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The 16-year-old dart player who captured Britain's imagination


Teenage world champions are common in some sports, say, swimming, gymnastics or ice skating. And tonight in London, a young man named Luke Littler almost became a world champion in a sport where teen champs are almost unheard of. Over the past two weeks, he has captured the British public's imagination with his extraordinary run of victories in the World Darts Championship. He has just narrowly lost in the final match of the tournament. But Willem Marx joins us now from London to explain why this teenager's arrival on the dart scene has just turned this entire sport on its head. Hi, Willem.


SUMMERS: All right. Before we get into today's match, you've got to catch us up here. What can you tell us about darts, how the sport is played, where it's played and who tends to play it?

MARX: Right. So it's a two-player game. You have opponents throwing small, flighted darts around six inches in length at a kind of bull's-eye board, and their scores are based on where those darts land on the board. A single dart throw - you can score from one to 60 points. The aim at the professional level is to whittle away at a starting score of 501 points, and the one that gets to zero fastest wins. This is a game that began in Britain. It remains very popular in pubs here. You drink a beer. You play some darts. But it's also played in the Republic of Ireland, as well as some countries like Australia and the Netherlands, where successful players have helped raise the game's profile in recent years.

SUMMERS: OK, Willem, tell us about Luke Littler. That's the 16-year-old who lost in tonight's final. But what is it about him that makes him so unusual?

MARX: Well, it's not just his age - also the fact that this was his first ever major tournament - reached the final tonight. He had to defeat men two or three times his own age, including multiple former world champions that he's kind of grown up idolizing. He's entertaining. He's charismatic. During public appearances throughout the tournament, he's been totally honest about how entirely blown away he's been by his own success. And tonight he was a very gracious and mature loser. He started playing when he was just 18 months old with a magnetic board. And in some ways, he's kind of like other teenagers his own age. He plays Xbox. He eats pizza before each match. But at the same time, these matches have been drawing record viewing figures in the U.K. for what is still essentially quite a niche sport, at least on TV.

SUMMERS: What have his opponents and fellow darts players had to say about him?

MARX: Well, his opponent tonight - that's the world No. 1 called Luke Humphries, who came from behind to beat the younger Luke - called him a, quote, "incredible talent who is relentless." His technique, his strategic focus have been kind of exceptional for someone so young who came into this tournament - let's not forget - ranked 164th in the world. Observers say his composure during these really tense moments is kind of extraordinary. He's often choosing to make really difficult throws at a time when many others would go for easier options, and those that know him well say that he kind of thrives on this pressure.

SUMMERS: And so, Willem, despite the loss tonight, what has this young man's run of success done for the sport of darts?

MARX: Well, he's been helping attract viewing figures for darts that are comparable to major soccer matches in the U.K. He's won over hundreds of thousands of fans on social media platforms like Instagram, including other very well-known sports stars. You've seen tickets for tonight's match - they surged in value compared to previous years. Stores that sell darts - they've been reporting a spike in sales, too. And darts commentators expect him to win many more title in the years ahead, but marketing experts saying he could see some huge earning potentials from sponsorship down the road as well.

SUMMERS: That's Willem Marx in London. Thank you.

MARX: Thanks, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AUDIBLES SONG, "NOT THE SAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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