Ted Hankey sits at the bar. His left palm is slapped up against
his brow so that a cigarette plugged between his fingers seems to
grow from his forehead. It looks like a unicorn horn. Hankey's
right palm rests on a cardboard coaster, as if he's taking an
alcoholic's oath. The barman sets a pint in front of him, and
Hankey, with both hands, moves it a millimeter closer. Bald and
badly tattooed, with skin the color of wallpaper paste, Hankey
will look tonight, under the unforgiving lights of television, as
if he were two decades older than his 32 years. Now, though, bent
over his beer, he looks beautiful--born to the bar, one hand on
his head and one on his Harp, lost in concentration, a Rodin
sculpture: The Drinker.
Dublin once had its legendary pintmen, supernatural imbibers who
could achieve a state of grace by consuming, in a single sitting,
as many as 30 jars of Guinness. "The man behind the bar knows the
pintman when he sees one," John Sheridan wrote 40 years ago in a
trade publication called Irish Licensing World. "It is not a
matter of dress, or age, or social status; it is a sort of
spiritual look. The pintman takes up the tumbler with ritualistic
care. Nothing can touch him then. The clock ticks for you and me,
but the pintman is on an island in time."
True, this is not Dublin, it's suburban London. And Hankey's no
pintman; he's an arrowman. But the arrowman, or professional
darts player, is a descendant of the mystical pintman. And for
the moment, Hankey is on an island in time.
In 30 minutes Ted (the Count) Hankey must burst through the
doors of this backstage bar, stride up to a klieg-lit oche (the
line behind which the arrowman must stand) and defend his title
in the richest tournament in professional darts: the impossibly
pressurized, internationally televised, [Pounds]189,000 (about
$279,000) Embassy World Darts Championship, held every January
at the Lakeside supper club in Frimley Green, England. Beyond
those doors lies madness. "A lotta blokes throw good darts in
the pub," says arrowman Andy Fordham, "but out there under the
lights"--he points to the doors and the stage beyond them--"they
Thus the arrowman drinks before (and during and after) his
matches. "Loosens the darting arm," Martin Amis noted in London
Fields, his epic darts novel. Never ask the arrowman to abstain.
That, as the great English dartsman Cliff Lazarenko said in the
'70s, would be "like asking Mark Spitz to set world records in
two feet of water." It simply isn't done.
Hankey's opponent will be formidable, for he is none other than
Fordham, a 300-pound publican from the southeast London borough
of Woolwich. Fordham, 39, the third seed in the tournament,
prepared for this semifinal match by rising early, finding a pub
10 minutes from the tournament site and persuading the barman to
open up for him. Which is how he came to be drinking pilsner at
half past nine in the morning, bottles passing before him as if
on a conveyor belt in a bottling plant. He threw, in preparation
for the match--the winner of which is guaranteed [Pounds]23,000
and a place in the [Pounds]46,000 final--precisely six darts.
Fordham is Popeye-forearmed, with a magnificent mullet that
falls, like a brown Niagara, nearly to his waist. When I ask him
how often he practices, he says, "I don't." When I ask him how he
spends his time, he says, "I drink." When I ask him what that
tattoo on his left forearm is, he says, "The Grim Reaper." So it
Onstage, master of ceremonies Martin Fitzmaurice is imploring the
restless sellout crowd of 1,200--seated bingo-parlor-style at 100
long tables--to behave. "Ladies and gentlemen," says the tuxedoed
emcee, "please do not stand on the chairs or the tables. And
please do not steal the chairs or the tables. We lost three
chairs last night, and we do ask your cooperation."
At one of three bars at the Lakeside, another Martin--Martin the
Barman--performs a marvelous inventory of intemperance. "We'll
sell 400 kegs this week," he says. "There are 11 gallons in each
keg...that's 4,400 gallons, right...there are eight pints in
a gallon, so...let's see...right...we'll do 35,200 pints
this week." He whistles in exhalation and then double-checks the
figures with a pencil. "That doesn't include bottles," he
mumbles. "We do lots of bottles."
