Notes on the Birth of a Culture

Three a.m. in the morning in the coffee shop at Lucas B&B. It is time for the baring of souls and the serving of burnt biscuits, scorched and stiff from too long in the warmer. It is the dungeon of the day. Sick people die in their hospital beds in these desolate hours of pre-dawn. It is a time when the id is punchy and the spirit is suspicious. The dread is inchoate, but there. Three a.m. is when things go bump in the night, when the Gestapo pounded on the door, when Kawasakis unaccountably slam into lampposts, the moment when Gordon Liddys slip on their rubber gloves.

It is, in short, a preposterous time and place to be, but a fitting penalty for having just spent the past six hours throwing darts. That’s right, darts – the goofy little game you played for two hours once on the day after Christmas before storing the board away forever.

The head hurts from Scotch-and-soda mathematics, the knees ache from six hours of toeing the throwing line. The first stages of dart elbow, common among rookies, are appearing. There are twinges and throbs and the suspicion of swelling around the ulnar nerve. This has to be how Ferguson Jenkins feels on the morning after 14 innings.

There are six of us in the banquette booth. We stir our coffee- with the non-throwing hands. “Three o’clock,” says a man whose business is alibis, a criminal lawyer in his late twenties, “What in the hell am I going to tell my wife? That I’ve been throwing darts until now?”

“Truth is no defense,” the libel expert at the table says.

A diminutive and shapely girl at the table, an X-ray technician at Medical Arts, pouts and leaves the table to go brush her hair. She has lost several matches during the evening, some that count and some that don’t. The lawyer slides loose his necktie. The slight and wiry ceramic mold maker rolls up the cuff on his chambray workshirt, removes his goat-roper hat and lays it on the shelf of the booth, then deposits his plastic case of three darts inside the upturned crown.

He mentions, matter-of-factly, that he has played darts, somewhere, nearly every night for two years. “I used to have a roommate, did nothing but throw darts. Hung a board up in the bedroom, threw darts at it. He was an artist for an agency, but he never got any work done because all he could think about was darts. I used to ask him, ’How can you do that? You could be making good money if you’d stop throwing those damn darts every night.”

“He’d look at me, then back to the darts. Thunk. Thunk. Then one night his team had a match at the Quiet Man and they came up short a guy. They asked me to play and, man, I won my match. That did it. That hooked me. If you’re good, you’ll get hooked. I guarantee it.”

The guy doing the talking has happily renounced a previous career as a promising and advancing insurance executive. He was a Jaycee, manned the Labor Day coffee booths, worked on the committees, escorted the football queens. He broke his biscuit, sliced off the burnt crust, spread butter and grape jelly on it, and announced that his life will be complete if he can just keep making molds and “eventually be known as one of the 10 best dart throwers in Dallas.”

“Why settle for Dallas?” someone asked. “Why not one of the 10 best in the world?”

“That’s the thing about darts,” he said. “No reason you can’t be.”

Such conversations and convocations are not as rare as they once were in Dallas or Southern California or New York or Cleveland. Darts is no longer child’s play; it’s serious business, and if you drop into the right places around town, you’ll very quickly see what I mean.

Most dart throwers-and there are hundreds of them-belong to the Dallas Dart Association, which, by its sponsorship, proselytizing and headlong promotion of darts, has been responsible for the growth of darts in Dallas. The DDA is no-nonsense: It prefers, for example, not to have its members referred to as dart-throwers, but as “dartists.” It has imported, distributed and maintained the business of darts here with the same determined zest and dedication of that ubiquitous and shadowy syndicate that runs the opium poppies out of Laos.

The comparison is apt because the results ultimately are the same: total addiction in most cases, mild habituation in others. My personal habit, for example, already has accounted for a couple hundred dollars in sundry equipment, and a heavily pockmarked door in what used to be my den and is now known as the dart room.

League matches in the DDA are held exclusively at bars, a logical extension of the English rule of Common Dartes, which holds that there is nothing as useless as a pub without a dartboard, unless it is a dartboard without a pub.

In 1969, the first official year of DDA’s matches, there were seven teams in the city. The following year there were 16. Last year, the number soared to 40 teams, and the projection for this fall is at least 56 teams. We have a movement on our hands.

There are summer leagues, spring leagues, fall leagues, singles and mixed doubles leagues. Darts is about as egalitarian a game as Gloria Steinem could ask for; the regular competitive leagues of the DDA freely mingle the sexes. Indeed, some of the better dartists in Dallas are women. Perhaps the closest the DDA got to chauvinism was a team called the Yums, an all-male team restricted to throwers over 6-feet-2, and an all-girl team calling themselves the Six Easy Pieces.

The naming of dart teams is a competitive endeavor in itself. The object is to be slightly risible, and also redolent of darting. A summer league team, composed of media people, styled themselves Hunt and Peck. Another squad was the Wall-bangers. The North/West Pub fields a squad called the Fudpuck-ers. The current DDA champion team is Jabberwocky, whose home pub is the NFL lounge, the current hotbed of darts where the players, the fascinated bystanders and the dart groupies usually end the evening. Jabberwocky sports probably the two best singles players in the city, Leo Mattingly, a shambling and avuncular pipeline engineer who learned the game in Nigeria, and Blair Case, a flamboyantly high-scoring performer who doubles as a business writer for The Dallas Times Herald.

