By Matt Styles
From Countdown champion to disillusioned maths teacher, to officiating Phil Taylor’s last ever match in a World Championship final, PDC caller Kirk Bevins is now living the dream.
He tells Palatinate, “when I was a kid there were two jobs that I wanted to be: a darts referee or a maths teacher. Maths was my only passion and those were the things I could do that involves those things.”
And indeed after leaving university he secured a one-year teaching contract as a maths teacher, but considered himself more of a disciplinarian. He enjoyed teaching the top sets but not the vast majority who he knew ‘didn’t want to be there’. ‘” couldn’t be dealing with writing names on the board, signing planners and giving detentions. I thought no.”
He swiftly moved into actuary while looking into the possibility darts refereeing. He was eventually offered a lucrative position at Aviva, but decided to quit and nosedive into the colourful world of professional darts when it came a-calling.
“It’s not all about money”, he reflects, “it’s about life enjoyment and I really, really wanted to be a darts referee. It’s a hobby, and now I’ve got the best view in the house of world-class darts, so that’s the path I chose.”
With just four callers on the PDC circuit, however, there are no easy nor conventional routes in. Bevins, aware of this, jumped at the chance when he and 31 other members of an online darts forum were given the thumbs up to score a behind-closed-doors Pro Tour voluntarily.
Though the occasional tip from players was scant recompense for the costs of admin, hotels and petrol, Bevins knew that calling games for the world’s top 128 players was an invaluable experience. Instead of the players scoring themselves, as they would ordinarily, up stepped Kirk and his team of darting aficionados to officiate the big guns, whom Bevins impressed with his sharp arithmetic.
“Phil Taylor said to me ‘you need to be on TV’. I said to him ‘you’re the man to get me there’, so he went off and had a word with Tommy Cox who asked me to do it on TV as a marker, and by that time the Countdown thing had got around and I knew the TV cameras don’t bother me, so I thought I’d become a marker.”
It was two months after that that Bruce Spendley, legendary PDC referee, announced his retirement. Kirk was then swiftly asked if he wanted to be upgraded to a referee, which he gleefully accepted. A trial in Blackpool on Sky Sports shortly followed – a game between Kim Huybrechts and Terry Jenkins – and just like that he was in.
As much as Bevins is assured in his maths ability he concedes the pressures of following in the footsteps of a great like Spendley. Beyond the scoring, he stresses the additional pressures of entertaining a crowd and not making a mistake.
But seven years later Bevins is now fully at ease on the stage and a familiar face on the circuit. He has developed his own cachet, particularly his 171s which he loves to ‘give it large for’. His fans call him ‘The Kirkulator’, which encapsulates his ostensible imperviousness to mistakes and miscalculations.
“When I first started it was difficult because Spendley was a legend of the game; I felt I had to prove myself and that takes years. You’ve got to be unique and shout a different 180 to everyone else, you have to have different tones and change your voice depending on the situation. I think I’d be a good actor, it’s all about your voice and how you sound, and commentators will get excited even if they’re not.
“So yes there’s pressure, but everything I do I like to be the best I can at, so I pressure myself more than anything. For me, I don’t want to make mistakes because I’ll feel rubbish in myself and players won’t trust me. It would cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds, so you just have to trust your ability and trust the maths.”
It’s easy to forget that there’s more to the job than arithmetic, though. As a licensed referee Bevins is responsible for controlling the stage and consulting constantly with the off-stage referee: looking out for persistent gamesmanship such as swearing, over-celebrating, throwing too quickly or taking darts too slowly.
Behind the jump-cuts, beer-swilling and raucous atmosphere, it is easy to forget it is a game underpinned by etiquette. While he loves his role and enforcing these rules, part of him misses the pandemonium of inter-college darts – the venomous jeering, booing, and whistling in your opponent’s ears – an environment which he immersed himself while at York University.
Bevins is glad to hear of its enduring popularity in universities, even if scoring happens on apps today and not internally or on chalkboards. While the mores and norms of college sport have no place in professional settings, obviously, he looks back fondly on the times when “everyone’s on top of you making a lot of noise. It’s just good banter.”
Despite a glistening college career he confesses to having ‘dartitis’ nowadays – every darts player’s worst nightmare – but having seen first-hand from professionals he’s able to impart some wisdom on how players can improve their game, stressing the importance of muscle memory and, crucially, sheer confidence.
“Every player’s different, and there are many techniques you can do to help yourself. Van den Bergh takes deep breaths to calm down. Rob Cross steps back and kicks the oche three or four times when on a double. Peter Wright will sometimes change the weight size of his darts, and he’s the only player I know that can do that.”
“Darts is easy to play but hard to master. It’s a mental game – just try not to let pressure get on you. Get to the board early and have a good hour pounding the double 20s.”
With darts, there is so much more than meets the eye, yet perennially it suffers disparaging treatment, dismissed as a pub game or nothing more than pantomime by virtue of the ridiculous hairstyles, theatricality and drinking culture associated with it. Many have even questioned its status as a sport, but Bevins is right to defend it in the wake of such claims.
“It’s officially a sport so I can’t describe it as anything else. You need to practise a lot to get really good at it and anyone who plays for an hour will know your muscles begin to hurt. It seems like a simple thing to throw from seven feet and three quarters but it’s definitely a sport.”
“I recommended darts to Rachel Riley, but she says no because it hasn’t got a ball involved, but it’s truly unique and exciting. It’s also fine margins: you can miss a double 10 for the match by a millimetre and that’s the difference between £100k and £50k. It’s so tense watching it, you don’t know who’s going to hold their nerve; the slight shake will have an effect and you never know who’s going to win.”
While Bevins lamented the artificial crowd noise and lack of fans at the World Championships this year, it was still a thrilling spectacle nonetheless. Fundamentally Bevins loves the game – the high drama, the energy and unpredictability – which is why he plans on staying in darts for the long haul.
“I’d like to stay in darts. Maybe I’ll be a tournament director in thirty years time, I just don’t know. I do spotting for the Pro Tour on the weekend, they have two streaming boards and I tell the cameras where to go, so I could go into that in the future. I don’t know if I’d be a good commentator to be fair, but certainly spotting I could do very well at. But yes I’d love to stay in darts. It’s a dream so why get rid of it.”
Image courtesy of Kirk Bevins