George Silberzahn, american Darts legend, author and inventor of the Flight School was right at his 70th birthday available for this exclusive interview, thanks a lot.
George, how long is it that you do play darts?
I first picked up a dart in 1960 after I got home from serving in the US Air Force.
And where did you first come in contact with it?
Local tavern just down the street from my home. Billy Burt's was it name. Gibbstown, New Jersey was the town.
Was it then popular in America?
It was the American style darts game and every tavern had a dart board in it. It was very popular.
And where was it played?
In Taverns, Bars, Saloons and clubs such as the Italian American Club, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, Moose Hall.
Did you have your own American dart games or did you more or less play 501 most of the time like they do in England?
There was only one game played in league - "Baseball." It was equal darts, not first one to end wins. The game consisted of nine frames - 1 through 9 -(We called them innings). Each team had five members for each game. There were three games played each night. The ten players alternated turns at each inning. Each team member attempted to score as many points as they could each inning. The total score for each person, and the team, was added up after each inning and after all nine innings the team with the highest score won. How was it organised in America then, did you have a league system of some kind and big national tournaments, where the best American players met? There were no national tournaments and no national organisation. There were many, many leagues and league play was held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The "best" players were decided two ways. One formal, one not so formal. The formal method was by average points per game, which was accurate down to decimal points since everyone played the same number of innings every game. The informal method was decided after and between league play where the "best" tested each other in a differently object way. We played head to head matches which took a few forms. Here are two.
1) A guarantee was a match where each person brought an agreed to amount of money with which to bet, then they played a mixture of games of short duration for some amount of money per game until someone ran out of money. The amount of money per game would sometimes increase the longer they played. These matches often ended when the sun was rising the following morning. The one with the money in the end was the "best." At least for that day.
2) A freeze out was a match where the first person to win a given number of games won however much money had been bet on the match.
What were you greatest achievements?
There are two categories for me. American style and English style darts. Greatest achievement in American - Averaging over 50 points per game, in two leagues. To put perspective on that a 'regular' player's average was between 37 and 45 points per game. My average and that I was expected to play in the 'anchor' position on all the teams on which I played. Anchor played last and was looked to for the crucial shot to win or lose the game. Greatest achievement in English - Ranked in the top six in America.
And which match or tournament you remember best or liked best?
Winning the International Darts Match tournament - U. S .A. Vs Great Britain. The team from Great Britain consisted of forty County and Country winners. These included the likes of Alan Evans, Willy Etherington, Paul Gosling, Doug Priestner, Cliff Ingliss, and Chic Love. Then there was the ADO vs. BDO match held on the Queen Mary in Long Beach California where I out scored Eric Bristow with just under 50% of scores being 100 or more.
Where there a lot of people playing where you did live?
Our American dart league year end banquets had somewhere around 500 people attend. There were many teams and quite a few leagues but it was all local to towns and cities mostly.
Did women play as well, though it probably was a bar game?
Early on there weren't women in the leagues but now that is changing quite a bit. As well as youth leagues and divisions of leagues popping up.
Do you think darts will manage to become an acknowledged sport or will it always stay "only" a pub game?
Sponsors haven't yet found out how to make money from Darts in America. What little progress has been made has come from the efforts of the PDCA and PDA. There isn't a national organization in the US which has the where with all and demonstrated interest in making darts a "pro" event. The tournaments are all organized and run by local dart leagues with volunteers. It's odd, when the Brits first came here, and we went there, the News Of The World Championship didn't have cash as part of the prize and we thought that was odd what with our preoccupation with money. Now we are the ones on the short end of the cash stick. The culture here is different; much more puritan and religion driven than my perspective of the UK and EU. There is a bias against taverns, pubs and bars that is stronger than elsewhere and that plays a big part in the general public's acceptance of darts since it is mainly practised in those places. A Carrie Nation hang over from out prohibition days I guess. (Carrie Nation was an axe wielding fanatic against demon rum)
Was there any contact with the British dart scene?
The first person to make that contact was Bob McLeod of the United States Darts Association and that was in the late sixties, early seventies. Tom Fleetwood, of California picked things up from there. The Brits started showing up when they found out they could win money over here and we went over there trying for the prestige.
Did you travel yourself to Britain for tournaments and with what kind of success?
Unfortunately no. I made a choice between the demands of a sponsorship and working the seven day, swing shift requirements of my employment. Darts came in second. The times I got to play against the guys from the UK I did pretty well. I didn't keep a record or anything but a lot of them bit the dust during tournaments. The guys I knew from Philly and S. New Jersey, were every bit as good as they but they had so many good players, one after another, and one of them would get us somewhere along the line.
