THE Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship begins on Thursday at Alexandra Palace in London, with reigning champion Phil Taylor amongst 72 players competing for the £1 million prize fund.

The sport’s richest event will be played across 15 days during the Christmas and New Year period, with players from 21 countries represented at Alexandra Palace.

The first round will be played across eight nights ahead of Christmas, with four matches accompanied by one preliminary round game per session as players seek to progress to the last 32, who will return to London on December 27.

The tournament – screened live in High Definition by Sky Sports – will kick off on Thursday, with January’s winner of the Players Championship Finals tournament, Paul Nicholson, meeting debutant Steve Farmer.

“It’s my first time at Alexandra Palace and I’m really looking forward to it,” said Farmer, a 45-year-old from Telford. “It should be a good game because Paul’s a top player who won his first big title this year.

“I want to put in a good performance for the fans, win or lose, because we’re the first game on and it’s exciting for me.”

The opening night also features former Lakeside Champions Steve Beaton and Mark Webster in action, when they take on Mark Hylton and Steve Maish respectively.

The night’s final game will then see Taylor, who won his 15th World Championship title at Alexandra Palace in January when he defeated Simon Whitlock 7-3 in the final, begin the defence of his title.

Taylor will face either American ace Gary Mawson, the 2008 UK Open runner-up, or Philippines qualifier Juanito Gionson, who is making his debut in the World Championship when the pair meet in the best-of-seven leg preliminary round earlier in the evening.

“I can’t wait to get up there on the World Championship stage again,” said Taylor, whose run of four months without a major title is his longest since 2007.

“I’m very determined to win another World Championship and am working hard to do that. It’s hard not knowing you opponent before the night and although I’ve played Gary a lot of times before so know how tough he would be I’ve never seen Juanito play.

“That could be a challenge but hopefully I can get through the first round and concentrate on getting ready for the next game after Christmas.”

Taylor has also been nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which will be voted for on Sunday at a ceremony in Birmingham.

“It’s an amazing honour just to be nominated in the top ten alongside some other incredible sportsmen and sportswomen who have achieved a great deal,” said Taylor.

“I’ve had a great response from fans who said they’ll be voting for me and it’s touching to know you’ve got such support. It would be up there with the best moments of my career if I was to win the award!”

The tournament’s second night features number five seed Adrian Lewis, who takes on Tony Eccles as he bids to surpass last year’s quarter-final appearance, when he averaged over 100 in all four games before losing out to Taylor.

Colin Lloyd meets German number one Andree Welge, Co Stompe plays Peter Wright and Ronnie Baxter, the number eight seed, will play either Dutchman Roland Scholten or Finland’s national champion Veijo Viinikka, who play in the preliminary round.

Simon Whitlock, who has risen to fourth in the PDC Order of Merit since reaching last year’s final, begins his challenge to go one further on Saturday evening against Welsh qualifier Steve Evans.

“I feel pretty confident,” said Whitlock. “I haven’t played Steve Evans before but I know he’s a very good player.

“I’ve had to raise my game since coming here from Australia, but I’ve won seven tournaments this year and been in ten finals, so everything’s going well.

“The standard of darts is getting better and people are challenging Phil Taylor. Everyone’s lifted their game and I’m practising more than I ever did back in Australia, so my form’s better and my confidence is better.”

Sunday’s games include in-form Wayne Jones – who has reached at least the quarter-finals in the last four televised events in his rise into the top 16 – against 2008 runner-up Kirk Shepherd, who was a late replacement for Australia’s Rob Modra, who was unable to obtain a visa in time for the event.

Canada’s three-time World Champion John Part – who overcame Shepherd in the decider three years ago – also competes on Sunday when he meets either Per Laursen or Boris Krcmar, and could meet Taylor in round two if both progress.

World number two James Wade will have to wait until Monday night to begin his challenge to follow up October’s World Grand Prix and Championship League Darts titles with another major victory.

The left-hander takes on debutant Antonio Alcinas in the first round, with the Spaniard having knocked out Wade and Phil Taylor alongside Carlos Rodriguez in the Cash Converters World Cup of Darts earlier this month.

“Antonio’s a new face in the World Championship but I’ve seen him a fair bit on the circuit this year and know first hand just how good he is,” said Wade.

“I know he’ll be a really tough opponent and it’s a challenge for me, but I’ve been practising hard since the World Cup and I’ll be ready for him.”

Raymond van Barneveld takes on Steve Hine on Wednesday as he begins his challenge for a sixth World Championship.

