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Beers & Shots
Steve Rushin
April 02, 2001
Even at its highest levels the sport of darts is all about hoisting a pint (or five) with your mates at the pub
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April 02, 2001

Beers & Shots

Even at its highest levels the sport of darts is all about hoisting a pint (or five) with your mates at the pub

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Ted Hankey sits at the bar. His left palm is slapped up against his brow so that a cigarette plugged between his fingers seems to grow from his forehead. It looks like a unicorn horn. Hankey's right palm rests on a cardboard coaster, as if he's taking an alcoholic's oath. The barman sets a pint in front of him, and Hankey, with both hands, moves it a millimeter closer. Bald and badly tattooed, with skin the color of wallpaper paste, Hankey will look tonight, under the unforgiving lights of television, as if he were two decades older than his 32 years. Now, though, bent over his beer, he looks beautiful—born to the bar, one hand on his head and one on his Harp, lost in concentration, a Rodin sculpture: The Drinker.

Dublin once had its legendary pintmen, supernatural imbibers who could achieve a state of grace by consuming, in a single sitting, as many as 30 jars of Guinness. "The man behind the bar knows the pintman when he sees one," John Sheridan wrote 40 years ago in a trade publication called Irish Licensing World. "It is not a matter of dress, or age, or social status; it is a sort of spiritual look. The pintman takes up the tumbler with ritualistic Care. Nothing can touch him then. The clock ticks for you and me, but the pintman is on an island in time."

True, this is not Dublin, it's suburban London. And Hankey's no pintman; he's an arrowman. But the arrowman, or professional darts player, is a descendant of the mystical pintman. And for the moment, Hankey is on an island in time.

In 30 minutes Ted (the Count) Hankey must burst through the doors of this backstage bar, stride up to a klieg-lit oche (the line behind which the arrowman must stand) and defend his title in the richest tournament in professional darts: the impossibly pressurized, internationally televised, �189,000 (about $279,000) Embassy World Darts Championship, held every January at the Lakeside supper club in Frimley Green, England. Beyond those doors lies madness. "A lotta blokes throw good darts in the pub," says arrowman Andy Fordham, "but out there under the lights"—he points to the doors and the stage beyond them—"they melt."

Thus the arrowman drinks before (and during and after) his matches. "Loosens the darting arm," Martin Amis noted in London Fields, his epic darts novel. Never ask the arrowman to abstain. That, as the great English dartsman Cliff Lazarenko said in the '70s, would be "like asking Mark Spitz to set world records in two feet of water." It simply isn't done.

Hankey's opponent will be formidable, for he is none other than Fordham, a 300-pound publican from the southeast London borough of Woolwich. Fordham, 39, the third seed in the tournament, prepared for this semifinal match by rising early, finding a pub 10 minutes from the tournament site and persuading the barman to open up for him. Which is how he came to be drinking pilsner at half past nine in the morning, bottles passing before him as if on a conveyor belt in a bottling plant. He threw, in preparation for the match—the winner of which is guaranteed �23,000 and a place in the �46,000 final—precisely six darts.

Fordham is Popeye-forearmed, with a magnificent mullet that falls, like a brown Niagara, nearly to his waist. When I ask him how often he practices, he says, "I don't." When I ask him how he spends his time, he says, "I drink." When I ask him what that tattoo on his left forearm is, he says, "The Grim Reaper." So it is.

Onstage, master of ceremonies Martin Fitzmaurice is imploring the restless sellout crowd of 1,200—seated bingo-parlor-style at 100 long tables—to behave. "Ladies and gentlemen," says the tuxedoed emcee, "please do not stand on the chairs or the tables. And please do not steal the chairs or the tables. We lost three chairs last night, and we do ask your cooperation."

At one of three bars at the Lakeside, another Martin—Martin the Barman—performs a marvelous inventory of intemperance. "We'll sell 400 kegs this week," he says. "There are 11 gallons in each keg...that's 4,400 gallons, right...there are eight pints in a gallon, so...let's see...right...we'll do 35,200 pints this week." He whistles in exhalation and then double-checks the figures with a pencil. "That doesn't include bottles," he mumbles. "We do lots of bottles."

If you figure that one bottle of beer is sold for every two pints of draught, that works out to 52,800 beers consumed during the nine-night tournament—which is to say, five beers a night for every man, woman and child in attendance at the Embassy. What's more, tournament sponsor Embassy is a brand of fags, or cigarettes, and thus everyone at the Lakeside is encouraged to smoke like an oil fire. Everyone complies, too. So a blue Los Angeles haze hangs over the proceedings. English photographer Julian Herbert, alarmed by my ambition to spend the week in these quarters, coined a vivid anachronism. "You will have a dry-cleaning bill" he said, "of Biblical proportions." So I would.

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