“If you look at the Lionel Messi of these times or the Diego Maradona of that time, I think the Messi of this time is 20 times better than the Maradona of that time,” van Gerwen said. (He was asked, for the sake of clarity, if he was Messi in this comparison of Argentine soccer players. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”)
Like Messi, van Gerwen plays his game in fast-forward, keeping an urgent rhythm to his movements, no matter the situation. At all times, opponents feel his presence, as if he were a sport utility vehicle tailgating on a narrow road.
At the same time, van Gerwen’s play appears carefree. He is a master of modulating his emotions, of employing body language to his psychological advantage, of reading a moment. He barely flinches when things go poorly. But when he wins, he is prone to mighty explosions of joy.
Interpersonal dynamics in darts matter as much as the action on the board, and to opponents, this can be disconcerting.
“Even the best players, they stop: ‘Where does the next dart go?’” said Patrick Chaplin, a darts historian from Maldon, England. “With van Gerwen, if he throws a dart in the wrong place, which is rare, there’s no hesitation. He goes up there: bang, bang, bang.”
Interestingly, darts at the highest level remains almost universally an autodidactic pursuit. With all the money at stake today, the top players — the majority of whom seem to be large, white men — still tend to resist coaching and shy from introspection. Pity the player who succumbs to so-called dartitis, the game’s version of the yips.
Van Gerwen takes these traits to the extreme. He says he does not have a dart board in his house, and he does not watch darts because he finds it boring. He barely practices, he said, figuring all the competitions, exhibitions and corporate events give him enough playing time. Though he rues his eating habits on the road and would like to be in better shape, he holds some suspicion that losing weight could hurt his game.
And even he expressed surprise at how good he had become. “I knew I was good, but this good? No, I couldn’t have dreamed about that,” he said.
Darts continues to transcend its image as a pub game, with the biggest events filling small arenas and drawing big audiences on television. The winner of the World Championship will take home £350,000, or about $444,000. The exhibition that van Gerwen attended Friday night in Oldham, though, felt like a throwback to the old days.