Stars may point the way to teach maths at school

Marcus du Sautoy

Almost five million people tuned in to watch Wednesday’s World Darts Championship final between the 16-year-old prodigy Luke Littler and the world No 1 Luke Humphries. Many had never watched darts before and were astounded at the speed and accuracy of the mental arithmetic on display.

Most people could manage the maths when a player hit three treble twenties and the referee Russ Bray called out his distinctive “One hundred and eighhhhhhty”. It’s three times 60.

But many marvelled at how quickly Bray and his assistant calculated some of the more challenging scores.

As one dart hit treble 13, followed by a treble 19 and a treble 17, Bray immediately popped up with a “one hundred and forty seven”. All the referees score highly on mental arithmetic: nobody is whispering the figures in their ears.

Even more impressive were the lightning calculations made by the two Lukes as they fired their darts at the board, aiming to reduce 501 to a double to win the game. The early throws usually aim for a 180 maximum, but as the game goes on more subtle arithmetic comes into play.

Left with 170, a player knows that there is a way to win the game with three darts: two treble twenties followed by bullseye. But miss one of those targets and an instant reassessment has to be made.

You could practically see the cogs at work as the calculations were made at speed so as not to disrupt their throwing rhythms. At times Humphries stuttered in his action as he went through the maths.

Each player has a favoured double to end on. Double 20 is a popular finish. But other routes have their advantages.

Given a choice between double 16 or double 17, the first is a much better choice.

Hit a single 16 and you are still left with winning on a double 8 but hit a single 17 and you need two darts to finish on a double.

Given all this rapid arithmetic, do you have to be a maths genius to play darts? The 16-year-old Littler left school last year with a GCSE in PE, not mathematics. How is he able to do such lightning calculations that leave even me, a professor of mathematics, gasping to keep up? The secrets to Littler’s talents are motivation and practice. If you throw enough darts, you start to pick up the patterns of play that are possible. To win on 95: that’s a treble 19 followed by a double 19. To win on 37: pick off the 5 and then you’re left with that easier double 16.

The brain is like a muscle and the more it practises these patterns the easier they become. Often there are numerous ways to check out.

Take a score of 108, for example: treble 20, single 16 followed by that easier double 16. Some players prefer hitting certain parts of the board. Treble 18, single 18 and finishing on a double 18, nicknamed a Shanghai 18, also scores 108.

There are some scores that are mathematically impossible to achieve on the board and players quickly learn to avoid these bogey numbers.

That’s the practice element. The motivation for putting in the practice to learn these patterns is that drive to win the game. It strikes me that this is an underexploited tool in maths education. So many games have maths bubbling underneath, from backgammon to Monopoly. If you can master that maths, it can give you an edge. And everyone likes to win.

In Brazil, the local lottery, known as Jogo do Bicho, has been responsible for impressive levels of mathematical literacy.

People can offer their own odds on particular combinations of numbers occurring in draws.

Understanding the odds and setting rewards accordingly means that barely literate punters are able to do levels of arithmetic and assess probabilities well beyond what the average pupil might expect to master.

As a result the game is responsible for a subtle knowledge of the laws of probability and arithmetic permeating the population.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Brazil’s book; more darts and dice could be the winning strategy to cracking numeracy in the UK.

Marcus du Sautoy is professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and author of Around the World in 80 Games (Fourth Estate)