If you figure that one bottle of beer is sold for every two pints
of draught, that works out to 52,800 beers consumed during the
nine-night tournament--which is to say, five beers a night for
every man, woman and child in attendance at the Embassy. What's
more, tournament sponsor Embassy is a brand of fags, or
cigarettes, and thus everyone at the Lakeside is encouraged to
smoke like an oil fire. Everyone complies, too. So a blue Los
Angeles haze hangs over the proceedings. English photographer
Julian Herbert, alarmed by my ambition to spend the week in these
quarters, coined a vivid anachronism. "You will have a
dry-cleaning bill," he said, "of Biblical proportions." So I
Here's the rub, though: Sometimes the healthiest thing a body can
do is get out of the sunshine, off the green grass, out of the
fresh air and breathe in the opposite--air that is equal parts
smoke, tension and BO. Only then will you rediscover what first
drew you, as a child, to games. "A sense of 'umor is what's
missing from sports, don't you think?" says Bobby George, the
King of Darts, aspirating his h's in the Cockney accent of
London's East End. "The footballers over 'ere 'ave all become
prima donnas. Same in America: You don't get the 'umor in sports.
Americans 'ave to win everything. Darts aren't about that. Darts
are about 'avin' fun. Darts are about the craic, [the good time
you have] with your mates down at the pub."
So they are. So come with me. It's a beautiful day--much too
lovely to spend outdoors.
"You can walk into most any pub, get a free set of darts from
behind the bar and make friends for life," says Irish publican
Gabriel (Gabby) Nolan, who left Galway for England when he turned
21, in 1968, to pursue his dream of driving a red London
double-decker bus. He did so for four years, and it was a great
gas. But then Gabby aspired to manage a pub, and he took classes
and wound up pulling pints at the King George in Essex. Which is
where he became mates with Bobby George, who sat at the bar for
much of the mid-'70s, occasionally answering the telephone just
to make it stop ringing.
"King George?" the callers would say.
"Speaking!" George liked to reply.
"And that's how I got my nickname," George says. "The King. King
Indeed, George was, for some time, the King of Darts, a two-time
winner of the News of the World world championship, a
tournament--now defunct--that once drew 17,000 spectators to the
Agricultural Hall in north London. By the late 1970s the News of
the World had moved to a raucous London dance hall, the
rough-and-tumble Alexandra Palace. Soon the News was usurped, in
prestige and prize money, by the Embassy worlds, where players
and spectators alike can (and do) bet at the on-site bookmakers.
"Dennis were an 80-to-1 shot when he won the Embassy in 1991,"
says Alan Critchlow, manager of the great arrowman Dennis
Priestly. "He got [Pounds]24,000 for winning. And I won
[Pounds]28,000 betting on him. The next day the bookie sent a
big Rolls Royce 'round, and the driver took us to Ascot. They
were trying to get their money back. They took a right canin' on
Every face and every place in darts appears lifted from a Guy
Ritchie film. George, 55, never threw a dart until he was 29. "I
dug tunnels and laid granite floors," he says. That explains his
square physique, which supports three pounds of gold jewelry,
including a ring on each finger of his left (or nondarting) hand.
The chain around his neck would be more suitable on the tires of
a snowplow. Not surprisingly, George is up for a role on the soap
opera EastEnders. "They want him to play a character," says Gabby
Nolan, "who is like himself." Which is to say, a working-class
hero, for George is universally considered--in the vernacular of
the East End--"a good guv'nor."
That's how he fell into darts. "One night a guy in a pub was
bein' a bit of a bully," says George. "He was bullyin' people
who couldn't play darts, and I said to 'im, 'You're a bit of a
bully. You're out of order.' He said, 'Oh, yeah, can you play?'
I said, 'I never played the game in me life. I'll play you for
[Pounds]50.' The guy was the best player in Barkingside. I beat
him. Within a year I was the local masters champion. I had a
To understand the gift you must know that tournament darts is
501, a game in which both players start with 501 points and try
to "check out," or reduce their scores to zero, three darts at a
time. The final dart must be either a bull's-eye (which is worth
50 points) or a double. Thus, 180 (three treble 20s) is the most
an arrowman can score on three darts, a feat that always elicits
an orgasmic cry from the referee: "One 'undred and aye-teeeee!"
It requires extraordinary physical reserve to repeatedly hit,
from an oche 7' 9 1/4" away, the double and treble beds, each of
which has a surface area smaller than a fortune-cookie slip.
That is why there is a [Pounds]50,000 bonus offer at the Embassy
to any arrowman who makes a "nine-darter": seven treble 20s, a
treble 15 and a double 18 for 501--the lowest possible checkout.
"A nine-darter is like making nine holes-in-one," says George.
"You need a lot of skill, and a bit o' luck."
At its highest level, professional darts is almost entirely a
mental game, and not merely because the arrowmen, nearly all of
them school dropouts, are arithmetic savants. Give them any
number below 170, the highest score from which a player can check
out on three darts--treble top (top is 20, at the top of the
board), treble top, bull's-eye--and they will instantly convert it
into the currency of darts. One hundred nineteen? Treble top, 19,
double top. One hundred twenty-six? Treble-19, 19, bull's-eye.
All arrowmen can do this all night, and it is arresting to hear
them do so.
"But the game itself is simple," says George. "We could all be
world-class. If you can see and got nothing wrong with your arms,
there is no reason you can't be the best in the world. One
sixteenth of an inch on this side of the wire, you're good. One
sixteenth of an inch on that side, you're world champion. The
difference in the end is nerves, what we call bottle. You gotta
have the bottle."
Ted Hankey was all bottle in winning the Embassy a year ago
(with a final three darts of 170), for which he earned
[Pounds]44,000. The final is always best of 11 sets, with each
set a best of five games. Hankey won last year's match 6-0, in
an astonishing 46 minutes. How had he made his living before
winning the Embassy--and, with it, a year's worth of exhibition
bookings? "I were on the dole," says Hankey, who lives in North
Wales. And before that? "You name it, I done it."
"We're just working-class people," says his manager, a retired
lorry driver named Dave Lovatt, and in that one word--just--is an
aching multitude: of class repression, of quashed ambition, of
knowing one's place.
The antihero of London Fields is a petty criminal, Keith Talent.
"A casual darter or arrowman all his life, right back to the bald
board on the kitchen door, Keith had recently got serious," Amis
writes. "He'd always thrown for his pub, of course, and followed
the sport: You could almost hear angels singing when, on those
special nights (three or four times a week), Keith laid out the
cigarettes on the arm of the couch and prepared to watch darts on
television. But now he had designs on the other side of the
"And television was all about everything he did not have and was
full of all the people he did not know and could never be.
Television was the great shop front, lightly electrified, up
against which Keith crushed his nose. And now among the squirming
motes, the impossible prizes, he saw a doorway, or an arrow, or a
beckoning hand (with a dart in it), and everything said--Darts.
Pro Darts. World Darts."
Embassy Darts. A dart is not merely rocket-shaped: It can be a
rocket and generate escape velocity to break free from the
gravitational pull of poverty. An easy alternative is to accept
your lot, to convince yourself that money and success are fraught
with problems and that you're better off without them. Gabby
Nolan illustrates that with a story one night in his current
darts pub, Nolan's Freehouse, Vauxhall, South London.
"You know George Best?" says Gabby, referring to the
Belfast-born bon-vivant soccer star of the 1960s. "One of the
great footballers of all time, liked to knock about with women
and all that? Well, one night here in London, he won
[Pounds]40,000 at the Hilton casino on Park Lane. Ended up in
bed with Miss World. They order champagne, and an Irish porter
brings it up. He walks into the room and sees George Best in bed
with [Pounds]40,000 scattered about and Miss World in her
knickers. And the porter just shakes his head and says, 'George,
where did it all go wrong?'"
Bobby George, blessedly, has no such aversion to pleasure. He
lives in a 40-room, 18-bedroom estate that he built in
Colchester. Darts has been good to George. He has flogged boards
on QVC in the U.S. and thrown darts on the very stage trod by
Elvis at the Las Vegas Hilton. ("They had a board backstage,"
says George. "Apparently, Elvis and them liked to throw darts
before they'd go on.")
"When Bobby started winning," says Gabby, "he'd play a lot of
exhibitions in pubs. He had to go up to Scotland on the train
once, and he complained that he was gonna be bored. I told him to
get a book, and he said, 'I can't read.' He couldn't read or
write. People would ask him to sign an autograph To Mandy or To
Patricia, and he'd ask me how to spell Mandy or Patricia. He
Today George writes a monthly column in Darts World, does color
commentary for BBC2 at the Embassy and enjoys--in his spare
time--what he calls the "booze, fags and cars" lifestyle that
darts has afforded him. He has, in other words, no complaints.
Then again, what is there to complain about? All the arrowmen are
staying in a hotel adjacent to the Lakeside supper club. The
hotel lobby has two bars. One is called the Lounge Bar. A sign on
its door says, THIS BAR IS FOR HOTEL BUSINESS GUESTS ONLY. DARTS
PERSONS USE PENINSULAR BAR. THANK YOU. Across the lobby the
Peninsular Bar--whose sign has been modified, by Darts Persons, to
read PENIS BAR--is full at 11 o'clock in the morning.
When I ask Hankey how he will prepare for his semifinal, he says,
"I'm gonna lie in bed with a sandwich and watch the darts on the
telly, and if anyone phones up for an interview, I'm gonna tell
'em to f--- off." Fair enough.
Still, the Count graciously agrees to remove his darts shirt--like
a bowling shirt, or the shirts once favored by Ferdinand
Marcos--and do a brief roll call of his manifold Dracula tattoos.
"That's a Drac, that's a Drac, that's a Drac, that's a demon, and
that's for me," he says of the tattoo on his right arm that reads
DONNA. The full-length Dracula on his back, alas, is but one
third complete. (Fordham, in addition to his Reaper tattoo, has,
on his right forearm, a skull and the name BOB. I don't ask.)
Fordham versus Hankey is the second semifinal on a Saturday
afternoon. The first semi is won by John Walton, whose nom de
darts is John Boy Walton. "Fordham wants him banned from darts,"
emcee Fitzmaurice tells the crowd, "and the reason is--get
this!--he doesn't drink." Lusty boos lap up at the stage.
Moments later Walton is serially drinking pints backstage. "I
don't drink," he explains, "before matches." Which nevertheless
makes him, in darts, a teetotaler.
Walton is the rare arrowman who can abstain before a match and
win. "Any one of those guys goes out there without a drink, and
he'll do nothing," says Mary Nolan, Gabby's wife. Yet the
arrowman must also know when to say when.
"I played Colin Monk here once," notes Fordham, "and I got him
drunk beforehand." Fordham won that night.
Such "windups"--the head games played before matches--are often
more memorable than the matches. "One that sticks in me mind,"
says Mike Gregory, who lost the most dramatic Embassy final ever,
in 1992, "happened at the Old Nun's Head pub in London." Gregory
played all comers in exhibition matches, occasionally for a few
quid. "There was this bloke named Jake," he says. "Jake the
Snake. He said, 'Before we play, we're gonna have you on a bit.'
I thought, O.K., the usual, here come the strippers. But the
bloke brings out an albino python and hangs it around me. I'm
deathly afraid of snakes. He says, 'You've had the baby, now meet
the da,' and he brings out a 13-foot boa. These are the things
people do for an advantage."
As for Hankey, he now rises from the bar and dons a black cape.
Upon hearing his name introduced outside, he bursts through the
doors of the bar and strides toward the stage. His fanfare is
chilling vampire-movie music. Several women in the audience have
battery-operated bats on their hats that flap their wings.
Fordham, whose face is three quarters covered by beard--which
explains his nickname, the Viking--enters the arena to I'm Too
Sexy, by Right Said Fred. Alas, to the disappointment of the
hundreds who have come wearing plastic Viking helmets, Fordham
doesn't have it tonight. Hankey's darts are tungsten-tipped
missiles, guided by laser. Fordham needs a mere 33 on his final
three darts to keep the match alive, but he can manage only a 5,
a bounce-out and a 1, for 6. Hankey then checks out from 134 for
a spot in the final. Even so, the crowd sings (to the tune of
Guantanamera), "One Andy Fordham! There's only one Andy Fordham!
One Andy Forrrrr-dham! There's only one Andy Forrrrr-dham!"
"Ladies and gentlemen," announces Fitzmaurice, eager to clear the
club after five minutes of this ovation, "Andy Fordham has left
If Fordham is the most popular player in world darts, it's
because he is--as anyone will tell you at the pub he manages, the
Queen's Arms in Woolwich--"a lovely bloke." Pulling a perfect pint
of Guinness there one night, Fordham says, "I'm just a normal
laid-back geezer." Within minutes he is pulling out photographs
of himself as a rail-thin 21-year-old aspiring soccer player.
"Lookit," he says, an eternity of longing in his voice. "Lookit
what 18 years'll do to you." He takes comfort in a giant novelty
birthday card on the wall behind him, hanging above the cash
register. IT'S NOT A BEER BELLY, reads the card, IT'S A FUEL TANK
FOR A SEX MACHINE.
