The stats side: Christopher Kempf chats to dartsweb

With intriguing stats on the least checked out doubles, treble accuracy and estimations on maximum numbers, Christopher Kempf has amassed a strong following on social media and took on the role of statistical analyst for the PDC. He chatted to dartsweb as the 2020 PDC World Championship action begins to unfold.

How he found the game

The sport of darts and detailed mathematical analysis may not seem natural or comfortable bedfellows. To a game which grew in the pubs and clubs of Britain and emerged on television, in the 1980s, as an intrinsically working man’s game, it is fair to see why. But Christopher Kempf is one of a number of data crunchers (others including Burton DeWitt and Carl Fletcher) who are merging their love of the arraz with their interest in the deeper patterns of the game, the numbers that truly matter. And as Christopher said, there is plenty to find out if you look beyond the reductive three-dart averages and percentage of doubles hit.
‘Apparently a lot of people are very surprised I’m American. I think they must have thought I am German or Austrian because of my surname,’ Kempf said, telling me a little bit about himself. ‘I’m a 27-year-old postal worker from America who got interested in darts totally at random. About 4 years ago, I stumbled across a video of MvG throwing 17 perfect darts at the 2013 PDC World Championship and that got me hooked. I had previously had some background with statistics in sport and it seemed obvious that I ought to translate that approach to the way I followed darts. The sport seemed so overtly statistical to me – we are talking about players hitting targets and hitting the same targets on the board many times. So it all really followed on from there and I am so glad that I happened to stumble across that video in 2015 as otherwise I probably would never have came across darts.’

Christopher continued, ‘The first thing someone following darts becomes aware of are the typical stats like averages, doubles percentages etc. and one of the things I try to do in my work is demonstrate how some of those statistics are flawed or simplistic or maybe don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on in the match. I’ve always been interested in going deeper than who had the best average or the most 180s and finding more accurate ways of how players perform and how they can improve.’

Christopher’s introduction to the game may have been sheer luck, but he has since developed a strong interest in the game and its statistical aspects


Barney’s farewell

One of the big stories from the opening week or so of action has been the defeat of Raymond van Barneveld last Saturday. It was a sorry end to a long and successful career for the Dutchman, but was it to be expected, especially given the nature of van Barneveld’s lap of honour year up to now? Were those backing him to come through or maybe even go far in the event doing so for sentimental reasons? ‘It was definitely a shock in that people wouldn’t have expected Barney’s opponent, Darin Young, to have played so tenaciously and caused the upset. In another sense, Raymond van Barneveld’s game had been on the decline for several years now and he had gone 5 years without having won a title since the 2014 Premier League,’ Kempf commented.

‘One of the stats I looked at was his winning percentage in matches and that neatly encapsulates how well, irrespective of averages, players are able to come through games. And around the time of that 2014 title he was around 60-65% in that area. That has declined gradually to a point where over the last few years he is winning barely more than 50% of matches. So you would just expect to see him reach the last 64 or last 32 of Players Championships more often than quarter-finals. I think RvB had the dream of going out with the World Championship title (and achieving something Taylor couldn’t do) and tried to sort of choreograph his retirement in a way which didn’t work out for him. Phil Taylor had a better sense of where his competitive ability was with respect to the rest of the field and especially with respect to MvG and was able to go out in spectacular fashion with that run to the final. If Barney had at one time an ability to make such a run, he no longer had it now. Whether or not he felt pressure from management or for financial reasons, he passed the point where he could reasonably expect to have the level of success he was expecting from himself and, as we saw with his post-match reaction, it was totally devastating for him.’

The end of his World Championship career, however, should not blight an otherwise impressive record. Aside from his five crowns, Barney had enjoyed some fine moments in recent years, and that’s testament to his attitude to the competition, said Christopher. ‘I think the fact that RvB was so singularly focused on the World Championship reflected itself in the incredible run of performances he had from 2016, when he knocked Michael van Gerwen out in the 3rd round, to the 2017 semi-final, which probably had some of the greatest individual performances of any darts match in history as well as 2018, with another run to the quarter-finals.’
‘But by the time of that last quarter-final, I think he had started to realise he couldn’t keep up with MvG any more. When you’re averaging 110, as Barney was for most of that 2018 semi-final, what is going to be going through your head when you’re getting absolutely slaughtered? It’s the sort of thing that’s going to make you start to think about retirement, especially when you get to the 8th set of the match when your opponent is averaging 115, 116 and you’re trying to get something going to get back in the match and in the next leg after the break, he misses a double for a 9 dart leg. What are you supposed to do about that? It’s hard to know exactly what Barney is thinking as he has a tendency to have a very emotional and despondent reaction to losing immediately after the fact but I think he was in a bad place this year where he wanted to retire and go out on top, to the extent that that was possible, but those two desires were never going to coincide.’