The Dutchman teamed up with Co Stompe to win the Cash Converters World Cup of Darts earlier in December, which ended a run of three years without a televised title.

“Winning the World Cup has given me a lot of confidence,” said the 43-year-old, who has hit nine-dart finishes at the last two World Championships.

“The World Cup was a great tournament but the World Championship will be different because I’m up there by myself and can’t rely on my team-mate.

“I’m working hard in practice to get back to my best and I will have to dig deep at the World Championship.”

Van Barneveld and Stompe were sent a telegram by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to congratulate them on their World Cup victory, a move which delighted two-time Ally Pally quarter-finalist Stompe.

“I usually only get mail in the Queen’s name asking me to pay my taxes, so it was a great surprise!” said Stompe, who faces Peter Wright in round one.

“I’m very proud to have received the telegram and it’s something very special for me. The World Cup was my first TV title but it would be even bigger if I become World Champion.”

Sky Sports’ HD coverage of the Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship will be accompanied by 3D coverage of the semi-finals and finals on the Sky 3D channel.

Some tickets remain for the Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship remain on sale from www.seetickets.com/darts or via 0871 220 0260.

2011 Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship
Schedule of Play

First Round
Thursday December 16
7.10pm Paul Nicholson v Steve Farmer
8.15pm Gary Mawson v Juanito Gionzon (P)
8.45pm Steve Beaton v Mark Hylton
9.50pm Mark Webster v Steve Maish
10.55pm Phil Taylor v Mawson/Gionzon

Friday December 17
7.10pm Co Stompe v Peter Wright
8.15pm Roland Scholten v Veijo Viinikka (P)
8.45pm Colin Lloyd v Andree Welge
9.50pm Adrian Lewis v Tony Eccles
10.55pm Ronnie Baxter v Scholten/Viinikka

Saturday December 18
7.40pm Andy Hamilton v Dennis Smith
8.45pm Matt Padgett v Morihiro Hashimoto (P)
9.15pm Mark Dudbridge v Alex Roy
10.20pm Simon Whitlock v Steve Evans
11.25pm Gary Anderson v Padgett/Hashimoto

Sunday December 19
7.10pm Wayne Jones v Kirk Shepherd
8.15pm Per Laursen v Boris Krcmar (P)
8.45pm Robert Thornton v Nigel Heydon
9.50pm Wes Newton v Darin Young
10.55pm John Part v Laursen/Krcmar

Monday December 20
7.10pm Alan Tabern v Richie Burnett
8.15pm Jyhan Artut v Scott Mackenzie (P)
8.45pm Kevin Painter v Brendan Dolan
9.50pm James Wade v Antonio Alcinas
10.55pm Denis Ovens v Artut/Mackenzie

Tuesday December 21
7.10pm Michael van Gerwen v Mensur Suljovic
8.15pm Michael Mansell v Preston Ridd (P)
8.45pm Terry Jenkins v Joe Cullen
9.50pm Jelle Klaasen v Steve Brown
10.55pm Vincent van der Voort v Mansell/Ridd

Wednesday December 22
7.10pm Colin Osborne v Chris Thompson
8.15pm Devon Petersen v Norman Madhoo (P)
8.45pm Barrie Bates v Kevin McDine
9.50pm Raymond van Barneveld v Steve Hine
10.55pm Jamie Caven v Petersen/Madhoo

Thursday December 23
7.10pm Andy Smith v Shane Tichowitsch
8.15pm Magnus Caris v Dietmar Burger (P)
8.45pm Mark Walsh v Justin Pipe
9.50pm Dennis Priestley v Bernd Roith
10.55pm Mervyn King v Caris/Burger

Monday December 27
1pm-5pm
3x Second Round Matches
7pm-11pm
3x Second Round Matches

Tuesday December 28
1pm-5pm
3x Second Round Matches
7pm-11pm
3x Second Round Matches

Wednesday December 29
1pm-5pm
3x Second Round Matches
7pm-11pm
1x Second Round Matches, 2x Third Round Matches

Thursday December 30
1pm-5pm
3x Third Round Matches
7pm-11pm
3x Third Round Matches

Saturday January 1
2pm-5pm
2x Quarter-Finals
7.30pm-10pm
2x Quarter-Finals

Sunday January 2
7.30pm-11pm
Semi-Finals

Monday January 3
7pm-11pm
PDC Unicorn Under-21 World Championship Final
Michael van Gerwen v Arron Monk
Followed by
Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship Final

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