January 14, 2006

Five out of five

Watching the darts on telly always puts me in mind of Tom. Tom was at college with me twenty years ago and in the first year lived just along the corridor. He never did much: he also lived (as I did) in the bar, where he exhibited an aptitude for darts as prodigious as his work was not. I played him many times and I am not sure I ever took a game off him, certainly never one in which he could be bothered to concentrate, even if his means of acquiring that concentration was to let me build up a big lead first, much as some writers cannot write until a deadline is almost upon them.

One game in particular I remember. Tom had got down to twenty, with two of his three darts remaining, while my score was still in three figures and probably still closer to my starting score than it was to a double. Having beaten me far too often to render the mundane task of victory even slightly stimulating, he decided to spice it up a little by inviting me to select a more challenging finish than the obvious double ten. I suggested he oblige me by hitting double five twice successively instead: it's hard enough to hit a double first time even if you're a champion, twice in a row (and double five is not the easiest one to hit) would surely be beyond even Tom.

It was like Robin Hood, stepping backwards to split a wand with his arrow from a hundred and fifty paces rather than a hundred: such things happen only in myth. But Tom stepped back to the oche, looked up to the board to pick out the double five and hit it at his first attempt - and as I shook my head, he hit it with his one remaining dart as well.

Only on one other occasion have I been on the receiving end of such a feat. I once played a chess tournament in Stroud with a clubmate of mine, Jesse Kraai, who was from New Mexico but was in England to study. During a break between rounds he made me a bet that he could beat me in five consecutive blitz games, a pound per game: and although he was a better player than I, he would even the odds by taking time off his clock every time he won a game. The first game would be played at five minutes apiece, but if he won it (as he did) he would play the second with four minutes, the third with only three and so on.

So he played the second game with four minutes, the third with three and the fourth with only two, and each time he knocked me over. The final game he played with what seemed to me an impossible one minute on the clock: how many moves can you play with only one minute to make them all and your opponent simply needing to avoid checkmate before your flag falls?

But Jesse had had his upbringing in American chess, where blitz play (and, for that matter, blitz for money) was far more common than it was here, and he knew how to stretch his sixty seconds by using my time as effectively as he used his. A crowd had gathered as the sequence of games progressed and by the time that Jesse delivered mate and I handed him his fiver, there was shouting and cheering all around the board. If they had been any more excited, they would have pìcked him up and carried him on their shoulders out of the playing hall and into the streets.

No crowd was there to see Tom hit his double double five: our game was played in an mostly empty corner of a mostly empty bar. But I saw it. I invited him to do it. And I remember it after all these years.