It was Case who defined the tantalizing curse of darts as a lifestyle: “You get into an obsessive routine. You play league matches on Monday, maybe Tuesday, too. Then you throw darts after the matches in pickup games. You do that until 2 a.m.

“You get up at 7 and go to work. You get off at 5, have a drink, then throw darts until 7. Then you go home and change clothes and go out to throw darts until 2 in the morning again. This schedule is killing the girl I go with. Hell, three weeks ago when we started dating, she was good-looking.”

There is a courtly and rigid protocol among dart throwers. A good throw or series of throws is normally rewarded with a chorus of “Good darts!” from competitors and spectators. It is an absolute law that dartists retrieve their own darts from the board. Walking in front of the board while someone is sighting is a no-no in dart etiquette. It’s also kind of dangerous.

But despite this veneer of sportsmanship, there is an unmistakeable suggestion of the gunfighter syndrome as well. A new and untested player showing up at a pub is appraised by the others with surreptitious thoroughness. Dartists with a reputation are plagued by it like hired guns in the Old West. Says Case: “Once you beat a good player, other guys start showing up to see if you can handle them.”

The basic game of competitive darts is called 301. Let me explain: It has nothing to do with who hits the bull’s-eye most often. Points are scored by throwing darts into the spider-web segments of the board, each with its own numerical value. Points scored in each round (three darts tossed by each player each round) are subtracted from 301. The player who reaches zero first wins. But that isn’t all. The tricky part is the double ring, an outer circle on the board roughly one half-inch wide. A dart must be placed within this circle before scoring can even begin, and a player must end the game by reaching the desired zero via a double. (For example, if a player has 32 points remaining, he can go out by hitting a double 16.) Shooting from the prescribed eight feet away, a tiny slice of the doubles ring is as intimidatingly distant as trying to bomb a row boat from 7,000 feet.

Some players are incredibly consistent. In league matches, which consist of nine games, six singles matches and three doubles, top dartists can hit the desired scoring segment two out of three times more often than not. A California-based darts hustler, who spins through Dallas regularly-and plays for up to $500 a game-has thrown 20 darts at the triple-20 block, an area about two inches by one-half inch, and hit it 19 times.

It is the competitive aspect of darts in league match play that hooks most players. Records and stats are kept meticulously by the DDA, standings and results are posted regularly. “When you know they’re writing something beside your name every time you throw three darts, it’s an exhilirating feeling of tension and competition,” says John S. Yates, a man on the ground floor of the dart craze who makes his living selling darts and darting regalia.

Jerry Max Lane, the country and western recording star who usually can be found nightly at the dart board at Fibber McGee’s on Harry Hines, puts it another way: “A pickup game of darts is a lot of fun among ol’ boys, but when you’re in a match, damn, that’s a different breed of butterfly you get in your stomach.”

Non-players look askance when the pub doors open and nine members of a dart team pour in for a match, each of them clutching a personalized case of darts. A dart case, after all, seems vaguely cavalier and definitely pretentious, like Fast Eddie and his sheathed pool-stick. I thought the same thing last February in my pre-addictive days, until I discovered that a case is the most feasible, and certainly the least painful, way to carry three steel-tipped darts around with you.

The mystique of darts goes beyond competition and gamesmanship. It also has to do with the dazzling variety of people who play the game: architects, narcs, nurses, bartenders, mortgage bankers, judges, airline pilots and exterminators. There is an easy camaraderie and a uniform rectitude among dart nuts: an open handbag can be left on a table through an evening, unwatched but never disturbed.

Styles of play and equipment are as varied as the players. There are wooden darts, handmade darts, steel, brass and aluminum darts. Dallas Theater Center playwright Preston Jones, a charter member of DDA, uses wooden darts on which he hand-paints New Mexico Indian designs. Yates, the dart salesman, has sold dozens of elegant tungsten darts at $40 a set.

There is no prescribed way to throw championship darts. Case hurls his on a linear trajectory like tiny javelins. Leo Mattingly uses a gentle flick-lob, fluid and unerr-ring. One thrower begins his motion with a half-turn pirouette, another attacks the heave like a Gurkha assassin.

The definitive .statement on the lure of darts is made by English dart champion Torn Barrett in his book: “As a sport, darts has a lot to be said iff its favor. It doesn’t require a lot of space or depend on the weather. It can be, and is, enjoyed by princes and tramps,, the learned and the illiterate. The equipment is cheap. You don’t need special clothing.”

“There cannot, basically, be a dispute, so you don’t need a referee. Sufficient skill to enjoy the game is acquired quickly.”

Dozens of pubs in Dallas now have dart boards. If you have a hankering to try tossing-or if you just want to gawk-drop by Fibber McGee’s, Day’s End, Mazo’s, The Villager, The Joynt, North/West Pub, Troubled Possum, Bo’s Place, Eton Run, Tiny Tim’s, Little Gus’, The NFL, Round Table, Quiet Man, Kings Room, Pizza Pantry, or the Point Downtown some night before 2 a.m. If you decide to throw, good darts to you.


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