Dart and Soul

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"That's right," agrees a man who has wandered into the discussion. Darters are intensely social, and whenever it appears as though something interesting is being chewed over, a crowd quickly gathers. The man wears shorts and sandals and a heroically sized Hawaiian shirt. A cigarillo pokes out of one fist; the business end of a long-neck Budweiser is nestled in the other. "Darts is athletic," he reiterates. "It's just not aerobic."

Brown nods. "It's restrained athleticism," he explains in his light British accent. "Like shooting, or archery. But they're far easier than darts." The gathered crowd nods in agreement. A vigorous discussion ensues. Resolved: Darts as sport is underappreciated.

Not now, though. Not here in the basement of the Lakewood Elks Lodge, where the 28th consecutive Colorado Open Dart Championship is under way. The tournament is highly regarded across the country -- it's one of the longest continuously running darts competitions in the U.S. -- and the event always attracts a good crowd. As a brief cold front sweeps across the Front Range, several players lounge near the entrance of the building, taking in the electric air. Telltale sets of dart flights (feathers) poke out of their chest pockets: engineering nerds with an attitude.

Inside, the atmosphere can best be described as unagitated. Thirty-two boards have been set up in the middle of the room in four rows of eight each. About a hundred players mill about chatting or sit at long tables placed between the rows. Classic rock blares nonstop over the speakers: "One bourbon, one Scotch, one beer," suggests George Thorogood.

Near the door, the Elks Club is conducting a bake sale, hawking an extremely non-athletic selection of cakes, cookies and brownies. "We've done quite well," says Betty, who is overseeing the sale. Nodding toward the room, she adds, "I don't understand any of this."

Beyond the bake sale is the kitchen, where volunteers are whipping up heaping boats of nachos, hot dogs and pizza. Tucked into opposite corners of the room are two very busy bars. "Business is real good, real good," says one of the mixologists. He has long since lost track of the volume he's moved since the tournament began on Friday. "Lord, I don't know," he says. "Plenty."

The evidence is scattered all over the room. Beer bottles crowd the tables, and workers have had a challenging time keeping the surfaces clear. Overhead, the air-cleaning system works overtime trying to dissolve the thick cloud of smoke rising from dozens of cigarettes and cigars. "As soon as I get home from a tournament, I throw all my clothes in the laundry," complains Brenda Roush, one of the top women dart players in the country who, as a non-smoker, non-drinker, is something of a freak.

In fact, the whole place feels like a bar in which all the lights have suddenly been flicked on. Hardly surprising, as darts and bars have inseparable histories. Alcohol -- and the prodigious consumption of it -- twines through tales of epic darts matches throughout the ages.

On a recent night at the Mirage Cafe and Sports Bar, a favorite darts bar in Littleton, the question of whether alcohol helps or hinders one's throw is debated. "The game can be played sober," points out Aaron "Pinhead" Kellough, a longtime local player. "I mean, there are people who do it." Pinhead is quick to admit he's not one of them, though. "I started out bowling and playing billiards," he says. "Anything with a beer in your hand I can do real well at."

Still, Jerry Feathers nods a token sign of agreement: Sure there are dart players who don't drink. Then again, he's the former owner of The Dart Board, Colorado's top darts-and-drinking emporium for more than two decades (he sold it two years ago), and memories of epic sober matches don't tend to stick with him as well. It's like trying to separate the sandlot from baseball.

"Remember when John Lowe and Cliff Lazarenko came out?" he says. "Two of the top players in the world. These guys were drinking small pitchers that had fifteen shots of Absolut and soda mixed together. My wife said they went though a hundred shots that night, and they weren't losing to anyone." Back in the day, many arrowmen practiced just as hard at their drinking as they did at their throwing, Feather adds, the idea being that a win was just as likely to occur if your opponent was drunker than you as it was if you happened to throw better.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer