To enter Apterous.org is to arrive in a different realm, a Narnia of the sharpest minds waiting beyond a digital wardrobe. On its homepage – for this is no mythical haven, but the home of a thriving online community – is a disclaimer.
‘Apterous is definitely not Countdown; it is not endorsed by Countdown, Channel 4 or anyone important at all,’ it reads.
Needless to say, the modestly adorned site is not lying. It is, indeed, a competition in its own right. However, its link to the popular intellectual gameshow is intrinsically buried in its history. Apterous is a game of letters, numbers and conundrums. In a world where everything can be played online – from war and Formula One through to baking and equestrian, it is gaming in its purest and simplest form.
In essence, it is 24-hour wordplay and since it was founded more than ten years ago, every Countdown series winner has – at some stage – passed through it, using the platform as a training ground on which to prepare for the rigours of the real thing.
One such champion is Kirk Bevins, the winner of Series 60 of the long-running daytime show. In Countdown terms, he sits in the record books as far more than just a holder of fourteen consecutive victories. He is an Octochamp, whose achievements against the famous clock remain legendary in Countdown circles.
He is also a darts referee – one of four on the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) circuit.
There is a curiosity to what seems a stark paradox; the calm order of the Countdown studio and its respectful audience up against the fast-moving razzmatazz of the PDC, complete with a crowd operating amongst a different demographic to its Countdown equivalent. Yet, between the two is not simply a natural crossover, but a necessary one.
“To a person that has never played darts before, they tend to think it’s an easy job, that it’s just about adding up some numbers,” he says. “Some people assume that it’s straightforward because the top players are hitting so many scores of 100 or 140.
“It’s like all these things – it looks easy but, just like Michael van Gerwen makes darts look easy, it’s actually really difficult.”
One of the many false accusations thrown at darts by its critics has always been its apparent lack of skill. Beyond the sheer complexity of grasping the required consistency with dart in hand, there is the easily overlooked element – a mastery of the numbers, the ability to set up a leg-winning chance. To put it in more globally recognisable terms, you cannot play the defence-splitting pass if you have not first seen the opportunity.
As Bevins explains: “You have to know ‘darts maths’ to be a top player. Countdown numbers rounds are very different to ‘darts maths’ and to mental arithmetic; you might know what 37 times 23 is off the top of your head but Countdown is about finding a solution in a short timeframe.”
What begins as a chat about an unusual journey into an unusual job soon becomes a technical and mathematical masterclass. It is, quite simply, a pleasure to listen to. Only the very brightest become Countdown Octochamps, and Bevins sits firmly in that company. As a writer, I offer no apology for the darting detail that runs through what is, essentially, a clinic of both darts and arithmetic served up by a man at the top of his game.
Take the number 303, for example. The switch is flicked in the labyrinth of Bevins’ mind: “A lot of players now know that you have to start on 19 because if you choose to start with a 20 and you don’t find the treble then you can’t leave a finish,” he says, as if this is knowledge is commonplace.
How about 306? “What a lot of players don’t know is that for 306, for instance, if they go treble 19, treble 19, they will generally stay there. Yet, if they were then to score a single 19 at that point, they would score 133, leaving 173. That’s not a finish. When you hit two treble 19s from 306, you are on 192 with one dart in hand. You have to go for the bullseye. 25 from there then leaves 167.
“A lot of the top players, though, will stay with the 19s and I’m left standing there, knowing that they are risking leaving themselves without a finish. You know they’ve been lucky if they find the third treble. I like it when the players know the shot, like going for the bullseye in that situation because it shows that they know what they’re doing.”
I’m talking to a mathematical genius which, as a wordsmith, is alien territory. Of course, Pythagoras had more than simply a thirst for numbers. But what is so striking about Bevins is his speed of thought, the rapid-fire explanations, an ability to recite sums more fluently than many can deliver their phone numbers. It is impossible to relay the sheer confidence of knowledge that Bevins exudes as he discusses his specialist subject. It is a masterpiece.
“What people won’t know is how I’m going about my work and what I’m doing in my head,” he says. He can scarcely have been more accurate.
“I know where the players are going to throw, I know all the out-shots. For instance, they might have 161 left and they might go 20 and then treble 19. I know that that’s 77 scored and 84 left. With 84 left, they are then almost certainly moving across to treble 16 to leave double 18.
“So, before they’ve hit it, I have got 77 already scored and registered in my mind and I’m already in the process of adding on the 48 – I’ve got 125 ready in my head before he’s even hit it. But equally, if that dart doesn’t go in the 48, I am either adding on or taking away from that 125. I’m adding, subtracting and predicting and that all happens in the same second.”
And breath. Even for the non-darts fan, it is an enlightenment worth rereading. It is the human mind working at its best – uncluttered and fully focused. It has to be – darts is now a sport with millions of pounds worth of prizemoney tied to it, attracting millions of eyeballs to its every leg. There is no margin for error and with the pace of the world’s top players, referees have mere seconds to work with.
“It’s a lot of concentration,” Bevins admits. “With the top level nowadays, you get to learn patterns of people’s games. For example, we’re now seeing a lot of players on 261 go for the 20 and then go down to 17, before coming up for treble 18 to leave the 170. Back in the day, not many people did that. They might start on the 20, then switch to 19s before realising that they have one dart in their hand but can’t leave a finish.
“The maths behind it is more and more important because in those days, you could get away with that. Nowadays, you can’t because the other guy is going to go out in twelve darts.”
Such is the speed of the game and the unique pressure on the officials, Bevins is fortunate that he has always been a fan of the sport. Quite simply, he struggles to believe how anyone without a knowledge of the game and its patterns could survive in his role, regardless of arithmetical brilliance.
He looks back on his Countdown experience with similar feelings. The notion of a perceived intelligence is nowhere near close to creating a champion player. Practice, he emphasises, is the name of the game.
“You have to be committed and you have to want to win because there’s no real prize money,” he explains. “You are sort of playing for fun. I would just practice for hours and hours in order to reach that maximum game. It’s like practicing to hit a nine-darter.
“I would just do anagrams for ages – finding ‘leotard’ for a seven, but then I’d look again and find ‘idolater’ for eight. I’d just play over and over again in order to practice finding anagrams and in order to get really quick while doing it – almost to the point where you can do it in your head without having to look at the letters.”
If snooker players grow up dreaming of 147s and darts players pine for the historic nine-dart finish, the Countdown equivalent is the perfect game – achieving the maximum number of points available in a match. By nature, that sum varies depending on the draw of the cards.
Bevins has achieved it twice. At the time of his second – in the show’s 30th Birthday Championships comprising of its best ever players, nobody else had ever completed one in the fifteen-round format. Essentially, Bevins was two-nil up on the rest of the nation.
He averaged 115 points per show in 2009, the year of his Octochamp triumph. Even to the most casual viewer – and everyone has watched Countdown at some point, if they haven’t, they’re lying – that number strikes out as formidable. Bevins actually first appeared on the show five years before his title-winning year, losing as a 17-year-old in 2004.
He credits the intensity of the programme with the composure that has become so crucial in his line of work.
“You have the clock there in the background with the music theme,” he says, with a chuckle. “When you’re struggling in a numbers round, it is really daunting, just hearing that music and knowing that you only have five seconds left. It teaches you to work under pressure.
“I have always been focused all my life in everything that I’ve done,” Bevins says. “When I was on Countdown, I knew I had the clock in the background but I was so concentrated on everything I was doing.
“Sometimes, when the odd shot hits the treble 9 instead of the treble 14 – or something like that – and I have to add on 27 rather than 42, I might have to shut my eyes for half a second so I don’t get it wrong.
“I do enjoy some of the matches though – great games, nine-darters – you do get into it. What I don’t remember is the minutiae of the games.”
The exception to the rule, he confesses, came in Michael van Gerwen’s record-breaking performance against Michael Smith in the Premier League. The Dutchman averaged 123.4 – it should have been 130, Bevins points out. Van Gerwen missed a double before closing out the match. Even so, it broke the world record for the highest televised average.
“Generally,” he says, “I might come off and hear a player saying: ‘I broke in the sixth leg, I hit this checkout.’ But I’m so concentrated on my role as a referee that I’d know who won, but I might not recall the score they won by. My job is all about concentration and ensuring that I get the numbers right.”
However, the importance of combining the sport with entertainment has played a monumental part in the evolution of the PDC code under Barry Hearn. Bevins’ understanding of his own position as a match official is fascinating.
“I’m a big believer that we are part of the game as referees,” he tells me. “And we are part of the entertainment. Just as a commentator will make his voice bigger and more excitable if there is a nine-darter, I will do the same too. If there’s a 177, I will announce it in a certain way because it is often as good – if not better than – a 180.
“If someone is on a nine-darter and then goes treble 20, treble 19 and misses the double 12, I won’t just say 117 as if they’ve thrown it mid-leg, but with the enthusiasm that eight perfect darts deserves. It is important that the tone of our voice changes with these same numbers in order that people that are not actually watching the darts can know what’s going on. That’s how I see it.”
While, of course, it would be facetious to compare the roles undertaken by Bevins and Mark Clattenburg, for instance, it is the most infrequent of rarities to hear a match official in any sport speak so openly.
Despite his licence to entertain, he is all too aware of the importance of his primary focus. The standard of the game’s top players, combined with a new generation of throwers with different styles and personal preferences, has forced Bevins and his colleagues to develop their own pattern-awareness.
Rob Cross is, in many ways, the perfect example. Young, new on the scene, with an unbreakable penchant for the 18 – whether the double or treble. I mention Cross’ World Championship-winning 140, for which he abandoned the traditional route in order to stick with his favoured method.
It unleashes Bevins’ extraordinary mind once again. Cross, he reminds me, will avoid using the 17 if at all plausible.
What follows is mesmerising – the double-edged marvel of Bevins’ refereeing talent. A faultless combination of a deep understanding of the game and its nuances, matched with a rapid-fire arithmetical capacity. “If he leaves 161, he won’t go treble 20, treble 17, bullseye, which is the standard route,” Bevins explicates.
“Because the treble 20 then forces the treble 17 for the bullseye, he goes treble 18, treble 19, bull. You have to memorise patterns. If he hits it, it’s easy. For example, in that World Championship final, he ended the game with that 140 finish. He went treble 18, treble 18, double 16. After the two treble 18s, I know that that’s 108 and that he needs 32 from the final dart. Obviously, he then has to move over for double 16, which is easy.
“The difficulty comes when he starts missing. Let’s say he hits 54 with his first dart but then doesn’t get the treble with his second. Suddenly, in my head I have 72 scored with 68 remaining. If he then moves over for the treble 16, I then have to do 72 plus 48 in my head very quickly, which is trickier because it’s not a standard shot. The more I see, the more I try and memorise all these patterns on the dartboard just to make my job easier.”
And ultimately, that is the crux of it for Bevins. It is about doing the same things ‘more’. As was his Apterous obsession, practice makes perfect.
“I don’t like the word ‘naturally’,” Bevins laughs, as it slips into a question about his mathematical talent.
Listening back to our conversation, it is easy to see why. None of his success has come through the click of a finger. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In 2004, he lost his first encounter on Countdown. Five years later, he won eleven consecutive matches. He had trained himself to the point where he could not lose. A further nine years on, he is a key cog in one of sport’s most exciting wheels. He has practiced to the point where he can predict a player’s each and every move.
“You have to learn things,” he stresses.
“I looked at a book when I was very young and saw a question that asked 17 plus 17 minus 17. I put 18 down.
“I look back at that now as an adult at my six-year-old self and ask how on earth I came up with that answer.”
Featured photograph: PDC