Eric Bristow, the First Superstar of Darts, Dies at 60
Posted April 8, 2018 2:40 p.m. EDT
Eric Bristow, a British laborer’s son who began mastering the pub game of darts as a teenager and became a dominant world champion in the 1980s, died Thursday in Liverpool. He was 60.
The cause was a heart attack he suffered outside the Echo Arena after a tournament, where he was working as a hospitality host, the Professional Darts Corp. said.
“I’m just a great darts player,” Bristow said in “Arrows,” a 1979 documentary filmed after he had started winning tournaments.
He became nearly unstoppable in the 1980s. Nicknamed the Crafty Cockney, he won five British Darts Organization world titles from 1980 to 1986 using an unusual technique: Before letting a dart fly, he would raise his right pinkie, as if he were daintily lifting a cup of tea.
When Bristow won the 1984 world championship, his third, television commentator Sid Waddell, who was known as the Voice of Darts, said: “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow’s only 27.”
There was more to the chunky Bristow than his deftness at throwing a dart at a board 7-feet-9 1/4 inches away. His cheeky personality helped fuel the popularity of the game and move its tournaments from halls with 1,000 seats to arenas with 10,000 or more filled with screaming fans.
Prize money has swelled since the 1980s; when he won the world title in 1986, Bristow earned the equivalent of $29,650. The reigning Professional Darts Corp. world champion, Rob Cross, earned the equivalent of $541,000 in taking the title.
“Eric was the first superstar darts player,” Matthew Porter, the PDC’s chief executive, said in a telephone interview. “He was the biggest character — brash and arrogant — and didn’t care what people thought of him. And he backed it up with his talent.”
Patrick Chaplin, a darts historian, wrote in an email that darts would not have reached its potential in the late 1970s and early ‘80s without Bristow’s personality and darting skills.
“Darts by its very nature is a repetitive sport,” he wrote, “and in those early days of the new era of darts, it needed some players that would hold fans’ attention. Bristow was such a player.”
Eric John Bristow was born April 25, 1957, in the Hackney borough of London. His father, George, was a plasterer. His mother, Pamela, was a telephone operator. Eric was 11 when he received a dartboard from his father — a proficient player himself — and soon after they were playing at a pub in the Stoke Newington part of London.
Eric left school at 14, and within a year, he later said, he was earning more money at weekend darts tournaments than he was as a proofreader for an advertising agency. He quit the job at 16.
In all, Bristow won more than 70 tournaments, including a World Masters title at 20. Soon after that victory, he was at a London pub one morning in January 1978, preparing for the start of the British Open darts championship later that day. And he was ordering pints.
“You know how much you can take,” he told The New York Times in 1978. “I’ll have about four or five.”
Bristow said that he enjoyed the challenge of playing his opponents one-on-one rather than being part of a team.
“I love the fact that it was down to you,” he told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2007. “You could have a great game of football but lose.”
Bristow’s brilliant play ended suddenly in 1987, at the Swedish Open. He could no longer release a dart properly, an affliction he compared to the yips, a movement disorder that notably affects golfers when they putt.
“It sounds ridiculous, but some people never play again once they get it,” he told The Telegraph in 2011. “It took me 10 years to get rid of it completely, but I still don’t know how I got it or got rid of it.”
Bristow never won another world title, but he joined a group of star players who broke away from the British Darts Organization in 1992 to form what is now the Professional Darts Corp. Both British-based organizations stage events in Europe and around the world and crown world champions.
A major part of Bristow’s legacy was playing mentor to a younger player, Phil Taylor — known as The Power — who surpassed him to win a record 16 world championships.
Taylor told the British paper The Sun on Friday that the gruff Bristow had driven him hard.
“I would ring him up and say I’d made the semifinal or lost the final, and he’d shout at me, ‘Only ring me when you’ve won!’ and then slam the phone down,” he said. “But that gave me the drive and hunger to succeed, and I needed that at that time.”
After retiring from the professional circuit, Bristow played in exhibitions, appeared on the British reality series “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” was part of a traveling darts game show and served as a commentator for the broadcaster Sky Sports.
Sky fired him in 2016 for making insensitive comments on Twitter about soccer players who had been sexually abused as children. Bristow apologized.
His survivors include a daughter, Louise; a son, James; and a companion, Rebecca Gadd, known as Bex. His marriage to Jane Bristow ended in divorce.
On Thursday, some players at the event in Liverpool wept when they learned of Bristow’s death there, and fans chanted, “There will never be another Eric Bristow.”