Dart and Soul

Page 4 of 5

It's a bit of a show, and he's not entirely proud of the carnival connotations of the act. "I mean, I'm not a circus act. I'm a serious dart player," he says. Still, if the act generates interest in his sport, it's all to the good.

And America could use the interest. As with cricket, squash and rowing, the Brits -- and other European competitors -- regularly thrash the tar out of U.S. darters. Brown sees this as a problem of culture. For one, he points out, youth is stifled: Darts is played in bars, a place in which children are generally discouraged from loitering. "You try and tell me one other sport where kids are actively prevented from playing a sport," he says angrily.

Later, if they do happen to cultivate an interest in the game, Brown says, players are not permitted to get good because of the Draconian holiday policies in this country. "Here you have ten days of vacation a year," he explains. "Barely enough time to go to a few tournaments. In England you get thirty days" -- plenty of time to play darts.

Not that it's all glamour. "It's not a great living financially, and it's not easy," he says. "You've got to cut corners. For example, I left for here at 8 p.m. Thursday night so I could save money on a hotel." Last year, Brown says, he cleared about $20,000. "But," he points out, "I'm doing what I love."

For anyone who thinks darts is an easy game to master, here are two words to ponder: Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal is the massive center for the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The team's success is due in no small part to O'Neal, who, as the team's center, almost always leads the league in scoring and rebounding.

Most matches, of course, last longer. One result is that there are no math slouches in darts. Part of the skill of 501 is quickly calculating the combination of shots that will get you to zero with a final double from any number of scores. (The highest you can check out with is 170: two triple-20s and a double bulls-eye. There are charts to help novices, but most players do this in their heads, and it is a wondrous thing to watch a top player calculate the numbers, then throw them exactly.

The other result is that with enough luck, anyone can be champion for a day. Matches at the Colorado Open are best of three games, a format short enough for a dilettante to occasionally topple a top professional. (Challenge Tiger Woods to a putting contest on a single hole and you might win. Go head-to-head with him over fifty holes and you wouldn't.)

And this is the very greatest feature of darts: With only a handful of exceptions at the very highest levels -- and primarily in Europe -- dart tournaments are open to all comers, pro as well as chump. The pros must prove their stuff in front of -- and against -- their fans, and fans often find themselves throwing next to their heroes. No one is standoffish.

"It's the only sport I know of where you can buy a set of darts, practice for ten minutes, pay your $20 entrance fee and play the Arnold Palmer of the sport," says Feathers. Rarely -- but often enough to make things interesting -- that person can even win. It happened in the second year of the Colorado Open: In 1974, Bob Sarvis walked into the tournament, plunked down his money, borrowed a set of house darts and won the whole thing.

The format keeps the best players humble. "Even though they're not nationally ranked, good local players can occasionally beat us," says Brown. "I've won one world tournament this year and made it to the finals of another. But I also played in a small one-day bar shoot in Missouri in April and lost money."

There is no seeding in tournaments, either, so an amateur can meet a pro at any point. In the first round of the men's singles 501, Brown encounters Huy Nguyen, a player out of Duffy's Tavern in Colorado Springs. Brown nails a 170 on his first three throws, and the match is over in the blink of an eye. "Painless," confirms Nguyen. "But it's great to play one of the best in the world." Far from being discouraged, he's not about to quit the game now.

After the match, Brown moseys over to the food bar to relax while waiting for his next contest and begins working on a boat of nachos. He strikes up a conversation with a couple of men hanging out by the bake sale. He will go on to win the event, for which he earns a Smurf-sized trophy and $360. Over on another row of boards, Wade Wilcox uncharacteristically loses in the first round to a local, then still hangs around to chat. Overhead, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" pours out of the loudspeakers,

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer