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�" 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 �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 �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 screen....
"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 mat 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 mat? Well, one night here in London, he won �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 �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.")