On a small party boat meandering down the Thames, already decorated with festive tinsel, the best darts player in the world is having a shivering cigarette on the deck. Michael Van Gerwen's lime green shirt is covered by a slightly-too-tight black jacket, but it's there, adorned with the famous MVG logo, which looks like the emblem of a pharmaceutical company. Also on the boat is Gary Anderson, the world number two and current holder of the World Championship title. He also sports a black jacket, but opts to stay inside the vessel for the most part, as he's a bit prone to sea-sickness. The tiny ship is Sky Sports' broadcasting point for the draw for the World Championship. The pundits are on hand, the players are promo-ing, the cold chicken satay and cocktail sausages are laid on, and everything is set to begin the most exciting event in the darts calendar.
The little boat is a strange venue for the biggest announcement in darts, but in many ways is totally typical. Darts has always been a small-time sport with big-time aspirations that never get completely realised. It emancipated itself from pub culture in the '90s, at the tail end of a players' mutiny, when the newly-formed PDC split from the BDO. But just how glamorous can a game involving often-portly men throwing metal at a fibrous board get? Wayne Mardle, World Championship semi-finalist and now a Sky Sportspundit, thinks it's reached its apex.
"For me, this should be it." He says. "I don't think it needs to go any further. Darts is darts. If it thinks that it's this great big sport, like your tennis, golf and football, and it had the media coverage of tennis, golf and football, the sport would be finished in two minutes. [The World Championship] is a great big event, it'll be broadcast to millions, but not every tournament is. West Brom vs. Sunderland would get beamed around the world. There won't be millions and millions watching a Premier League of darts match. I think that if it stays as it is and carries on at the size it is right now, I think the game is in good shape."
A man who may disagree is Barry Hearn. Hearn is the mastermind behind darts' resurgence as a spectacle and night out, tearing up the stained, browned carpet of the '70s and '80s and replacing it with a loud – and some might say tacky – rug. Busty walk-on girls, ear-splitting music, surrounding these normally quiet men and encouraging them into a showmanship they're perhaps not quite accustomed to. Hearn was a snooker promoter in the 1970s, then moved onto boxing in the '80s. He's the chairman of the PDC, and when he enters the boat he's greeted (and behaves much like) the patriarch of a large family. He makes a note of shaking everyone's hand and speaking to them. He's a problem solver. You'd ask him for a favour on the day of his daughter's wedding.
But surpassing most all of the stories about darts in recent history and its ever-changing machinations, one thing has been unavoidable. Michael Van Gerwen, the 27-year-old from a town near Eindhoven, is nigh on unbeatable. This year alone he has won 25 titles, and earned over £1.5 million in prize money, topping the Order of Merit by a margin of over £700,000. Watching him play and win all the time would be boring, if it weren't for his completely mesmerising aptitude. His ability is shocking. You wonder how someone can ever be this good at any one thing. Yet, he has won the World Championship only once, back in 2014 – and not for want of trying. He played impeccably well in both games against Raymond Van Barneveld and Gary Anderson in the past two years. But playing the world number one brings the beast out in some people, especially Anderson, who relishes in the Goliath challenge. Though even as he was visibly pained by the losses, it would do nothing to change the cogs that make Van Gerwen operate so well: his total obsession with constant winning.
"You always need to have the belief that you're going to win, even from six-nil behind, because if you don't think that you cannot win that game, you need to believe in yourself," he tells me. "I played poorly in the game but I still took the win and took the game over the line and it's really important to do that."
Van Gerwen seems to speak only as if he's giving a post-match interview. There is no space for self-doubt of any kind, no wiggle room for a contemplative musing: there is only one thing MVG thinks about, and it's winning, all the time.
"If I play a game of Monopoly I want to win. If I'm not winning I'm gutted, that's the way I've always treated games, life, anything."
But does he want a career at the top as long as, say, Phil Taylor? "Why would I? I want to enjoy life as well."
A man who quite visibly enjoys his life is Edinburgh man Gary Anderson. Even when losing, Anderson can muster a cheeky chuckle to himself.
"They're taking themselves too serious." Anderson says of po-faced fellow players. "I never take anything too serious. If I'm struggling I'll just laugh at myself and say 'this is pathetic', to me it's just a joke. 'You're making a mess of this Anderson.' Unfortunately there's only one person that's winning everything and that's Michael Van Gerwen. It'd be nice to win everything, but I know it's more or less impossible to win everything. That's just the way I am."
It's the kind of self-effacing talk you'd hear from a pub-team player, but it's that humble charm that makes Gary Anderson's incredible skill all the more impressive. If Van Gerwen gets his mettle from steely determination, Anderson draws on a shrugging cool to power his way to the top. They are two diametrically opposed players with different attitudes and outlooks, and in many ways represent two different aspects of the darting world. Van Gerwen is the embodiment of the sport's elevation to legitimacy, an undeniable expert whose throw is poetic. Anderson is the old schooler who loves what he does, whatever the weather, the people's champion, the local hero. Even if he does wear glasses now.
"I don't look too great in them, but I'm happy with the way they've been going. I'm coming up for 46 and it's the first time I've had to wear glasses. Everything's crystal clear, I can see every pimple and every crack in that dart board, which is great, but 'cuz I touch my eye with my dart, I hit my glasses. I've had to learn to change my throw a wee bit. It's getting there, it's not there 100%."
Will it be ready for the Worlds?
"We'll soon find out, won't we?"