Dart and Soul

Page 3 of 5

In the early days of the North American Open Dart Tournament, this country's premier contest, diligent secretaries included the volume of alcohol consumed along with the rest of the vital statistics. Thanks to such scrupulous record-keeping, we know that in the 1972 tournament, held in Culver City, California, 384 players from five states competed against each other, and over the course of a weekend, they (and presumably at least a few spectators and residents) finished off 8,640 bottles of beer and 125 quarts of liquor.

Most aren't as serious about their alcohol, of course. Some dart players drink incidentally. They happen to be throwing darts in a bar, and, well, that's what you do in a bar. Others, however, still do it to calm their nerves before a big match. Moreover, shaky hands can be a problem during a match, so that's another good time for a beer. And after a match, a person needs to unwind, a situation that desperately calls for a malted beverage. It is this very logical progression that results in darts remaining one of the very few sports that encourage the use of performance-enhancing substances.

Recently, though, the game has been working hard to get away from that image. Tournament organizers seeking legitimacy -- which is to say, advertising -- want to bring the sport out of the tavern. And many young, up-and-coming players claim that not imbibing actually improves their game. Yet enough of the world's best arrowmen still come out of the pub farm system to make the dry movement fall considerably short of unanimous.

"At the national tournaments, you're not supposed to be drinking alcohol while on stage playing a match," Feathers explains. "But if you look closely, you might see a Coke or Pepsi being consumed with more than Coke or Pepsi in it."

Wade Wilcox is here. You can tell that the 34-year-old Harvard-educated law student and professional dart player from Ohio is in the house from his attire -- specifically, a loose-fitting black-and-red bowling shirt. It has the big words "Wade Wilcox" stitched on the back. Shorts, hiking boots and a compact disc player strapped to his waist round out the competition outfit. He listens to country music while throwing. "It makes me realize my life really isn't that bad," he says.

There is some debate over the words "professional dart player." In a sense, nearly every dart player is a professional. Money trades hands easily in bar matches, and nearly every tournament offers some sort of cash reward for its top finishers. In short, almost no one playing darts seriously these days would qualify for, say, the 1928 Olympics. But "professional," as used in the sentence "Alex Rodriguez earns $25 million a year as a professional baseball player," is another matter.

"I make $25,000 a year as a secretary and $7,000 playing darts," Wilcox says. "Does that make me a professional? I don't know. But when I walk in the door, people ask me for my autograph. That's nice." He pauses to ponder the point further. "Maybe," he adds, "it's if people call you a professional that you're a professional." A small crowd gathers, and a vigorous discussion ensues.

If there is such an animal in America (professional dart players in England, where the big tournaments are televised for many hours straight, live very nicely, thank you), it is Steve Brown. "Steve only plays darts," notes Wilcox. "He doesn't have a job."

"Shut up," Brown says. "Darts is a job." He started playing at age eleven, spurred on by the amazement of watching his father, a pioneering arrowman, being paid to travel from his modest home outside London and across the Atlantic in 1974. "For my dad to go to New York City to play darts -- I mean, that was amazing," he remembers. By the time he was fourteen, he was playing four nights a week and most weekends.

Today Brown is a much-sought-after fixture at local tournaments, most of which he drives to from his St. Louis home in a 1983 Toyota Tercel with 290,000 miles on it. "Thing is, this is my living, and flying can get real expensive," he says. "Besides, all my expenses on the road are deductible." He just returned from pleasant motors to Saskatoon and Montreal before alighting briefly in Missouri and then hopping back into the auto for the relatively short jaunt to Colorado.

In addition to playing in tournaments, Brown conducts exhibitions. One of his better-known tricks is to cut the tip off a sixteen-penny nail, drill it out and insert a dart tip. He'll select a member of the audience and have him stand against a board and balance a soda cap with a quarter on top of it on his head. Then Brown will throw the nail and knock the quarter off without disturbing the cap.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer