Thunk! You Lose

How 'bout a friendly game of darts? Watch your back!

On a recent Tuesday at Turn 3, a West Boca Raton dive bar that hosts dart league play, a representative from the Florida Dart Association is trying to persuade New Times to omit the best part of this story.

"Please don't print that," begs Ivan Hulan, a short, spiky-haired man with the shifty-eyed look of William H. Macy playing a salesman.

Sorry, man. That's our job.

Hulan takes a step back, arms akimbo, and bows his head. Hulan believes in darts with all his heart. Darts are moving up. People are excited about darts. It's got the Everyman appeal, the gritty bar setting, the possibility of big, corporate-sponsored tournaments. And now, it's as if this newspaper is going to publish the first-ever negative story about a darts league. (All right, there was that 6,000-word story in Sports Illustrated in 2001, showing how the game, even at the highest level of play, is inseparable from beer. This infuriated dart enthusiasts everywhere, including those I'm now interviewing, who are pretty much breathing Amberboch.)

This could be bad for darts.

A few minutes later, Hulan tries again. "I'm asking you not to include that," he says, his eyebrows pinched with concern.

In October, a player in the South Palm Beach Dart League got seriously pissed off and, we can assume, a little drunk and threw a dart at an opponent. Pitched it like a fastball. It stuck in the man's arm. The police came. No arrests were made, but both players were suspended from the league for a few months.

Hulan is probably fuming as he reads this, calculating how many nights of league play have transpired without violent incident. Hundreds! Indeed, most people you talk to in the league will tell you that it's about fun and games. Er, scratch games. Darts is a sport. It's fun and sports. It's a time for folks to gather and socialize and forget the pressures of daily life. A time to stand 7 feet 914 inches from a sisal fiberboard and peg it with winged, steel-tipped darts that land with a satisfying "thunk."

All this thunking seems to have started in the Middle Ages, when bored soldiers and archers, waiting for their respective Crusades to get off the ground, began throwing broken arrows at upturned wine-barrel covers. As time went on and humans seemingly became less barbaric, their love of darts did not waver, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the game is most widely followed today.

There has also been a recent push in the United States to elevate the game of darts the way, say, hold 'em poker got elevated to a national pastime. An estimated 18 million people were throwing darts in American pubs in 2005, and new leagues have been springing up all over the country. Although ESPN's World Series of Darts attracted a limited following in 2006, it will be replaced this season with a U.S. Open darts tournament, which begins in May and is open to international players. Some dart fanatics insist it will someday become an Olympic sport.

The same dart fanatics are taking the fun out of the SPBD league, according to at least two ex-players. The dart-through-the-arm incident was just one good example, they say, of how the league is full of ultracompetitive a-holes who take the game way too seriously.

On a recent Tuesday night, a stout Massachusetts transplant named John Saxe puffs a Marlboro and gulps Bud at the Downtown Duck, one of ten Boca Raton Irish pubs and dive bars that host dart league play. Saxe wouldn't be here — he dropped out of the league last year — except that he lives across the street, and his sister is throwing darts tonight. He wants to keep an eye on things.

He doesn't trust this league, no sir. He's seen guys punch through walls and throw beer bottles. If you want proof, look over there, he says, pointing at the wall. The Duck has a sign lined in chicken wire over a hole in its north wall that reads "Punch This!" The chicken wire bloodies the knuckles and leaves the wall intact, bartender Lilly Cox explains.

Saxe has also witnessed the tantrums of "Budweizer" — by far the most despised guy in the league, many say. Anybody you ask will tell you Budweizer (who according to some reports may have legally changed his last name to Budweizer, yes, with a z) is an obnoxious human being. He harasses other players. He makes uncouth comments to browbeat opponents. Infuriatingly, he's also one hell of a darts player.

With strivers like Budweizer making the game so competitive, guys like Saxe — who is no darts champion — didn't get in the game much.

"It got to be such a fuckin' drag," Saxe says. "Before I shot everybody, I figured I'd quit. They all suck. It's all the people who can't get laid."

Next to Saxe at the bar, another man says he quit the league too. He's not giving his name, because he doesn't want any trouble.

"I quit because of all the little babies," he says, rolling his eyes.

Those guys were in the B League — supposedly the less competitive one. How much worse could it get? When New Times shows up to watch some A League play at Turn 3 (where the Florida Dart Association rep tried to thwart this story), a manic John Ferger is celebrating his team's win in the semifinals. Ferger is the South Palm Beach County Dart League president, and he looks particularly fierce in his salt-and-pepper mustachio and black do-rag. It's clear he's got a passion for the game of darts.

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