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Closing the missile gap in U.S. pubs
Joe Jares
September 08, 1969
The training regimen for the game of darts is beer—and a few champions are at their best when they have to be held up to shoot. They—and a million others, some of them sober—are Closing the missile gap in U.S. pubs
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September 08, 1969

Closing The Missile Gap In U.s. Pubs

The training regimen for the game of darts is beer—and a few champions are at their best when they have to be held up to shoot. They—and a million others, some of them sober—are Closing the missile gap in U.S. pubs

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Get good enough at a sport and it will leave its terrible stamp. There are the common tennis elbow and cauliflower ear. Or more exotic stigmata like linebacker's knee or, say, billiard-player's back. And now a New Yorker named Dave Lawson has learned he has the beginning stages of arthritis in his right foot from leaning forward and putting almost all his weight on his right leg hour after hour while playing his favorite game. In other words, Lawson has this country's first known case of dart-thrower's foot.

It is probably not the last because all over the U.S. there are perhaps a million "serious" darters. The principal pockets of interest are San Francisco, Los Angeles, various places in New Jersey, Albany, N.Y. and New York City. In most of these locales, darting thrives best under the dim glow of pseudogaslight lamps in cozy pubs, where onlookers swig mugs of ale and offer encouragement ("Nice dart!"), solace ("Tough dart!") and enthusiastic admiration ("Dynamite!").

Generally, there is not much more at stake than a drink, but darts has its hustlers. Money games are common in Manhattan, and one salesman claims he makes $10,000 a year at the game but could make $25,000 if his wife didn't have the old-fashioned notion that one should hold a steady job. "It's not for the sport of it anymore," says this salesman, who is known as Sal. "It's not fun. The only thing I enjoy is the action, the pressure."

Sal uses the tricks of hustlers in any game, playing well but not so well that the pigeon will be scared away before the bets get interesting. He is used to playing for high stakes while high himself, or even falling-down drunk, and he actually cannot relax and play his best until he's "half in the bag." There have been times when he had to be propped up at the line by friends so he could make the winning shot.

When Sal has the pigeon suckered into a big-money game, he knows how to apply the crusher. He can purposely throw away the first two darts and then make the winning shot with the third. He was once way ahead in a $100 game and needed one dart in a certain spot to win. He turned his head and put it there without looking.

Gamesmanship is an integral part of darting. Sal is an expert needier, and so is Howie, a sharpshooter who got turned on to darts when a Playboy Club bunny trounced him in a match in a bar one night. Howie loves to throw his opponents off balance. If he's up against someone shooting well, he'll take three minutes to walk up to the board and pull his darts out, replace the divots and chalk up his score. Or he'll collect-his darts and lightly bump his opponent on his way back past the line, making the guy change his stance just a fraction.

"His favorite is standing right behind you when you shoot," says a frequent opponent nicknamed Dale the Blowgun. "That's very nerve-racking, even though he's not doing a damn thing you can turn around and accuse him of."

During a recent Monday lunch hour, almost directly under the NO GAMBLING sign in a little upper East Side saloon, Sal was playing a well-dressed businessman for up to 60� a point in a darts variation in which the points can mount up quickly. If he won $35 he'd say, "Well, make it $20," and they would order another round of drinks and resume playing. Sal needed no hustler's strategy with this pigeon, who seemed bent on giving all his money away. Sal won nine out of 10 games, and the $5, $10 and $20 bills piled on the bar next to his glass looked like a lettuce salad. Finally the masochistic businessman paid for his last loss, packed his darts in an attach� case and staggered out, poorer by $250 and lucky it wasn't more.

Sal continued drinking that afternoon, and that night he played in the tournament at Huey's Pub. He was still drinking, but after the tournament he couldn't get any takers for money games. Not even Howie would bite. Some of the gang in Huey's might have played Sal when he was sober, but not when he was blotto.

The uninitiated might imagine the most popular dart board in bars to be a typical bull's-eye target with concentric circles. Instead it is a challenging "clock" board. Usually red, green, cream and black, the board is divided by thin-wire spokes into 20 pie-shaped sections, plus the bull's-eye (worth 25 points) and inner bull's-eye (worth 50). There is a narrow band all around the edge called the double ring and a smaller band near the center called the triple ring. Skillful players, standing eight feet away, can put two out of three darts in the triple 20 section, and there are a few who will take bets on putting in all three, a trick known as "three in a bed." The clock board and most of its myriad games originated in Great Britain, where there are about 6 million players. About 120,000 fancy themselves good enough to enter the annual News of the World national tournament. The big game is 301, in which each player starts with 301 points and works down to zero. Since it is possible to do this with just six darts arithmetic is almost as important as aim and a top player doesn't hesitate a second. If he has 54 points to go, "14, double 20" flashes through his mind. Instead of zeroing in on the bull all the time he has to alter his aim constantly.

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