Closing the missile gap in U.S. pubs

The training regimen for the game of darts is beer—and a few champions are at their best when they have to be held up to shoot. They—and a million others, some of them sober—are Closing the missile gap in U.S. pubs
September 07, 1969

Get good enough at a sport and it will leave its terrible stamp. There are the common tennis elbow and cauliflower ear. Or more exotic stigmata like linebacker's knee or, say, billiard-player's back. And now a New Yorker named Dave Lawson has learned he has the beginning stages of arthritis in his right foot from leaning forward and putting almost all his weight on his right leg hour after hour while playing his favorite game. In other words, Lawson has this country's first known case of dart-thrower's foot.

It is probably not the last because all over the U.S. there are perhaps a million "serious" darters. The principal pockets of interest are San Francisco, Los Angeles, various places in New Jersey, Albany, N.Y. and New York City. In most of these locales, darting thrives best under the dim glow of pseudogaslight lamps in cozy pubs, where onlookers swig mugs of ale and offer encouragement ("Nice dart!"), solace ("Tough dart!") and enthusiastic admiration ("Dynamite!").

Generally, there is not much more at stake than a drink, but darts has its hustlers. Money games are common in Manhattan, and one salesman claims he makes $10,000 a year at the game but could make $25,000 if his wife didn't have the old-fashioned notion that one should hold a steady job. "It's not for the sport of it anymore," says this salesman, who is known as Sal. "It's not fun. The only thing I enjoy is the action, the pressure."

Sal uses the tricks of hustlers in any game, playing well but not so well that the pigeon will be scared away before the bets get interesting. He is used to playing for high stakes while high himself, or even falling-down drunk, and he actually cannot relax and play his best until he's "half in the bag." There have been times when he had to be propped up at the line by friends so he could make the winning shot.

When Sal has the pigeon suckered into a big-money game, he knows how to apply the crusher. He can purposely throw away the first two darts and then make the winning shot with the third. He was once way ahead in a $100 game and needed one dart in a certain spot to win. He turned his head and put it there without looking.

Gamesmanship is an integral part of darting. Sal is an expert needier, and so is Howie, a sharpshooter who got turned on to darts when a Playboy Club bunny trounced him in a match in a bar one night. Howie loves to throw his opponents off balance. If he's up against someone shooting well, he'll take three minutes to walk up to the board and pull his darts out, replace the divots and chalk up his score. Or he'll collect-his darts and lightly bump his opponent on his way back past the line, making the guy change his stance just a fraction.

"His favorite is standing right behind you when you shoot," says a frequent opponent nicknamed Dale the Blowgun. "That's very nerve-racking, even though he's not doing a damn thing you can turn around and accuse him of."

During a recent Monday lunch hour, almost directly under the NO GAMBLING sign in a little upper East Side saloon, Sal was playing a well-dressed businessman for up to 60¢ a point in a darts variation in which the points can mount up quickly. If he won $35 he'd say, "Well, make it $20," and they would order another round of drinks and resume playing. Sal needed no hustler's strategy with this pigeon, who seemed bent on giving all his money away. Sal won nine out of 10 games, and the $5, $10 and $20 bills piled on the bar next to his glass looked like a lettuce salad. Finally the masochistic businessman paid for his last loss, packed his darts in an attaché case and staggered out, poorer by $250 and lucky it wasn't more.

Sal continued drinking that afternoon, and that night he played in the tournament at Huey's Pub. He was still drinking, but after the tournament he couldn't get any takers for money games. Not even Howie would bite. Some of the gang in Huey's might have played Sal when he was sober, but not when he was blotto.

The uninitiated might imagine the most popular dart board in bars to be a typical bull's-eye target with concentric circles. Instead it is a challenging "clock" board. Usually red, green, cream and black, the board is divided by thin-wire spokes into 20 pie-shaped sections, plus the bull's-eye (worth 25 points) and inner bull's-eye (worth 50). There is a narrow band all around the edge called the double ring and a smaller band near the center called the triple ring. Skillful players, standing eight feet away, can put two out of three darts in the triple 20 section, and there are a few who will take bets on putting in all three, a trick known as "three in a bed." The clock board and most of its myriad games originated in Great Britain, where there are about 6 million players. About 120,000 fancy themselves good enough to enter the annual News of the World national tournament. The big game is 301, in which each player starts with 301 points and works down to zero. Since it is possible to do this with just six darts arithmetic is almost as important as aim and a top player doesn't hesitate a second. If he has 54 points to go, "14, double 20" flashes through his mind. Instead of zeroing in on the bull all the time he has to alter his aim constantly.

