By Victor Mather
The classic image of a darts game is a friendly contest in a smoky pub filled with middle-aged men holding pint glasses.
But at the top level, centered in Britain, darts is a fiercely competitive sport and a big business with multimillion-dollar purses, boisterous crowds and live television coverage.
Now the darts world has a new star: Luke Littler, who played in the world championship last week. His age? 16.
Littler lost the final, seven sets to four, to Luke Humphries, 28, in front of the usual rowdy crowd on Wednesday evening at the Alexandra Palace — also known as the Ally Pally — in North London. But he nonetheless made history with his deep run in the tournament.
The youngest player to make the final before Littler was Kirk Shepherd, who lost it in 2008 at 21. The youngest winner was Michael van Gerwen, at 24 in 2014. Indeed, Littler is the youngest player to win any match at the world championships, and he won six in a row to make the final.
Littler’s age is astonishing for a sport that often values experience. While many recent world champions have been in their late 20s and 30s, Peter Wright won the 2022 title at 51 and the greatest player ever, Phil Taylor, made it to the 2018 final at 57.
Littler grew up in Cheshire, England, and threw his first dart before his second birthday. He was successful early on, regularly beating older children. But because of minimum age requirements, he had played at only one major event before this year’s world championships: the U.K. Open last March, when he made the fourth round. His absence from big events before the worlds — which is the biggest — has made his success there even more of a shock.
In terms of his routine before the final, “I’ll be doing what I’ve been doing,” he said in an interview Tuesday with Sky Sports. “In the morning, I’ll go for my ham and cheese omelet and then come here, have a pizza and then prep on the board. That is what I’ve done every day.”
On a typical day in his life outside the tournament, he will “just wake up, play on my Xbox, have some food and have a chuck on the board, go to bed and that’s it,” he told the BBC.
There are few players in sports with parallel successes. One that comes to mind, especially to a British audience, is Boris Becker, who burst onto the professional tennis scene at Wimbledon with a win at age 17. Like Littler at the worlds, Becker was unseeded for that event.
Littler’s sudden success has also attracted the interest of tabloids. Some outlets have published articles speculating on his age, since he appears older to some people. The Sun posted a photo of what appeared to be his birth certificate, showing that he is 16. His 21-year-old girlfriend has drawn attention from the tabloids as well.
In the showy world of professional darts, almost every player has a nickname. As for the two Lukes who faced off in the final, Humphries is Cool Hand Luke, while Littler is Luke the Nuke. Humphries has been walking out to the oche — the playing area — to the song “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE, Littler to “Greenlight” by Pitbull.
Littler was a slight underdog to Humphries, the world’s third-ranked player — but only slight. Even in defeat he took home 200,000 pounds (about $250,000). Humphries won 500,000 pounds.
“I might not get to the final for another 5 to 10 years,” Littler said after the match. “But now I just want to go and win it.”
Although Littler lost the final, there is every expectation that he can be a darts superstar for years to come. If he can play as long as Taylor, he could keep making finals until 2065.