We are in some way compared to you then "spoiled", we can see darts on TV or the internet, there exist dart sites, we've got some books including your great "How to Master the Sport of Darts", we still moan, but all this certainly helps us to learn the sport. How did you learn it?
To use a cliché' - I learned the hard way, and by myself, although a couple of my team mates and I would talk darts constantly and pick up tips along the way.
And would you say it's really something to learn?
Things I've discovered from contact with those who have read my book and Flight School enrolees tell me darts is certainly something to learn.
And can one learn it by reading about it or will you have all to experience yourself?
Here's my thing. No teacher can really get a person to learn, all the teacher can do is explain to the student what must be learned and give them some tools to use in the learning. Then give the student a means to know that they have learned. Reading is a way for a student to know what they have to learn. In darts, knowing that a stroke must be felt, is not the same as experiencing the feeling of your stroke. That discovery has to be the student's experience. I'm convinced that reading is an important part of learning for most people.
Would you say when learning by reading you'll only always understand what you did already experience and that by reading it again after some time you'll learn totally different things?
Oh, no. My point here is that when a person's mind is on a specific issue, say - thinking about which out shot combination to try for, that is not the time to talk about the concept of pattern play. They are not ready to absorb that concept, but if it is in a book they can use as a reference manual, they can go to that when they are ready, and read the words which can help them learn the concept. More to your point. I find no problem with exploring different view points on any subject. But as far as learning a specific concept or issue in a book, such as "How To Master The Sport Of Darts," a person may think a passage has said one thing but upon re-reading that passage they arrive at a wholly different understanding of what was intended. That's the wonder of practice and study and having a manual at hand.
How would you think has the skill of the players developed? Are the American players better now then when you did start to play?
Of course they are. But not by much. When I'd hit a fifteen dart game it was a win. Today, not so certain, but still probable. I'm an advocate for a person being as good as the company you keep. The realisation that twelve dart games can be made on a somewhat frequent basis in the group of people you associate with, and experiencing that happening against you, redefines your horizon for how good you can be and your can rise to that level.
Would you say darts is a popular sport now in America or is it still some kind of exotic sport?
We'd need to explain popular. There are more people playing darts in American than in the past without doubt so in that sense it is more popular. It does not attract the attention of big time sports, and may never. The real reason is because it must be played in such a small venue and the venue is out of favor with most Americans at this time. The heart beat of darts is the closeness of the competition. One misplayed dart can mean disaster but that is lost on TV. A lot of sports lose that emotional connection when seen on TV but the difference here is a lot of people watching one of those sports on TV have experienced that sport in person so already know the tingle of excitement. Not so with darts.
How came it you wrote your book?
This could take another book. I've written three books, well, two pamphlets and a book. I'll skip some details. I self published my second pamphlet "Mastering The Sport Of Darts" and put it up for sale in the Bulls Eye magazine. I received a phone call from someone who said they'd written a book on dart history "To The Point The story of darts in America" and he wanted to publish my book. I wrote a pamphlet, not a book!!! Any way, I asked what it took to be a book and was told it had to be at least fifty pages. Mine was twenty four. There is no money to speak of, in books on darts, so it wasn't like this was an opportunity for riches or anything. I was ready to pass it off. Then one day, coming back from lunch with my friend Joe Baltadonis I had a thought. All the great American darts players I heard of had faded away into dart lore and all the ones I knew were getting to the age where it would be their turn pretty soon, so why not take advantage of this stroke of luck that fell out of the sky? I was not going to write some junk, which fills a lot of dart books, just to fill the thing out to book size, but this idea, and the things I'd picked up during my 'come back' (I'd been out of darts for eighteen years) would make for some good information from which someone else could benefit.
And what was the reason for the "Flight School?
Same motivation as the pamphlets and book: help other people benefit from what I'd learned. Only this time I'm retired and have the time as well as the motivation. Having my book on the market seemed to give me some standing so I brought the idea to Erik McVay of SEWA-Darts. He said sure go for it so I did. This idea really started before that with something I called "Advice to the dart lorn" that failed at birth.
Do you know of any other kind of darts online course or is the Flight School unique?
I think there was one effort at something akin to my approach to the subject of learning darts from reading but nothing really came of it. I expect to see other people publish things following the concept of "How To Master The Sport Of Darts" and Flight School because my suspicion that there is need for this kind of thing has proven to be true.
How many people do you think practice now with the help of the "Flight School" and what do you know about their achievements?
Every time I think of this I smile, broadly. There are now in the neighbourhood of 300 FSers. I have stories of absolute progress from bunches of FSers, and a lot of them are people who have been at the game for a few years. A result of not practising the best way is that your progress becomes stunted and you get frustrated. FS does the opposite and every success story I hear confirms I'm doing something really gratifying. People are enjoying our game more, which means they are happier. And that's a good thing.
