drawing back fast or snappily; it'll throw off your aim. Come back a reasonable distance, but make it smooth and considered. Keep your upper arm still for now; just rotate your forearm back from the elbow, and pull the dart along a smooth, circular trajectory.
Also be sure to keep the rest of your body stationary. The motion comes from your elbow and wrist, not your shoulder, chest, hips, or any other part of your body. Don't lift your feet, don't lean into the stroke; just concentrate on keeping a steady platform to support your throwing arm. And don't lean way forward over the oche in an attempt to get closer to the board. You'll just throw off your balance.
As you move the dart forwards, let your elbow come up naturally. Remember you're throwing the dart at a slight upward angle, so time your release accordingly. You'll see the pros put in a flick of the wrist right as they hurl the dart, for added power -- flashy though it is, it's an advanced technique and probably something to steer clear of until you have the basics down.
...and follow through
What, you thought we were done? Even though the dart be winging its merry way towards its target, you've still got work to do. Proper follow-through technique is crucial in just about any sport that involves throwing or swinging -- be it golf, tennis, baseball, or Frisbee -- and darts is no different. So after you release, be sure to keep moving your arm until it's straight and pointed at the dartboard. Keep it there for a second or two, even. If you end up with your fingers pointing upwards even slightly, you're probably not following through enough.
Keep it broad
It's tempting to obsessively go after the 20-point slice, but there are all sorts of varieties of darts games; it's your accuracy on the smaller numbers that will win or lose you the tight games. So don't get too single-minded (or double-, or triple-minded, even) in your practice sessions. There are lots of games that'll help you improve your aiming skills all around the board: try hitting all the numbers in sequence, for example, and keeping track of the number of shots it takes you. Finish up on the bull. Once you've mastered that, it's time to tackle the double and triple spaces.