The noble sport of darts remains a sore point for many professional athletes who would have pursued that career had they not been pushed by overly ambitious parents into more lucrative but less appealing work in football, baseball, or curling. The fact that it is practiced primarily in pubs, bars, taverns, and speakeasies around the world stems less from the limited space requirements of the game than the curious Anglo-American belief that a competition involving the hurling of sharp metal objects can only be improved by the consumption of large quantities of alcohol.
The origin of darts remains a bit murky, but most historians agree that it likely arose from bored soldiers seeking a way to pass their limited leisure time. This led them to toss their spears at the bottoms of barrels — presumably empty ale kegs. The barrels were later replaced by slices of large logs (called “butts”), a practice still employed by competitive knife and ax throwers. The tree rings found in the cross section of the logs were a natural delineation for scoring, giving rise to the current design of dart boards with their concentric rings and circular bulls eye in the center.
Of course, the true beginnings of the game centered on throwing the spears at human beings, but the practice was eventually discontinued in formal competition for a variety of reasons. These included the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a fixed throwing distance, challenges in standardizing scoring, and the limited durability of the targets before spoilage set in. But these foundations are likely the reason that players still regularly wind up getting stuck with a dart, and not only is this legal in most areas, but it is often considered a sign of friendly, spirited sportsmanship to toss one at your opponent.
For those who consider the sport to be nothing but an inane and slightly dangerous diversion for drunks, think again. According to the American Darts Organization, more than 20 million Americans either play casually or compete. One annual tournament in Las Vegas draws several thousand entrants vying for a substantial cash pool, and the largest such event in Chicago offers potential champions a shot at $57,000 in prizes. (Not a bad payday for one weekend’s drinking and tossing.)
So what, you might ask, does this have to do with the price of rice in China? The main thrust (if you’ll pardon the pun) is that, despite its British origins, the sport of darts has evolved into a uniquely democratic enterprise, symbolizing the nature of the American spirit. For starters, this is a sport offering a level playing field for just about anyone, as I have discovered through decades of competition. Unlike football or basketball, no great size or physical strength is required. (The darts weigh a few ounces and need only be thrown less than ten feet.) I have personally had my butt kicked in tournament play by a woman in a wheelchair.
Also, you don’t need the IQ of Stephen Hawking to compete at the top levels, as you do in largely mental games such as chess. (Regular readers had doubtless already figured this out upon learning that I was a competitor.) The scoring requires no more than simple addition and subtraction, and you can generally coerce someone else into doing it if you’ve had a few too many schooners of ale.
Darts is also not exclusively for the wealthy. Competition quality boards can be had for less than thirty dollars by the savvy shopper and a starter set of steel tips will run you roughly twice that amount. Anyone with a wall and nine feet of open space in front of it can quickly have a practice range in their own home.
That’s what makes darts such a definitively American sport. Anyone from a commoner to a king can do it. And they can rise to the top levels of competition with nothing more than the drive to succeed and the will to practice and work toward that goal. Plus, the social benefits go without question. You haven’t experienced quality time with your friends until you see the priceless expression on their faces as they reach down to pull an errant missile out of their thigh. (As a side note to the intemperate, you may need to work on your sprinting speed before attempting that one at your local watering hole.)
Of course there is no good thing under the sun which corporate America can’t screw up when there’s money involved. In the last few decades, some bars have taken to installing electronic “dart machines” which require you to feed cash into a slot for the privilege of letting a computer keep your score, generally getting it wrong more often than not. This is an abomination against the purity of the sport and you should stick chewing gum in the coin slots of these monstrosities whenever you encounter one.
Some states have also taken it into their heads to outlaw steel tips, insisting instead on plastic boards with thousands of tiny holes in them and stiff, nylon-tipped darts. Absent a direct shot to the cornea, you can’t even injure anyone with one of those, and really, where’s the fun in that? Our forebears with their shiny spears and battered ale barrels are surely gagging in disgust at the thought.
Still, at least until the nanny state wades in and ruins the whole thing, darts remains one of your truly American options for entertainment, competition, and opportunity. Go to the ADO home page and look under the regional information tab to find league and tournament information for your area. You’ve got nothing to lose but a little blood. And possibly an eye. But hey! That’s why God gave you two of them, right?