The hurl of Michael Smith is swift, fluid, and lethal. He does not linger, so neither will we. Let’s begin at the beginning: Cherry Tree Drive in St. Helens, where riot vans roamed the streets and there were plenty of distractions for a teenager with a dartboard and a faraway ambition.
“There was fighting, there were a lot of drug users on the street, so there were many drug raids and other things,” he recalls. “Of course, I had many acquaintances who were substance abusers, friends who did things. But then I began playing darts. It was either to remain inside and practice or go outside and do foolish things. I left at the age of 23, so it has been nine years since my last visit. It wasn’t the best location, but it’s still my home.”
Are excellent darts players innate or acquired? Smith holds a theory regarding this. Rugby league was his first passion, and he remains an avid St. Helens supporter. But even though his family was in the pub business and he grew up surrounded by all the traditional pub sports – dominoes, darts, and snooker – he never exhibited any interest. He concedes that he still finds darts “a bit tedious to watch.”
The following morning, he fell off his bicycle, fractured his hip, and was unable to play rugby.
While sitting in the pub and observing his father play, he requested a turn. “I fell instantly in love with the game,” he declares. Therefore, I believe I was destined to do it.
And when Smith is performing at his peak, he can make darts appear effortless. The strong, resolute posture, the fluidity of the arm, and the music-like flow of his 180s. Smith has long been recognized as one of the most innately talented athletes. But until six months ago, it remained untapped.
Nine major championships had concluded. Only in November of last year did everything begin to fall into place: a first major at the Grand Slam, followed by a first world championship and world No. 1 ranking. The nine-dart leg he threw in that championship match against Michael van Gerwen, during which Van Gerwen also threw eight flawless darts, was replayed around the world. At the age of 32, Smith had attained the destiny that many had predicted for him.
However, Smith’s first few months as the sport’s greatest new commodity did not go as planned. There were notable exits at the Masters and the UK Open, and he did not win his first ranking event until April. A shaky start to the Premier League season increased the likelihood of missing out on the top four and semifinals.
The additional scrutiny and outsized responsibilities of a world champion were beginning to impact his family life.
Smith discovered, as do many first-time world champions, that this is a very different sport when the target is behind you rather than in front of you.
“It was my fault,” he says as he sits in the restaurant of a London hotel, a short distance from where Thursday night’s Premier League finals will take place. “I tell myself that I must perform like a world champion. Adding additional strain to myself. At a trade show in Germany, I asked Phil Taylor how he coped with it. Just now, he said, “Learn the word no.” That is not who I am. I consent to everything.
I desired to be the center of attention, have people chant my name, and be liked by others. It’s required for the position. “Don’t win if you don’t want it.”
I ask Smith who the greatest player in the world is currently. “Gerwyn Price,” he says. “I know on paper it’s me, but Gerwyn is currently outperforming me with his averages.” This is not something that the ultra-aggressive Price or Van Gerwen would ever acknowledge. But Smith is constructed differently: he is less domineering, less egotistical, and less influenced by power. He has learned that he throws his finest darts when he remembers to care less. For instance, he rejects the mind games that so many of his competitors admire.
He states, “Van Gerwen is the prime example.” “He will begin conversing with you the day before your match. My first world championship match [in 2019] was with my eldest son, and we ordered the entire room service menu. Michael FaceTimed me and said, ‘You can’t sleep!’ as we were preparing for bed. While I attempt to spend time with my son, he sends me text messages. And it succeeded. He topped me 7-3. I just want to get things done. I don’t want to triumph by cheating, by antics, tactics, or any other means.”
Before Smith could succeed, he had to learn how to lose. During the first world championship final, he fractured his hand after punching a wall in fury. Last year, after losing his second to Peter Wright, he sobbed to his father that he believed he would never win again. But becoming a champion has afforded him a measure of independence.
“Now that I’m the world champion and No. 1 in the world, I could happily retire after this interview,” he says. “I’m still fiery, I just don’t express it as much as I used to. I am aware of when to breathe. And I have thrown three poor darts, but nobody has perished.
I win if I prevail. If I lose, I return home to my children, and I’ve won.”
This perspective is what continues to make Smith one of the sport’s most hazardous athletes. And recent weeks have seen something of a renaissance: three consecutive nightly victories in the Premier League to ease him into Thursday night’s semifinals, with the season reaching a dangerous climax. “Once you begin to get that feeling,” he says.
“Last year I won seven consecutive competitions, and at that point, you feel untouchable. If I can locate it again here and prepare for the Matchplay [in July], I could be the only golfer to win all three majors in the same year.”
He now resides in the Cheshire countryside, just outside of St. Helens, with a property full of animals and a seven-foot privacy wall. The passion remains, and he hopes to play until age 50, but this game has already taught him to accept uncertainty.
“The moment I stop loving this game, I’ll call it quits,” he says. “I don’t see it occurring, but if I lose tomorrow and decide I’ve had enough, I’ll look elsewhere. I will invest my world championship winnings in something shrewd. Peace comes from knowing that I’ve won no matter what when I return home.”