Darting in England goes back to the 16th century, and darts as implements of war go back at least to the early 1300s, when soldiers used "lances, swerdes, dartes." (Of course, they still could be weapons. Reuters reported in 1952 that when a puff adder slithered into a hotel bar in Southern Rhodesia and was about to strike a customer, the local champ "hurled his dart through its head.") Results of important tournaments were broadcast to the British troops in World War II, and the sport sections of such papers as the Liverpool Echo carry stories on darts right alongside articles on cricket and soccer. English ladies have their own darts clubs, and there are even tournaments for the blind, who hold strings from the bull's-eye to find the range. The magistrates court in Glasgow once banned darts in pubs, and the ruling caused such an uproar that the House of Commons took up the matter and the home secretary overruled the judges.

Wise old darters in the U.S. know they must be extra wary when a British seaman wanders into a bar and wants to play for a tuppence or so. It seems that every one of Her Majesty's Ships keeps its crew content by providing a homestyle public house on board—and that of course includes a dartboard or two or three. After a fellow has spent a few monotonous months at sea shooting dart after dart while his ship pitches and rolls, he can be a formidable opponent on solid ground.

However, on at least one occasion in a Manhattan dockside saloon, an American crew upset the lads from the Queen Elizabeth, and another time the Queen Mary crew was defeated, even though it had its pick from 1,200 players.

Darting has its stars. Tom Barrett, twice News of the World champion, knows the board better than the palm of his hand and can cover it (the board, not his palm) with a newspaper and still beat almost anyone. Joseph Hitchcock could win throwing six-inch nails. And in 1937, in King John's Head, Blackfriars, London, Jim Pike went 'round the board in three minutes, 30 seconds—throwing from nine feet, retrieving his own darts and counting only shots that hit in the doubles ring.

The Pilgrims brought darts along on the Mayflower, and today General Sportcraft Company Ltd. in New Jersey, a large distributor of sporting goods, estimates that 300,000 boards a year are sold in the U.S. Most are put up in basement recreation rooms, but many go to taverns where the best players are usually developed.

Most good shooters do not just pick up any old darts that happen to be lying on the bar. A good shooter carries his own, and he frequently replaces the four-bladed wings, or "flights," made of feathers, paper or plastic. Feathers or paper are preferred because they will slide in side by side in the bull's-eye or triple 20; the longer-lasting plastic flights have a tendency to bounce off each other. The barrel of a dart can be metal, wood or bone.

For 16 years Colin Tinson, part owner of the David Copperfield pub in Manhattan, had a pet set of darts with the barrels lathed down to his precise specifications. Then some cruel thief stole one of them. Other darters are more fickle and change darts the way Arnold Palmer shuffles putters.

To tempt these devotees there is a surprising array of equipment, most of it manufactured in England, where Anne Boleyn once presented Henry VIII with "darts of Biscayan fashion richly ornamented." The Dorwin Pencil Company Ltd. makes a dart with a Non-Slip Grip but hasn't turned out any pencils in almost 30 years. Unicorn, "the Big name in darts," gives its products new-car-model names: the Bullet, the Long Tom, the Trident and, since 1937, the Silver Comet. The Ambassador models are "pure gold-plated darts of an unsurpassable standard of excellence." Unicorn also offers shapes like torpedoes, screwdriver handles, teardrops and even beer bottles, plus every size from needles up to spears, and flights "perfectly moulded in guaranteed virgin material."

The best boards, also made in England, are known as "pig bristle" or "boar's hair" boards, although they have no more to do with pork than the "pigskin" used in college football. They are usually made of sisal, a durable white fiber, and feel like a very dense crew cut to the touch. English elm boards are not as popular because they have to be soaked often to stay in good condition.

One of the popular accessories is the Jiffy dart point sharpener, a little block of vitrified silicon carbide with a conical cavity. Rub the points around in the cavity and the honed darts will slide off the metal dividers on the board and stick, instead of bouncing off into the floor. Glenn Dulmage, once an eight-hour-a-day dartman at the Lion's Head in Greenwich Village, sought even more of an edge and used his wife's electric knife sharpener.

Given growing American interest in darting, it seems strange there is no national tournament or team to challenge the British. After all, curling and roque are well-organized, so why not darts? Two New Yorkers, Don Denton and Paul Maxwell, did start the American Darting Association not long ago, but after Maxwell wrote a book, Smart Darts (still unpublished), and Denton spent about $3,000, the organization stagnated.

Now two more New Yorkers, Bob McLeod, assistant to the president of a construction company, and Bob Cady, who sells electronic data-processing machines, have launched the U.S. Darting Association with big plans and a stirring slogan: "Dedicated to the advancement of serious darting."

They are pretty dedicated themselves; in fact, they're a little daft on the subject. McLeod has a set of darts at home, a set at his office and a set he carries with him. In his apartment he has a board on the back of a door, and he practices at the same time he watches TV.

Cady comes home from work and relaxes by challenging his wife to a game of "cricket," a popular darts variation in pubs. "Mary Beth and I have finally found a sport we can do together," he says. At first Mary Beth was a bit wild. In cricket the object is to "close out" numbers by throwing three darts into the proper sections, starting with 20 and working down to 15 or 10 and ending with the bull's-eye. Mary Beth had difficulties hitting the board in the beginning, and after several rounds Bob told her: "O.K., honey, that 'closes' the couch. Would you like to try for the armchair?"

The USDA has a newsletter, On the Wire, and is planning a national tournament, tennis-style rankings and a mail-order sideline called Darts Unlimited. Pubs can get a USDA institutional membership and a keen decal for $12.50 a year. As yet there is no U.S. Darting Writers Association to pick an All-America team.

So far the USDA has not taken a stand on gambling. Vice squads around the country, what with narcotics and a few other problems to worry about, haven't been raiding many dart pubs lately and, besides, it's a little hard to imagine Darts Commissioners McLeod and Cady following Pete Rozelle's lead and ordering some star shooter to divest himself of a bar. However, at least one pub did nave a minor brush with the law not long ago.

This particular establishment has an Anglophile for an owner, a man who first visited England in 1952 and one day wandered into King Arthur's Arms in Tintagel, Cornwall County. There he discovered darts and English beer, both of which he imported successfully to the U.S. So many darters congregated in his place that a real storage problem developed with all the plastic dart cases filed away among the whiskey bottles or under the bar so the regulars wouldn't have to pack them back and forth from home. The trouble was the bartenders spent half their time searching for Joe Blow's Long Toms instead of mixing drinks. The proprietor's clever solution was to install some old post-office boxes in his dart room and rent them out for 50¢ a month or $3 for six months.

He had reached the point where the customers were having to share the boxes when one night a police sergeant walked in. Somebody with a grudge had filed a complaint that there was wagering going on, and no telling what else.

"Gambling is illegal in any place that sells alcoholic beverages," said the cop. "Section 106, subdivision six of the alcoholic beverage control law."

"Look," said Mr. Anglophile, "I don't charge anything for people to play, and there are no prizes. Guys do wager on the outcome, but just drinks."

Then he led the sergeant into the dart room to watch a game of 301 in progress, explained its rules and subtleties and told of the traditions of the English pub—how the regular thump-thump-thump from the dartboard soothes the tired working man sipping at his room-temperature beer and how, if a bloke scores 100 points or more with three darts in a tournament, the scorer calls to the barman, "A ton and over," and the barman sets up free pints for everybody, courtesy of whatever brewery owns the place.

The sergeant couldn't see how any harm was being done, so he left without arresting anybody or confiscating the board. But in a minute he was back.

"Say," he said, "would you mind very much if I came back in civvies tomorrow night and tried this game?"

Mr. Anglophile said he didn't mind.

A few pub owners have soured on the game. The Lexington Avenue Local in Manhattan—a bar, not a subway train—used to attract fans from as far away as Hartford and Baltimore until the owner became a traitor to the cause by replacing the darts range with tables and chairs. The board is still up, but you would have to stand in somebody's salad to shoot. Kenny Beyer, owner of an English-motif bar and a fine shot himself, tries to keep the darts as "light entertainment" in his place. "When darts becomes prevalent, you stop selling drinks," he says.

Other publicans disagree. The proprietors of the David Copperfield say, "We built this place on darts" [which seems structurally unsound, somehow], and the owner of the Limelight in Greenwich Village insists that his dart room pays more per square foot than any other part of the restaurant.

"It gives people a chance to meet other people," says Owner Ed Gormley of the Guardsman in New York. "It fits into the whole idea of a masculine drinking atmosphere and promotes camaraderie. It also promotes the sale of beer."

The apparent success of a host of San Francisco dart pubs seems to bolster the proponents' side. Bay Area darters already have Ye Rose and Thistle (one board downstairs, two upstairs and space for eight more if necessary), the Red Lion, the Abbey Tavern, the Albatross, the No-Name Bar in Sausalito, Ye Olde Bull and Bush, the Edinburgh Castle and others. Yet still another place, the Lord Nelson, recently opened on lower Sutter Street with eight boards.

