Nietzsche Would Have Been a Great Dart Player

‟DARTS, a predominantly British game played by throwing darts at a circular numbered board. The board is divided by thin wires into 20 sectors, valued at points ranging from l to 20. A narrow outer ring running through all sectors doubles the value of the sector for the dart thrown into that part of the sector and a narrow inner ring triples it, while the bull’s eye itself has a small outer ring worth 25 points, the inner circle worth 50 points. Throwing is free style from 8 to 9 feet away, with the center of the board 5 feet 8 inches from the ground.

“Each player has three darts. . . . The usual game is to start with any double score (dart thrown into the double ring) and then subtract this and subsequent scores from 301. The winner must reach exactly zero with a final double. . . .”

—Encyclopaedia Britannica

The eleven o’clock news has come and gone. Bill O’Neil’s wife and two boys are sleeping. Rufus is lying on the second step from the top of the stairs. Bill drinks a bit from his can of Schlitz, then returns to his dart throwing. The basement is quiet except for the radio and the soft thuds of the darts hitting the board. Occasionally a dart bounces onto the floor or glances off one of the steel wires with a brief, metallic click. He practices for an hour or so each night depending on his mood, how the darts fall, and how the beer tastes. A quarter of a million darts come off Bill’s hand each year and he walks two hundred miles in retrieving the darts and returning to the line.

Three hundred thousand dart boards are sold annually in America and the number of true aficionados, like Bill O’Neil, doubles every year. There are booming dart cultures dart bars, dart leagues, and a few hundred serious dart throwers— in every major American city. A new dart club in Washington. D.C., has five hundred members and the Culver City Open Dart Tournament held in California in August of 1972 drew nearly a thousand entrants.

Bill has been called “The Big Dart from Pittsburgh” because he throws darts well and lie’s originally from Pittsburgh. When he started, he averaged 35 points per round. Now he’s averaging 60 or more, frequently throws a “ton”—a round of 100 or more points—and can put a dart into a lifty-centpiece area every time.

Bill finishes the beer, then goes up the stairs, steps awkwardly over Rufus, crosses the kitchen, and takes another beer from the refrigerator. He pops it open downstairs, drinks a little, wipes the edge of his Buffalo Bill moustache, and continues his throwing.

The most common game of darts, the game of 301, is a simple thing. Essentially it’s putting a metal point into a quarter-inch ring from eight feet away. Each player starts with 301 points, then subtracts the score of his three-dart round. He must start on a double, and must finish on a double worth exactly the number of points remaining.

Bill stands at the line like a fencer, his hand out in front at eye level, the dart cradled between his thumb and first two fingers. His hand comes back to near his nose, then with incredible smoothness stretches out to full length. Somewhere along the way, his fingers have opened and the free dart has jumped to the board.

On Sunday, The Big Dart from Pittsburgh is competing against the best throwers in the country. Coming up is the Cleveland Darters Club’s Second Annual National Dart Open with $3000 in prizes and trophies that will attract dart players from all across America. Right now Bill is doing his best not to think about Sunday. The darts come gently off his hand, almost as if he has told them what he wants done and then given them a soft push toward the board. He walks for the darts he has thrown, then returns to throw them again. In a silky motion, his right arm releases the dart. His arm arches, the second dart arches to the board. His arm arches again.

The tournament officially starts at noon on Saturday with the four-man team event, but for many it all begins on Friday night at the Harbor Inn. Until a few years ago, the Inn was just another bar in the Flats down by the Cuyahoga River. Then a dart board was put up on one of its walls, and suddenly it became the unofficial center of Cleveland’s dart culture. The place is crowded when there are sixty people in it but by 10:30 Friday night, at least 150 bodies are around the four dart boards, bowling machines, and bar. The juke box is loud, the bartenders are being overrun, and the out-of-town darters keep coming.

Each board has people two deep waiting to throw the winners. At the end of each game there’s an exchange of paper money. Most are being played for a beer and a buck, with the games on the far board going for five.