What makes the "Flight School" something special compared to other courses or books?
There is over forty years of experience behind both projects. And I just like the feeling I get when some gets an Ah -Ha moment from some thing I can tell them. I can relate to every step along the way which a person can experience, from trying to get the thing to stick to competing at the highest level in front of crowds, to adversarial TV interviews. From people intimidating me to being intimidated by me. From starting new in a league to starting a new league. All this comes out when I'm asked a question or an opinion. I understand that my view may not be the right one for everyone but also believe that most of the time people gain from what I can tell them.
Is your book or the "Flight School" something you wrote down after your own practice experiences?
I could write those because of my experience, yes. I know what good practice and knowing the whole game can do and try to help others learn what I know.
And do you include experiences or problems of the participants into Flight School so it develops all the time?
In the second edition of "How To Master The Sport Of Darts" I've attempted to take a person from the metaphorical "this is a dart" to "how to deal with the end of your career" and my publisher tells me I've hit it smack on. One of the reasons I even took on a second edition is the information and insight I've received from FSers. At the risk of seeming immodest, I believe the information I have is not held by anyone else, anywhere, and that is due to dart people talking to me through Flight School and feed back from "How To Master The Sport Of Darts." To answer you question: yes FS is in constant flux.
Have you got goals relating Flight School and how do they look?
Flight School will change when the second edition of "How To Master The Sport Of Darts" hits the streets. I will begin referring more to the content of the book rather than repeating it in contacts with FSers.
Do you perhaps plan a new book with your experiences from "Flight School"? Perhaps a "How to Master the Sport of Darts 2"?
I think I've already answered that but let me add something. The second edition of "How To Master The Sport Of Darts" will be comprehensive in that I have included extensive writing about soft tip darts as well as steel tip.
How and what did you yourself practice?
Same as I explain in both the book and FS.
Did your ideas of practice change over the years?
No, they've only grown more confirmed as the best way to do it.
Do you think, even an advanced player needs some kind of practice?
There is a whole section in the second edition on just this topic. And yes practice is always needed but just not in the same manner or quantity, depending upon what you wish to get from your practice.
Would you say the way you practice changes according to your skill level?
No, how often you practice changes and so does what you practice for but the basics always stay the same. You see I believe there are really three kinds of practice: physical, mental and emotional. You need all three, done correctly to be as good as can be. Many people of high rank practice these things but don't do it consciously - just instinctively.
Does there exist some kind of "wrong" practice?
Only most of the time, by most people. It's one of the reasons they can't progress. The other is that they don't want to.
And what does happen when your practice is "wrong"?
First thing - you don't know you're practicing wrong. Second you get tired, bored, frustrated and angry.
What do you think of the often heard "Just throw your darts"?
I use the same phrase. Once a person has reached the point where their mechanics are as sound as they can be, or want them to be, then 'just throw the darts' or as Jeff suggests: 'just play the game.'
Should you observe and analyse your throw in practice or would you say do it as in competition and feel only interested in the result?
You should never think while on a competitive oche. Thinking is bad for a dart shooter. It's what a dart player does. Think during solitary physical practice - only.
Should you keep notes of your practice results? And how much do you learn from practice results or achievements about your skills in competition?
Beamen set a personal best at the Olympics in Mexico. He jumped two feet beyond the world's record. If a person tracts their practice results they will most likely end up competing against themselves which would be like Beamen using his jump to gauge how well he is doing in practice. Never, ever, never, ever compete against yourself. I've tried not to be ambiguous here.
One very important point for you is that good practice is not quantity, but quality. What would you say makes a quality practice?
You leave the board with a sense of accomplishment.
Do you think in future there'll be real darts coaches like coaches in other sports?
No I don't think so. Back to my basic concept. A person has to learn for themselves and will be ready for new techniques or concepts when the spirit moves them. Trying to coach someone who has not learned and accepted the techniques a coach wants to use is not only not helpful, it is damaging.
What do you think does it need to be a good darts coach and what should he/she teach?
Understanding that if the person being coached deviates physically during competition be careful when mentioning it. Know who you are coaching. Don't get them to thinking. If the person being coached is approaching a mental or emotional situation mention it immediately, even if they are on the oche' if you sense they may not be aware.
How much part in darts is technique and how much is mental?
We'd have to define mental. I use that term for learning the rules and strategies involved only. Technique could be either.
And how can you practice the mental part?
As I mention above. I use mental as learning the rules and strategies only. So you'd use them every time you play.
Is competition the best preparation for competition or are there other ways to learn to withstand pressure in tournaments?
Face time it. Nothing else does it.
Do you think would all the top players practice after your method could they still get better?