There is a league in San Francisco with more than 330 players on 32 teams and another in Los Angeles with more than 750 players, some of them sporting team shoulder patches and dart-shaped tie clasps. In Los Angeles the game thrives in friendly little beer joints in westside neighborhoods, the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay—Limey's in Culver City, the Lincoln Arms in Venice, the Dutch Treat in Van Nuys, the Mucky Duck in Santa Monica. A bachelor from Brooklyn named Dick Mitruen is the chief organizer, and a newsletter called Darts and Dashes gossips about who beat whom the other night at the Torrance Bowl-O-Drome.

There are leagues in the East, too, such as the aptly named Jelly Belly Dart Association of Greenport, Long Island, N.Y. The most unusual is in Bergen County, N.J., where squads representing various towns have played once-a-week matches eight months a year for the last 10 years. The "home courts" are eight private homes, one diner and one club. There are scheduling committees, official scorers, a pro hockey-style playoff system and an annual banquet at which the outstanding individuals and teams are awarded trophies shaped like darts.

One of the Bergen County players—80% of them are expatriates from Great Britain—might be the best in the U.S., but it would take a national tournament to decide that issue. In San Francisco, where the tournament pots sometimes reach $1,000, a machinist named Davey Cohan has lots of supporters. Manhattan has Mark Greene, Al Rummel, Kenny Beyer and a lot of others known principally by their first names, Howie, Sal, Robin, Rod, Shep and a girl named Joy, plus two oldtimers known in every dart pub in town as "Jake and Eddie from New Jersey."

Most of them are cocky enough to think they can reckon with the wind from the air conditioner, the racket from the jukebox and the intake of ale and still toss their Silver Comets through the eye of a needle or the head of a puff adder.

There is a Connecticut resident named Robin who, says a friend, "is unbeatable when he's on. I've never seen a man with such concentration in my life. You can drop a bomb next to his foot and he'd still throw a triple."

"That's the whole game, confidence and concentration," says Howie. "The minute you don't think you can beat a guy, your darts are going to start wandering."

"There is a great psychological insight into somebody shooting darts," says Mark Greene. "You find out what their hang-ups are. They can get pretty petty. It gives you an indication of whether or not you want to get to know them better."

Out-and-out cheaters are quickly ostracized. It's not so bad when a fellow edges over the line a bit, probably as a hangover from marbles (Englishmen call this "getting your feet wet"), but frowned upon is the guy who leans way forward to shoot his first two darts, then takes a stride toward the board while shooting his third, almost sticking it in like a thumbtack. Worse is the villain who has a dart on the line between 20 and one and pulls it out before anyone else has a chance to see which side of the wire it was on.

There are even a few dart bums, the most infamous being a New York ne'er-do-well known as L.D., The Living Dart. He is a tall, skinny, bespectacled Annapolis graduate who thinks the world begins at the line and ends at the board. He doesn't work, he just sort of survives. People who drink with him somehow always end up with the tab, and when he asks to borrow a cigarette he habitually takes four or five for later. He was evicted from his apartment, and for quite a while he slept on the floor of a friend's Manhattan real-estate office after the taverns closed.

L.D., a lefty, is such a fanatic that he trained himself to mark his score with his right hand so he wouldn't have any "chalk buildup" on his shooting fingers. The ex-manager of Charlie Bates', an East Side pub, recalls one of L.D.'s dartathons: "He comes in at 1 p.m. and starts shooting by himself. When more people start coming in around 6, he's still at it. At 9:30, with a lot of people in the place, he's still shooting. Midnight, same thing. He's still going at 4 a.m. when I close and turn out the lights. Now it's 4:30 and a few of us are sitting in the back, and The Living Dart is up there shooting in the dark! He must have walked 10 miles back and forth to the board!"

Alas, dedicated L.D. cannot shoot well for money. For a beer or a few dollars, he's an indoor Robin Hood. Hike the ante a bit and, in the darters' lingo, he "goes blind." As a result, he owes everybody money and no longer shows up in his old hangouts. Disappeared.

Could it be that The Living Dart has retired to a steady job or gone back to the Navy?

"Oh, no," said a longtime acquaintance. "I don't know where he is, but believe me, he's shooting darts somewhere."

ILLUSTRATIONAnne Boleyn once gave Henry VIII a matched set of darts. ILLUSTRATIONAs the puff adder was about to strike.... ILLUSTRATIONThe Living Dart was still going when they turned out the pub lights SIX ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)