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THE William Hill World Darts Championship kicks off on Thursday, with Michael van Gerwen beginning his defence of the Sid Waddell Trophy on a star-studded opening night at London^s Alexandra Palace.

Darts^ biggest tournament will see 72 players from 21 countries competing across the Christmas and New Year, with a new record prize fund of £1.25 million on offer in the event.

The preliminary and first rounds will take place in eight sessions across six days from December 18-23 before the tournament enjoys a three-day Christmas break.

The second round and third round will be held from December 27-30, with the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final taking place from January 1-4 before the first World Champion of 2015 is crowned.

Reigning champion Michael van Gerwen tops the bill on a mouth-watering opening night of the tournament as he takes on Yorkshire^s Joe Cullen, another 25-year-old who is making his fifth World Championship appearance.

Van Gerwen had gone all the way to glory a year ago at Alexandra Palace, defeating Peter Wright in the final on New Year^s Day, and has since consolidated his status as world number one by winning the World Grand Prix and European Championship.

The Dutchman - the 11/4 second favourite with sponsors William Hill - is now aiming to follow only Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis by retaining the sport^s biggest title, and said: "I^m very confident.

"Everybody says that the first time is always the most difficult time to win the tournament and I hope that is the case for me! The first one was fantastic, but I need to forget about that now because the next one is here.

"You can^t afford any mistakes at the World Championship, you need to perform well because it^s the most important event of the year. I have a lot of passion for the game, I am a winner and I don^t make a lot of mistakes."

The tournament will kick off with the meeting of three-time World Champion John Part and the reigning PDC Unicorn World Youth Champion, Keegan Brown.

Brown, a 22-year-old from the Isle of Wight, made his mark on the televised stage by defeating Adrian Lewis and Raymond van Barneveld as he reached the Grand Slam of Darts quarter-finals last month, and is making his World Championship debut on Thursday.

"I think that what I achieved at the Grand Slam was perfect preparation for the World Championship," said Brown. "I think this is the right time for me to play in the World Championship.

"Even though I am still you, I feel I have had a slow and steady progression into the professional game. If I start where I left off at the Grand Slam then I^ve got a great chance.

"It^s a fantastic feeling just to be there, but to kick off the tournament against a former World Champion is something very special."

The opening night also sees two Dutchmen, both former Lakeside Champions, clash as Jelle Klaasen takes on Christian Kist, who is making his Alexandra Palace debut after switching to the PDC circuit in January.

Wes Newton, a three-time quarter-finalist, will take on the winner of the preliminary round clash with either Christian Perez, the Philippines number one who won the South Asia Qualifier, or Tenerife^s Cristo Reyes, who won the Iberian Qualifier.

Phil Taylor, the 16-time World Champion, enters the fray on Friday as he takes on Germany^s Jyhan Artut in his first round games, and he is expecting a tough clash against the qualifier as he bids to win back the Sid Waddell Trophy.

"Everybody is vulnerable and everybody is twitchy before the tournament, trust me," said Taylor, the 2/1 favourite with William Hill.

"For me, I know that whoever I face will be playing out of their skin, and nine times out of ten I don^t get an easy game, but I have got to cope with that and get on with it.

"I always feel confident, but this year I have got time to prepare, time to rest and spend with the family and make sure I do everything right."

Adrian Lewis, the 2011 and 2012 World Champion, will have to wait until Tuesday^s final session of first round games to make his entrance, as he faces debutant David Pallett.

The world number three believes he has a strong chance of completing an

"I know that if my A-game then I^ve got a great chance of winning it, and if I^m below-par then I probably won^t - but I^ll make sure I^m right for it," said Lewis.

"This is the biggest one and there^s nothing bigger than this in the world, so if you can^t get yourself up for this then it isn^t worth playing darts. I^ve been doing seven hours a day practising to make sure I^m right.

"If I^m doing that I don^t get lazy, and when I turn up at the tournament I think ^I^ve put a lot more work in than you lot^ and that^s what kicks me on."

Tickets for the William Hill World Darts Championship have sold out for most sessions - with over 50,000 tickets sold in advance - however, latest ticket information can be seen at

Coverage of the William Hill World Darts Championship will be live on the Sky Sports Darts channel (Sky channel 404) throughout the tournament.

Worldwide coverage will also be aired through the following broadcast partners:
RTL7 in the Netherlands
Sport1 in Germany
Fox Sports in Australia
Sky in New Zealand
OSN across the Middle East & North Africa
Fox Sports in Italy
Viasat across Scandinavia, Bulgaria & the Baltic States
Pragosport in Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary
www.LIVEPDC.TV for International Pass Subscribers.

William Hill World Darts Championship
Schedule of Play - Preliminary & First Rounds
Thursday December 18 (7pm-12am)
John Part (30) v Keegan Brown
Christian Perez v Cristo Reyes (P)
Jelle Klaasen (29) v Christian Kist
Michael van Gerwen (1) v Joe Cullen
Wes Newton (13) v Christian Perez/Cristo Reyes

Friday December 19 (7pm-12am)
Andy Hamilton (12) v Dave Richardson
Kim Viljanen v Sascha Stein (P)
Peter Wright (5) v Gerwyn Price
Phil Taylor (2) v Jyhan Artut
Stuart Kellett (32) v Kim Viljanen/Sascha Stein

Saturday December 20
Afternoon Session (12.30pm-5pm)
Andy Smith (28) v Ronny Huybrechts
Scott Mackenzie v Daryl Gurney (P)
Justin Pipe (17) v Laurence Ryder
Robert Thornton (9) v Andrew Gilding
Ronnie Baxter (24) v Scott Mackenzie/Daryl Gurney

Evening Session (7pm-12am)
Steve Beaton (21) v Kyle Anderson
Mark McGrath v Scott Kirchner (P)
Terry Jenkins (16) v John Weber
Simon Whitlock (7) v Darren Webster
Gary Anderson (4) v Mark McGrath/Scott Kirchner

Sunday December 21
Afternoon Session (12.30pm-5pm)
Paul Nicholson (25) v Benito van de Pas
Boris Koltsov v Haruki Muramatsu (P)
Mark Webster (31) v Ron Meulenkamp
Dean Winstanley (26) v Wayne Jones
Kevin Painter (20) v Boris Koltsov/Haruki Muramatsu

Evening Session (7pm-12am)
Kim Huybrechts (18) v Mickey Mansell
Jani Haavisto v John Michael (P)
Dave Chisnall (8) v Ryan De Vreede
James Wade (6) v Jamie Lewis
Ian White (15) v Jani Haavisto/John Michael

Monday December 22
Jamie Caven (19) v Jason Hogg
Nolan Arendse v Alex Hon (P)
Michael Smith (22) v Mensur Suljovic
Raymond van Barneveld (14) v Rowby-John Rodriguez
Brendan Dolan (11) v Nolan Arendse/Alex Hon

Tuesday December 23
Vincent van der Voort (23) v John Henderson
Jermaine Wattimena v Robert Marijanovic (P)
Mervyn King (10) v Max Hopp
Adrian Lewis (3) v David Pallett
Stephen Bunting (27) v Jermaine Wattimena/Robert Marijanovic

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