I’m not impressed by what’s being thrown. One man lets fly with his darts as if he were throwing a Bowie knife. Another has a hard time subtracting his score, makes mistakes, and loses at least two games because of it.

Somebody taps my arm and points to the side. I look over and there’s Tex, an older man with a gaunt face and haunted eyes. He’s wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat with the Culver City Open dart patch on the front, a cowboy shirt with roses on the pockets and a longhorn steer on the back, and a gun belt with a holster full of darts. I talk to him and he shouts above the juke box that he’s out of Philadelphia, that he has so much fun at these national dart tournaments that he’s never going to miss one again as long as he lives, that he has three different sets of darts in his holster, and that he once beat an Englishman at his own game.

When Tex gets his chance on one of the boards, I expect him to throw poorly. I’m wrong. I notice that he uses cheap, old-fashioned wooden darts and that the winners on two other boards are also using the woodies. Wooden darts are the sign that the players from Philadelphia have arrived. Philly dart throwers are the best in the country and before long they’re dominating all the boards. They use the half-ounce wooden darts because the game of “baseball” that’s popular in their city is played on a soft wooden board that would be shredded quickly if heavier brass darts were used.

Bob from Dayton and the man with the moustache from Chicago and Omar Sharif from Jersey and the dart throwers out of Connecticut are beaten and sit down. A well-dressed, moneyed man from Jersey who’s being watched by his wife in her evening dress holds off the Philadelphians for a few games, but then he too sits down.

There’s a steady evolution among the Philadelphia players. The good throwers are being replaced by even better ones, lex plays for a while, then goes to the bar.

At the board closest to me, two Philly men in double-breasted blue blazers step up to play a partners match. They are older than the average dart player and both have odd throwing styles. One draws his hand across the front of his body before he throws as if he were petting a pony. Then he cocks his head to the side, points the feathers of his dart at the spot he wants to hit. and snaps his wrist. The other man, a giant redhead, throws his darts out from under his chin. When he’s not throwing, he has a strange habit of rolling his eyes and sticking out his tongue until it seems as though it’s going to touch the bottom of his chin. A record ends while he’s talking to someone, and his loud, indecipherable Irish brogue turns a few heads.

The accuracy of these two guys is like nothing I’ve ever seen. They’re scoring 100 or more points on every other round. They’re putting their darts into an area the size of a quarter. They’re taking the best that Bill O’Neil can throw and routinely doubling it.

I’m still in awe when two other Philadelphians come up and beat them. One is a small man with missing teeth, a paunch, and tattooed arms. His name is Fred Birdsteker and he throws darts the way Paul Newman smiles, the way Bobby Fischer plays the Ruy Lopez, the way Willie Mays used to catch fly balls. His hand opens up like a (lower when he releases the dart and he’s putting dart after dart into an area the size of a dime.

Bob from Dayton, a veteran of national tournaments, is sitting across from me. I lean over and say, “Holy shit.” Bob’s eyes are bloodshot and he looks tired. He says, “Wait until you see the good ones.”

Sunday morning is unseasonably gorgeous for early April in Cleveland. I drive to the tournament with the windows open and the warm sun flowing through the car. It’s almost obscene to spend the day inside a beer hall throwing darts. I park and follow a girl wearing tight white bell-bottoms and a midriff blouse into the hall. A moustached darter from California is standing in the doorway holding a can of Budweiser. “Good morning. Foxy Lady,” he says to the white bell-bottoms.

Last year’s tournament was held in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel. This year the Cleveland Darters Club couldn’t afford the Sheraton, so the tournament is being played in the “Croatian Hall” on the far east side of the city.

The hall has a wooden floor. a stage in the front with steep steps leading up to it, fifteen dart boards along the walls, and tables and chairs in the middle. Each board has its own tensor lamp and a line taped eight feet in front of it. A giant sign on the side of the stage says: POSITIVELY NO DRINKING OR SMOKING IN THE HALLROOM. The air is already thick with cigarette smoke and there are dozens of empty beer bottles on the tables.