Three years ago his wife, Jenny, contracted a cancer she seems to
have thrashed. She shows me an old photograph of herself, bald
from chemotherapy but smiling broadly. She keeps another photo,
of Andy, in her locket, for the arrowman travels often. The next
day he is off to the Netherlands, where darts is second in
popularity only to soccer among televised sports, and where
Fordham--a fixture in the English press only during Embassy
week--is like a rock star. "In 'olland," says Fordham, trying to
phrase this diplomatically in front of his wife, "the birds get
their tits out for you to sign." Jenny rolls her eyes, but he
goes on. "I signed a bird's bum once. She pulled up 'er dress,
and she 'ad a G-string on underneath. She bent over, and I went
like that with a marker." He makes a Zorro slash. "You couldn't
read it," he says, taking a pull of his pilsner, "but she
couldn't see it anyway."
In England darts reached a peak of popularity in the 1980s.
"Holland is now where England was then," says Gregory, speaking
only of the public's appetite for the game. "They took over
darts. That's the way it goes here: football, cricket--we used to
be on top in them, too."
Holland's top two arrowmen are both at the Embassy. Ray Barneveld
is a two-time winner of the tournament. (He's a former postman
turned darts millionaire.) Co Stompe is an Amsterdam tram driver,
matchstick-thin, who speaks impeccable English in a Cockney
accent. ("Because we spend so much time 'ere," says Stompe, whom
I later overhear saying, "F----n' 'ell.") The Embassy is
televised live on the Dutch network SBS6. "There are seven
million people in Holland," says English pro Kevin Painter, "and
five million of 'em are watching us on TV." (In fact there are
about 16 million people in Holland, 3.5 million of whom watched
Barneveld win the highest rated final.) In the United Kingdom,
the Embassy has been exiled to a nightly tape delay on BBC2,
though it is rerun endlessly throughout the next afternoon.
In the '80s, eight tournaments were televised annually in England
(now only two are), and there was a popular darts game show
(called Bullseye). Thus arrowmen like Jocky Wilson were famous
beyond all reason. Wilson was a toothless Scotsman. Gabby Nolan's
children bought him a set of false teeth, but they weren't made
to measure, so he wore them on a chain around his neck. It didn't
hurt that oche rhymes with Jocky and that Wilson always entered
to an emcee calling, "Jocky to the oche," a phrase that still
resonates in England. His appeal transcended darts. When Dexy's
Midnight Runners appeared on Top of the Pops in 1982 to perform
their hit Jackie Wilson Said--a cover of the Van Morrison
classic--an engineer at the BBC keyed in, as a backdrop, footage
not of Jackie Wilson (soul man) but of Jocky Wilson (arrowman),
naturally assuming the song was about him.
When I ask Tony Green--the eminent darts play-by-play man for the
BBC and a witness to all 24 Embassy tournaments--why darts
declined in popularity in England, he pauses for a very long time
and says, "I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. I think it
was the introduction of the Breathalyzer. Pub leagues dwindled,
and the game dried up a bit at the grassroots level. But you'll
never take darts out of the pub. You wouldn't want to."
"A lot of youngsters go to university now and make money and
don't have time to go to pubs," says Gabby Nolan, "but you'll
still find good publicans who put their hearts into darts." So
Nolan's pub has two boards and six league nights a week, and 13
thriving teams whose kindly (if profane) members contributed
[Pounds]1,300 to charity last year. "All from one swear box,"
says Mary Nolan. "And we only enforce the swear box on Saturday
nights. Even then, only during the karaoke."
Though professional darts is still great craic, the game I am
witnessing at the Embassy is, incredibly, a sanitized version of
its incarnation of the '80s, when players could drink and smoke
on television. Now they're not allowed to drink alcohol on
camera, and--absurdly--Evian bottles chill in a champagne bucket at
the oche. "It was a mistake to take the drinkin' and smokin' off
the stage," says Gregory. "Two thousand people in the audience
are drinkin' and smokin', and the guy throwin' darts has a bottle
of water? The reason people like watchin' darts is that they know
the people onstage are like them."
Jocky Wilson, alas, is retired to Kirkcaldy, disillusioned with
darts and the media machine that ate him. (At least The Sun, the
lurid London tabloid, bought him a proper set of teeth in thanks
for his years of providing fodder.) The best player in the world
now--the best ever, by most estimates--is Phil (the Power) Taylor,
who has won nine world championships: two Embassies and seven of
the eight Professional Darts Corporation titles. The PDC is a
rival tour, started in 1994, with Taylor and other players who
don't play the Embassy, which is run by the venerable British
Darts Organization. Darts, like boxing, has no unified title: The
field at the PDC championship, televised on Sky, is said to be
more talented at the top. The 32-man Embassy has a deeper field
and more prize money.
I arrange to meet Taylor at the players' hotel, and he brings a
buddy: a big bloke, with half an ear, whom Taylor introduces as
Holyfield. Last year the queen declared Taylor a member of the
Order of the British Empire--one step short of a knighthood--an
astonishing feat for an arrowman. Tonight he will be honored at
the Embassy, in a rare rapprochement between the tours.
Astoundingly, Taylor didn't play darts until he was 26. (He is 40
now.) He threw every Tuesday night at his Stoke-on-Trent local,
the Saggermaker's Bottom-Knocker. (Saggermaker was a job in
pottery, and Stoke was once a pottery center. Whatever, pray
tell, is a bottom-knocker is a question perhaps better left
"I was," Taylor says of those first league nights, "a natural."
Within a year he was picked to play for his county, and within
another year he quit his engineering job. He resolved to crawl
through his television and into pro darts. The man had three
children--he has four now--and his dole check afforded him,
after household expenses, only [Pounds]6 a week in pocket money.
"That's what made me a winner," he says. "That pressure." At his
first Embassy, in 1990, he went off at 250-to-1 with the
bookies. Everybody in Stoke bet on him. "Everybody," he says.
"An old lady told me she had [Pounds]7 left from her pension
check and put it on me." And everybody won.
Parked outside in the hotel drive is Taylor's blue Peugeot
406--a complimentary dealer's car, painted with his name and
nickname and the outdated boast 8 TIMES WORLD CHAMPION. He has
made roughly [Pounds]2 million in tournament winnings,
exhibition fees and endorsements. "People have called me Tiger
Taylor, but I don't think of myself on that level with Woods or
Michael Jordan," says the Power, a short, potbellied, extremely
polite man with the arrowman's requisite tattoo on each forearm.
"I do get congratulated a lot; people are very proud of me here
because England don't win at too many things anymore."
As we speak, Taylor's buddy, Holyfield, is at a grease board in
this hotel conference room, silently drawing a detailed lion's
head in orange marker. (It is majestic--moving, even.) "The
biggest thing that will ever happen to me," says Taylor as we
prepare to make our goodbyes, "will be meeting the queen of
England. No, I never, ever would have dreamed it."
It may never happen. Eight weeks after our conversation, Taylor
will be convicted of indecent assault for having groped two
23-year-old women with whom he had engaged in an epic drinking
contest after a 1999 exhibition in Scotland. (His sentencing was
scheduled for March 27.) Tabloid headlines will call Taylor a
DARTY OLD MAN and his victims, DARTS TARTS. They will quote him
as longing for his days on the dole queue and telling the judge,
"This case may well split up my family." Even the quality
broadsheets will report that the queen may strip Taylor of his
All this from a man considered to be, by professional darts
standards, too boring. "I suppose Taylor is the best ever," Gabby
Nolan says one night at the Freehouse, "but until fairly recently
he could go into Sainsbury's supermarket and not be recognized."
How different from a decade ago, when elegant Eric Bristow--the
Crafty Cockney--was a charismatic rival of Jocky Wilson's. Bristow
found himself in New York City, walking down the street, when a
fan's disembodied voice came from across Fifth Avenue. It
screamed, simply, "One 'undred and aye-teeeee!"
The bad news is, No one can turn back the clock. The good news:
There's no need to at the Lakeside--Club Mirror magazine's Club of
the Year from 1976 to '80--where a bygone age is preserved in
amber. The walls are filled with signed publicity stills of
long-forgotten or never-recalled acts: Grumbleweeds, Keith
O'Keefe, the Fantasticks. Machines on bathroom walls dispense ?1
packets of colognes called Zazz and Obsess. The entire place
exudes a touching (if maudlin) showbiz sincerity, with an 8-by-10
glossy of the Candy Man taking pride of place on one wall. For as
long as Lakeside has existed, reads the caption, we dreamed of
the day that Sammy Davis Jr. might appear. He was booked to
appear on 13 October 1990. Unfortunately, he had a prior
In Sammy's stead, this has become the Lakeside's biggest night,
the Sunday evening of the Embassy final, Hankey versus Walton,
televised live throughout the United Kingdom. At the backstage
bar John Boy calmly throws darts, nurses a few fags, sips at his
coffee. The Count, conversely, is sinking pints, smoking like
Vesuvius and making frequent trips to the loo.
