Though professional darts is still great craic, the game I am witnessing at the Embassy is, incredibly, a sanitized version of its incarnation of the '80s, when players could drink and smoke on television. Now they're not allowed to drink alcohol on camera, and—absurdly—Evian bottles chill in a champagne bucket at the oche. "It was a mistake to take the drinkin' and smokin' off the stage," says Gregory. "Two thousand people in the audience are drinkin' and smokin', and the guy throwin' darts has a bottle of water? The reason people like watchin' darts is that they know the people onstage are like them."
Jocky Wilson, alas, is retired to Kirkcaldy, disillusioned with darts and the media machine that ate him. (At least The Sun, the lurid London tabloid, bought him a proper set of teeth in thanks for his years of providing fodder.) The best player in the world now—the best ever, by most estimates—is Phil (the Power) Taylor, who has won nine world championships: two Embassies and seven of the eight Professional Darts Corporation titles. The PDC is a rival tour, started in 1994, with Taylor and other players who don't play the Embassy, which is run by the venerable British Darts Organization. Darts, like boxing, has no unified title: The field at the PDC championship, televised on Sky, is said to be more talented at the top. The 32-man Embassy has a deeper field and more prize money.
I arrange to meet Taylor at the players' hotel, and he brings a buddy: a big bloke, with half an ear, whom Taylor introduces as Holyfield. Last year the queen declared Taylor a member of the Order of the British Empire—one step short of a knighthood—an astonishing feat for an arrowman. Tonight he will be honored at the Embassy, in a rare rapprochement between the tours.
Astoundingly, Taylor didn't play darts until he was 26. (He is 40 now.) He threw every Tuesday night at his Stoke-on-Trent local, the Saggermaker's Bottom-Knocker. (Saggermaker was a job in pottery, and Stoke was once a pottery center. Whatever, pray tell, is a bottom-knocker is a question perhaps better left unanswered.)
"I was," Taylor says of those first league nights, "a natural." Within a year he was picked to play for his county, and within another year he quit his engineering job. He resolved to crawl through his television and into pro darts. The man had three children—he has four now—and his dole check afforded him, after household expenses, only �6 a week in pocket money. "That's what made me a winner," he says. "That pressure." At his first Embassy, in 1990, he went off at 250-to-1 with the bookies. Everybody in Stoke bet on him. "Everybody," he says. "An old lady told me she had �7 left from her pension check and put it on me." And everybody won.
Parked outside in the hotel drive is Taylor's blue Peugeot 406—a complimentary dealer's car, painted with his name and nickname and the outdated boast 8 TIMES WORLD CHAMPION. He has made roughly �2 million in tournament winnings, exhibition fees and endorsements. "People have called me Tiger Taylor, but I don't think of myself on that level with Woods or Michael Jordan," says the Power, a short, potbellied, extremely polite man with the arrowman's requisite tattoo on each forearm. "I do get congratulated a lot; people are very proud of me here because England don't win at too many things anymore."
As we speak, Taylor's buddy, Holyfield, is at a grease board in this hotel conference room, silently drawing a detailed lion's head in orange marker. (It is majestic—moving, even.) "The biggest tiling that will ever happen to me," says Taylor as we prepare to make our goodbyes, "will be meeting the queen of England. No, I never, ever would have dreamed it."
It may never happen. Eight weeks after our conversation, Taylor will be convicted of indecent assault for having groped two 23-year-old women with whom he had engaged in an epic drinking contest after a 1999 exhibition in Scotland. (His sentencing was scheduled for March 27.) Tabloid headlines will call Taylor a DARTY OLD MAN and his victims, DARTS TARTS. They will quote him as longing for his days on the dole queue and telling the judge, "This case may well split up my family." Even the quality broadsheets will report that the queen may strip Taylor of his MBE.
All this from a man considered to be, by professional darts standards, too boring. "I suppose Taylor is the best ever," Gabby Nolan says one night at the Freehouse, "but until fairly recently he could go into Sainsbury's supermarket and not be recognized." How different from a decade ago, when elegant Eric Bristow—the Crafty Cockney—was a charismatic rival of Jocky Wilson's. Bristow found himself in New York City, walking down the street, when a fan's disembodied voice came from across Fifth Avenue. It screamed, simply, "One 'undred and aye-teeeee!"
The bad news is, No one can turn back the clock. The good news: There's no need to at the Lakeside—Club Mirror magazine's Club of the Year from 1976 to '80—where a bygone age is preserved in amber. The walls are filled with signed publicity stills of long-forgotten or never-recalled acts: Grumbleweeds, Keith O'Keefe, the Fantasticks. Machines on bathroom walls dispense �1 packets of colognes called Zazz and Obsess. The entire place exudes a touching (if maudlin) showbiz sincerity, with an 8-by-10 glossy of the Candy Man taking pride of place on one wall. For as long as Lakeside has existed, reads the caption, we dreamed of the day that Sammy Davis Jr. might appear. He was booked to appear on 13 October 1990. Unfortunately, he had a prior engagement—in heaven.