He’s new to the TV stage but Luke Woodhouse certainly appears at home in this year’s PDC World Championship

Sport’s leading ladies excel

It had been eagerly anticipated and hoped for but, on Tuesday evening, the moment finally came for a female victory at the World Championship. The first for a woman at the PDC World Championship, it was to lead to mass media coverage across the world and plenty of TV and radio appearances for Fallon Sherrock, who broke the duck. It even received attention from former tennis Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King, a strong advocate for women in sport who helped to forge the path for the Women’s Tennis Association. However, it would be an understatement to say the crowd were behind Sherrock, perhaps rightly so, and that their involvement in the match and influence on proceedings was strong. That certainly asked some questions about what contributed to the 25-year-old’s victory, and to what nature it helped or hindered her, and too if she could repeat it this evening against Mensur Suljovic.
‘As for their [Sherrock and Mikuru Suzuki, the second female competitor] performances, just as objective fact, if you look at what her stats are over the course of 2019, it’s very unlikely we are going to see Sherrock do a 91 average again. It’s certainly possible, because she has demonstrated she can do it over 22 legs, which is the longest televised match ever played by a woman. But a lower average would be expected against Suljovic, given the average against Evetts was somewhat of an outlier. As for the crowd performance, it’s something that would affect Sherrock and Suzuki much more than other players given they’re coming from participating in BDO events where crowds are used to keeping ‘best of order’ and are much smaller. So to have such a huge and vocal cheering section behind them is something they wouldn’t be accustomed to. One of the things I’ve always wondered about doing is if you could measure the decibel level of the audience and correlate that with doubles accuracy and, although I don’t have the data, if I ever do get to work more closely with the PDC, that’s something I would like to look at. I should add however that Sherrock’s performance against Evetts is the best performance as far as I am aware of a woman in a single match that anyone has ever seen and I wish her all the best against Mensur Suljovic. Hopefully if some or any of the women could succeed in winning a Tour Card, it could have a big impact.’

Under the radar

Plenty of tungsten has gone flying already at the Alexandra Palace but much more is to come, and although we are yet to see a lot of each of the competitors gearing up for more in the 3rd round, there has been plenty of cause for interest. A lot has been made of the stories of Sherrock and van Barneveld, but there was one player that Christopher mentioned that is certainly worth noting. ‘Although we haven’t seen a great deal yet, one player who has caught my eye is Luke Woodhouse. This is someone who has come from nowhere and before the Players Championship Finals and World Championship really had zero TV experience and has now averaged above 95 twice in the competition and knocked out Michael Smith, last year’s finalist. Perhaps even more impressive is his work on cover shots. In the first 2 matches, he has hit 56% of his treble 19s, something MvG would be happy to do. Quite often if players miss the first treble 20, they’ll try to move around a little or slot one in but Woodhouse’s scoring ability is extremely versatile so if he could continue in that way, it’s going to be very fun to watch as this is someone not many people were talking about. And if they were, they were probably talking about Luke Humphries and had just got the name wrong! The uncertain factor with him now will be the format as the match length increases from best of 5 to best of 7 sets, given he has only really played Players Championship events – it’s likely to be the longest match he has ever played, and will be especially hard if he comes up against someone like Dimitri van den Bergh.’

Sudden death drama

There has been plenty of trends emerging in this World Championship already but one particularly interesting one is the amount of sudden-death legs. Numerous games across the 1st and 2nd round have gone to deciding legs in 5th sets, including Peter Wright vs. Noel Malicdem and Gabriel Clemens vs. Benito van de Pas just to name a couple. And there are numerous factors which interact in this, such as having the throw or winning the bull to throw in the final leg (occurring from the second round onwards), so it makes for interesting analysis.

‘The statistics are very clear – when you throw first in a leg, you’re going to win that leg 62% of the time. So when it comes to a sudden death leg, and there’s no throw for the bull, that’s very key, as it is to win the bull if necessary. Through the change of format after 2018, the PDC has decided to institute a system where sudden death legs are quite likely, and 1st round matches are certainly quite liable to have a random result and are hard to predict, pitting 2 players against each other in a situation which is likely to be quite unfamiliar, like with Woodhouse. They have to react and adapt to that in real time. And what we are seeing as a result is lots of players underperforming due to these new factors coming into play for them. This can cause a lot of nervy darts, so having the advantage of throw can really make the difference, because if you and your opponent are going to miss match darts, you want to be the one to miss match darts before them so you can get back in there.’

Fallon Sherrock wowed crowds on Tuesday night as she became the first woman to win at the PDC World Championship

Missing match darts

It isn’t just sudden death action which causes drama either. Finishing line jitters can leave fans with their hands clasped on their face, and for the players, the thought of what could have been or may not have been can send minds whirling. Kempf has studied this comprehensively for the World Championship, looking at when the game’s stars have came close to victory. ‘This is kind of an exercise in speculative history because you never quite know what would have happened otherwise,’ he said. ‘Looking at the 2013 event, just as MvG was starting to burst on to the scene, Lewis fought him to a deciding set in that year’s quarter-finals and missed two match darts at tops to beat him, and of course you can speculate what might have happened to MvG’s career but you can say that if he loses that, he doesn’t play the semi-final with Wade, doesn’t hit 17 perfect darts and I never see that video and get involved in darts, so one or two darts can have such an impact! The same could be said for Cross – had Smith not missed match darts to knock him out of the 2018 event, given he has not yet lived up to the expectation that followed his eventual victory, that may well have prevented such an emergence completely (his 2018 world final was, to my knowledge, his highest TV average, an extraordinary stat in and of itself).’

There’s a couple of other things Christopher has his eyes on too, and both are worth looking out for.It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the second quarter. For all the talk of Glen Durrant unifying the world belt and Gerwyn Price becoming the world number 2, Nathan Aspinall has shown a consistent level this year which is such a massive improvement from 2018, suggesting he should beat Ratajski and may even be likely to beat Anderson and come through to the last 4. And, too, from a statistical perspective, I am curious to see if we will have a 145 checkout, which, if one does materialise, would be the first in 8 years, which is crazy, considering there has been about 130 attempts in that time. Some finishes, like 119, are less frequent merely because players only find themselves on them because they’ve made a mistake but 145 is just 25 from 170 or 5 from 150 so isn’t implausible.’

Image Credits: Christopher Kempf’s Twitter, Sporting Life and Sky Sports

Thanks to Christopher Kempf

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