Nerves don't serve an arrowman well. Sweating palms are the
enemy. "I couldn't win in America," says Gregory, "because of two
things: Budweiser and air-conditioning. The condensation from the
longneck bottles got on my fingers and affected my release."
The enormity of tonight's match is inescapable. Kate Hoey, member
of Parliament and Britain's Minister of Sport, has arrived.
Backstage, Hankey sneers and snaps on his cape. Walton blinks
madly through thick glasses. Standing with both players is a BBC
announcer who opens the live broadcast by saying, "Beyond these
doors is the most unique atmosphere in sports!"
With that, the doors are thrown open, and the players crash
through--first Walton, to Cotton-Eyed Joe, and then Hankey, to his
vampire aria. The place goes absolutely batty. Perhaps literally
so, in the case of the young female Count enthusiasts, who are
back, wearing their hats with mechanical bats.
The match starts badly for Hankey: He makes a sickly 22 on his
first three darts, while Walton makes "one 'undred and
aye-teeeee!" From there, things quickly get worse for the Count,
and he goes into his trademark stall, taking an eternity to walk
to the board and remove his arrows. This actually helps a little,
and he's only down three sets to two at intermission, when he
steams into the bar backstage and shakes several empty cigarette
boxes on as many unbussed tables, desperate for a fag. At last he
finds one--and smokes and sips from a pint glass while his
manager, Lovatt, slaps him softly on the face, whisper-shouting,
"Stop f----n' about!"
Walton sips coffee and coolly throws darts. The abstainer has
stolen the pintman's tranquility. "I was so relaxed," he'll say
later, "I felt like I was playin' in the pub."
After the break Walton takes the sixth set, and the seventh, and
in the eighth he needs only 25 on his final three darts to kiss
the trophy. He throws only the first two. "Nine, double-eight,
thankyouverymuch," the new champion says an hour later,
recounting the highlight of his life in two digits. "I wanted to
A 39-year-old former laborer from industrial Doncaster, Walton
began playing darts at age nine, in the back room of a bingo
parlor, while his parents, in the front room, looked for a B-8 or
an I-17. He began playing professionally, he says, after wrecking
his back on the job. "A laborer with no back," he says, "is no
use to anyone."
No use to anyone? Tonight, with his weeping fiancee at his side,
Walton leaves the Lakeside in the Mercedes 450 SEL with the
JONBOY license plate and the oversized novelty champagne bottle
in the backseat. The sterling Embassy trophy is in the front
seat. In the mail is a check for [Pounds]46,000. His life is
changed forever. Yet it isn't changed even for a day. Tomorrow
night he'll be back at his local, in his regular weekly league
match. "At the Alma in Doncaster," he says. "I don't miss Monday
Because that's what darts is all about: The craic with your
mates down at the pub. So the mixed league is playing Monday
night at Nolan's Freehouse, where Gabby tells me one last story.
Years ago he and Bobby George would drive around London in the
latter's used Rolls. In those days, at the wheel, Bobby always
played a tape of his favorite song, American Pie, and he'd sing
along in his Cockney accent: "Drove me Chevy to the levee..." So
one night the pair washes up at Bill Bartlett's pub in
Brentwood, and one thing leads to another, and three bookies at
the bar bet Bobby 5 to 1 that he can't put three straight darts
in the double-1 bed. Gabby slaps [Pounds]100 on the bar, and
Bobby sticks the first dart. Then, just next to it, the second.
The King of Darts returns to the bar, and sips his pint,
slowlike. The blokes are a bit wound up now, so they double the
stakes for the last arrow, and Gabby slaps another [Pounds]100
on the bar. Bobby walks to the oche as if he were John bloody
Wayne--and finds, with the final dart, the last square micron of
space still available: Double-1.
Gabby is giddy all over again at the memory--of himself and Bobby
legging it out of there with what was, in their youth, a small
fortune. "Some lovely stories," says the Irishman, wistfully
recalling the people and places and predicaments one finds in 30
years as a London publican. "I've sometimes thought of writing a
When I tell him he ought to, lest the stories disappear, Gabby
reassures me: The oral history of darts and pints and London pubs
will survive unto eternity. "The cows come and go," says the wise
publican, pulling another pint of Caffrey's and placing it,
unbidden, before me. "But bull---- lasts forever."
We raise our glasses.
Hankey says of his tattoos.