back to the Black Table
                   
  BULLSEYE! THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL DARTS.  
   
   
 

As an avocation, darts are thrown every weekend down the local pub in Britain. But as a professional sport, darts enters the public consciousness once a year, at the Lakeside Professional World Darts Championship. (It should count itself lucky: other sports, like fencing, or the luge, have to wait four years for the Olympics to come round, and then scrap for viewers.) At Lakeside, darts receives some serious, earnest TV coverage (the rights are currently held by the BBC) and the glorious, weird world surrounding it is revealed.

Darts' approach to professionalism is more garish than other common-man pastimes, like snooker, where there's a hushed reverie around the green baize, or ten-pin bowling, where nobody fucks with the Jesus. Snooker halls and bowling alleys can be somber places, where people concentrate intensely in near-silence. Pubs, on the

 
 

other hand, can be noisy and full of characters; thankfully, professional darts maintains this tradition. The players, the crowds, the pundits, the announcer -- all retain the colorful nature produced by a drinking culture.

Most of the players are British, or, for some reason that's never really been made explicit, Dutch. They all seem a little crazy. They have nicknames, like Andy "The Viking" Fordham, or Phil "The Power" Taylor, or Darryl "The Dazzler" Fitton. Down the pub, these would be nothing more than drunken monikers bestowed by pals, but in the world of professional sports, they're identifiers -- brands, almost -- and so they're taken to a brilliant, tacky excess: personalized dart flights, shirts with logos, costumes and entrance music. Andy "The Viking" Fordham wears, predictably, a Viking hat when he takes the stage. Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock, an Australian, has a ZZ Top beard and a mullet ponytail down to the small of his back. Ted "The Count" Hankey wears a Dracula cape and tosses plastic bats into the crowd.

They have beer guts and wear chunky golden jewelry. You wouldn't let some of

     
 

them near your kids and others look like they might try to sell you a car. BBC pundit Bobby George, who reached the final of the world championships at Lakeside twice (at the last, in 1994, he was beaten by a Canadian, John "Darth Maple" Part), is the image of darts: With his open-neck shiny shirts, deadweight sovereign rings, slicked-back hair and gruff voice, he could be a character from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He'll have a laugh with you but if you mess with him he won't think twice about letting the menace come out from behind his manic grin.

Then there's the crowd. Throughout it emanates a constant drinking hubbub, punctuated by cheers when a 180 is thrown or a player successfully nails a tricky double to win a leg. The most important people in the crowd are the players' wives and girlfriends. They have cameras focused on them all the time, capturing every bitten fingernail and head placed in hands. When interviewed by a reporter,

 
     

they say, "We've got to keep our concentration," or "We've got to keep throwing as well we can," as though there's some link in the ether between them and their spouses on stage.

There might be. What is certain is the skill professional darts players possess. Throwing a two-inch metal spear at a cork board from 7-feet, 9-and-a-quarter inches might not seem much, but hitting a desired square inch with any level of consistency is no mean feat. There's something faintly ludicrous that such bulky men are doing this -- it's hardly tossing cabers, after all -- but thanks to the BBC's over-the-shoulder camera angles and time-lapse slow motion analysis, it's not hard to appreciate the grace of a dart spinning out of the fingers, tip up or down, depending on the player's style, and arching into the board with a satisfying thud. And let's not forget a nimble mind's required to go along with the dexterity. Darts is about sums -- tricky rapid-fire addition, subtraction and multiplication that would trouble any mathlete.

The atmosphere is warm, but the rewards

 
  are serious. At Lakeside, a far-from-measly prize of £50,000 ($93,500) is up for grabs, as well as the title of World Champion.

***

The World Darts Championship Final
Lakeside, England -- January 9, 2005

Andy "The Viking" Fordham, last year's world champion and a pre-tournament favorite to retain his crown, suffered a shock defeat in the first round, clearing the way to the final for others. The two who made it were Raymond "Barney" van Barneveld, from Holland, three time world champion, and Martin "Wolfie" Adams, an Englishman who takes his nickname seriously: He sponsors a wolf at a local wildlife sanctuary and takes it for a walk on weekends.

Barney takes to the stage first, strutting in time to "Eye of the Tiger." Judging by the flashes of orange in the crowd, he has quite a strong following. But Wolfie, with home advantage, receives louder cheers when he enters, singing along determinedly to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf." He holds his arms aloft, darts in one hand, and invites everyone to cheer even louder. They do. "There's noisy, and then there's very noisy, and then there's Lakeside," says the

 
 

commentator. "Game on!" says the announcer.

Away from the dartboard, Wolfie and Barney are best friends. But they don't relax in each other's company in the final and both make mistakes. Barney's are more serious, but Wolfie fails to capitalize. It's his first final and the nerves get to him and affect his throwing -- the BBC's Steady-Hand Cam shows his to be shaking badly. Barney takes the first few sets of the best-of-11 match and by the break he is 4-2 up. "It's a mountain for Wolfie to climb now," says the commentator, "and there aren't many of them in Holland."

On the return Wolfie wobbles even more. His darts bounce out and slip either side of the wedge he's aiming for. He tries muttering to himself for motivation, but he doesn't win any more sets, and loses

     
 

6-2. Barney celebrates his fourth world championship with some kind of Jesus pose, to the sound of Queen's "We are the Champions." The camera doesn't show his wife Sylvia, but it's a good bet she's singing along, too.

***

"Lesser" sports struggle to be taken seriously in comparison to a country's traditional big sports. (There are often no more than three: in the U.S., football, basketball and baseball; in England, soccer, rugby and cricket.) The environment of darts has not helped its cause. There's a legendary sketch by British comedians Smith & Jones in which playing darts and drinking are one and the same: "He's gone for a double gin... Triple vodka, now, triple vodka... Single lager -- oh no, that one's come out again." Perhaps it's no so far from the truth. When Andy Fordham (weight: 420 lbs) broke his wrist, he claimed the action of drinking helped his physiotherapy.

Raymond van Barneveld is defiant, though. In a post-final interview, drenched in perspiration from a tough mental and physical encounter, he did what all professional sportsmen do and said his victory was the result of belief and hard work in training (which, you wouldn't believe, involved hours a day in the gym). And then he said: "If anyone says in England this is not a top sport, send them to me."

Right on, Raymond. Right on. Who's going to argue with a big man holding three small spears he can throw with pinpoint accuracy?

 

Louis "Man of Kendal" Cooke lives and throws his darts in England.