Most darts matches start with a score of 501 at both professional and amateur level. But what is the reason behind this score and why is it not an even number like 500?
The scoring starts at 501 in a darts match because it means the players will have to hit an odd number at some point during a throw. This makes it harder and more competitive than if the score was even. A score of 501 ensures that multiple legs/ sets can be played without the match getting too long.
Rules of 501 Darts
First let’s briefly go through the objective of a standard game of 501 darts that you’ve probably seen on TV in the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC).
- The object is for a player to be the first to reach a score of “0” when starting from a score of “501”.
- Each player takes it in terns to take their “throw” which consists of 3 darts.
- The sum of the three darts in a throw is subtracted from the total score.
- In order to win, the player must finish by throwing a double (the thin outer segments). For example, if a player needs a score of 36 to win, they must hit double 18 with the final dart. If the total of the three darts in the throw exceeds the score required to reach zero, the throw will not be counted.
Starting at 501 Makes the Game Harder
Starting at 501 makes the game of darts harder compared to starting on an even number such as 500 for example.
If you started on 500, all you would need to do is hit 20s until you reached zero. Instead, starting at an odd number like 501, and having to finish on a double means that the player has to hit an odd score at some point during the game.
It’s not that scoring 501 takes less darts than say scoring 500, because in actual fact you can get both these scores with 9 darts.
There are many combinations of scores which would result in a score of 500 or 501, the most simple being…
Scoring 500 with 9 darts could be achieved with:
- 8 x treble 20 and double 10
- 7 x treble 20 and 2 x double 20
Scoring 501 with 9 darts could be achieved with 6 x treble 20 and then either of these combinations to score 141 with the final throw of three darts:
- Treble 20, treble 19 and double 12
- Treble 17, treble 18 and double 18
So if you only need 9 darts in both cases, why is starting at 501 still harder? It’s because you need throw different scores, rather than just multiples of 20.
Darts is all about consistency, hence many players practice throwing treble 20 and are able to develop accuracy by repetition. However, it’s much harder to be able to hit anywhere on the board with accuracy, because your throw cannot be the same every time.
Hence, having to hit an odd number at some point during the game keeps things more interesting and requires more skill.
What About 301 Darts?
501 isn’t the only score that you can start on in a game of darts.
Professional darts matches previously played from a score of 301, instead of 501. The principle is the same here in that it’s harder to score 301 than to score 300. However, it takes fewer darts.
To make things more difficult, the game of 301 was played with a double-in or double start. This means that you could not start scoring and subtracting from your starting total of 301 until you hit a double anywhere on the board. You would also need to finish on a double, the same as in 501.
The double start is still used in some 501 darts matches, for example in the World Grand Prix.
Why is the Score Not Higher than 501?
So to make things even more difficult, why is the score not higher than 501, so say 801 or even 1001 for example?
This is simply because the game would take too long.
Most professional 501 darts matches are already split into legs and sets. This helps to determine the better player, as you have to win more legs/ sets than the other player, rather than just get lucky on the first try. Having a really long game of 1001 would require fewer and longer sets/ legs instead.
The leg/ set format helps to break things up to give the players a break, and to make it a bit more interesting to watch on TV and provide time for advertisement breaks and reviews.
There are two main types of formats in professional darts tournaments:
- Set Mode: this consists of 5 legs which make up a set. There can be two variations here: either first to 7 sets, or best of 5 sets.
- Matchplay Mode: this format doesn’t use sets but instead uses a “best of legs” format. Usually early rounds are best of 11 legs, the semi-final is best of 13 legs and the final is best of 15-19 legs.
Most televised darts match finals take around 40-80 minutes already, so having a higher score than 501 would mean the matches would be very long.
Check out this article explaining how long darts matches last and why it varies to learn more.