By the time they are a top player I doubt there is anything new they would accept. We'd have to define top players. World ranked? Country? At these levels probably not. Just below that level, you betcha' they could. I have a couple of top level people in Flight School who have improved their belief they can break into the next level of play
What do you think are the most common mistakes in practice?
Competing against them selves.
When I look for example at Ronnie Baxter who's throwing technique looks rather strange, I ask myself how it's possible he's such a good dart player nevertheless. Does there exist at all a right or wrong throwing technique?
Everyone has their way of doing it and none has proven to be better than some others.
How important is it to find an "ideal" barrel/shaft/flight set-up?
If you don't have what suits you best you're likely fighting the dart and that's a bad thing. Adjust the dart combination to your way, not the other way around.
How long did it take you to find it and how did you find it?
About ten minutes. A travelling hustler said get both your feet on the floor and that was all it took.
And how does it look?
I don't really know. Never studied it. That's a distraction I'm not interested in having. It must look good because when I was hustling a few extra dollars I was told often "You're a good player, I can tell by how you do it."
Who is your favourite darts player?
I've several, for different reasons. Some because they're just fun people to be around, some because they just bang big shots and make it look effortless.
And who do you think has got the most flawless technique?
There isn't much difference but if I had to pick I'd go with Barney and Johnny K.
Do you think the PDC will help darts in America?
What is your idea of making the sport more popular?
Play a game in which the target changes often and with as little esoteric knowledge required as possible. Make matches short like a boxing match. Round by round. Something like 301 double in double out best of seven games per set, best of eleven sets. Make it like a crap game, always moving.
And what is the biggest problem darts has to struggle with?
Perception. The finite control needed is not understood or appreciated. Being in control under pressure.
Why do you think is Cricket in America far more popular then in 501?
There's strategy involved and there can be endless discussion about what could have or should have or might have been done. Among top competitors the ability to score constant seven marks to shift the advantage from one play to another. Good Stuff.
Do you think it might help the sport not only to play 501 as done in the PDC and perhaps not only single tournaments, but pairs and mixed or team tournaments as well?
It could. Still, the problem in America is attention span. Bang out games and sets. Put the pressure on. Make a miss a big deal. We Americans love performance under pressure. Watching a best of eleven games set, with best of I don't know how many sets is just boring. How many times are they going to go that twenty thing anyway? So many chances to miss, what's the point?
Do you still play yourself?
Do I what?? Oh - darts. Never have, never will.
Would you say one can be too old for playing darts?
Friend of mine is eighty, another won her last national title when she was eighty four. What's that suggest?
Or that you get less good when you reach a certain age?
You get less good when you get less driven. Baring physical injury.
Did you like the League of Legends and do you think such a senior tournament is a good idea that has a chance?
It's like other seniors things as in tennis and golf. As a side show it's OK.
What is it that fascinated you in darts through all the years and keeps your interest in the sport alive?
No one thing. I just like being able to hit a target with something. Like in archery, or with a gun. And then there are the characters involved. Nit wits, really strange people, drunks, really nice people, fun people, self important people and experts. We have so many experts. They're everywhere and they know everything and they don't have to have won anything. They don't have to really know anything either - hey maybe they should run for President of America?
Was there ever a time you stopped to play darts?
Yes, indeed. I had a serious lapse in priorities for about eighteen years where I didn't do any darts at all. I was all wrapped up in my job. I'd lost all sense of perspective. Man, am I glad I finally got past that phase.
When I look at the sport, the technique, the mental side, the place it has between other sports it looks to me it's still very much a developing sport. What is your goal, what would you like still to achieve?
I'm at the stage now where I want to share what I've learned with as many people as I am able. I happy I have the interest to do the things I do. My second edition of "How To", Flight School and the Player's tournament which is designed for the 80% of darts players who don't usually attend tournaments.
What do you think can dart sites on the internet do to help players?
Just be there. Be a communication locus. Be a place where national and international organizations can both gether information and give it.
Do you still visit tournaments to watch or play? Did you ever visit one of the PDC tournaments in America?
Yes to both. Watching people still doing all the wrong things is perplexing but that's the way it is. All I can do it put the best information I have out there and rejoice at the few who gain from it.
Who is your favourite for the next World Championships, who do you think will win in Alexandra Palace and in Lakeside?
My money is on one of the top sixteen. In fact I may parlay a bet that way.
Who do you think is the most talented young player?
I don't know. There aren't all that many over here. I think the median age is somewhere in the high thirties.
And which American player do you think most capable to make an impact either in the PDC or the WDF?
We have about a dozen but without financial help the rest of the world will never hear of them.
Would you advise American players to make their luck in the WDF or in the PDC?
Right now? Stay in the US, get to as many tournaments as they can, win as often as possible and stay poised for what ever opportunity may show up down the road. Play set matches with other top ranked Americans. Find some organization which will support head to head matches.