The singles tournament was scheduled for 11:00 A.M.. but it’s obviously going to be late starting. Many people are leisurely reading the Sunday newspaper over their second bottle of beer.

The bar and food stands are in the basement along with eight more dart boards. I draw a beer and find The Big Dart from Pittsburgh wearing his number 30 football jersey, throwing on one of the boards in a corner of the basement. We talk about the sun. drink a couple of beers, and throw some practice for about an hour.

By 12:30. 140 dart throwers and their followers are waiting for their matches. Only two dozen entrants are from Cleveland. The rest are from every part of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Indiana, New Jersey, Missouri, Vermont, New Hampshire. California, Maine, Connecticut, Windsor, Ontario, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Greenville, South Carolina, Cincinnati, Akron, Terre Haute, Toronto, and Port Dover.

Tex, in his badly wrinkled cowboy suit, is throwing for money on one of the upstairs boards. There are many dart shirts: Maribitos Lounge, Flights of Cleveland, Emerson Press. “Critters,” The Golden Mule. There’s a man standing on a corner of the stage who’s been reincarnated from the 1950s: Levi jacket with the collar pulled up. black T-shirt, motorcycle boots. And there are lots of women sprinkled through the crowd.

Every conceivable type of dart, from elevengram needles to ones four times that heavy and as thick as a thumb, is being used. There are shafts with two and a half inches of feathers on them, shafts with paper flights, and gossamer spindle shafts, which are long thin pieces of wood with just a tuft of feather on the end; chrome-barreled darts, black-barreled darts, and the wooden ones from Philadelphia. On a nearby table there’s a set of elaborately decorated wooden darts. One of them has “Thunder” written on the side of it and is covered with a red and green rainbow. “Excalibur” has a rose and a purple arrow on it. “Retribution” is covered with green vines and pink flowers.

The Public Address system announces the first matches. I’m playing in the basement against a guy from St. Louis. He’s silent and grim as we warm up. and looks nervous. He brought alonu his wife and two brothers, probably drove all night to be here, and will drive all night to get to work in the morning. A win or loss in this match won’t change either of our lives very much, but this guy wants to win bad. And I wouldn’t mind winning either.

I play all right but he plays much better, shows amazing grace under pressure, and beats me two games to none. He smiles for the first time. Not really looking at him as I shake his hand, I say, ‟Good darts—hope you win a lot more,” and we go our separate ways.

I draw a beer and am soliloquizing about humanistic values versus winning when I hear O’Neil’s name and assigned board. Bill’s lucky. His first-round match is against a Clevelander named Ray who’s a good dart thrower, but not a serious threat in a national tourney. Their game is on a board set up near the stage steps where people are constantly stumbling up and down.

Before they start, there’s much smiling and pseudo-cordiality between Bill and Ray. In the first game, Bill gets his opening double first, scores slightly more per round and wins on a double-12 shot. In the second game, both throw less than outstanding darts, but Bill scores an 80 to set up a winning double and then hits it. “Just six more matches, Bill,” I say to him.

On a nearby board is a grandfather escorted by his two grown daughters and a slew of grandchildren. The grandfather is poised, very gracious, and has a delicate throwing style, but he’s not in the same league as his Philadelphia opponent and he loses quickly. With a sad smile, the old man picks up his things and he and his family walk out into the sunlight.

I watch a skinny man with glasses and a blue and white ‟Jane’s Lunch” jersey. He has almost no form, doesn’t throw two consecutive darts the same Way, and seems to be totally drunk. Still, he wins his match, and when it dawns on him that he has, he stomps on the wooden floor and chants a high school fight chant. ‟And we will win.” STOMPSTOMP-STOMP-STOMP. “And we will fight.” STOMPSTOMP-STOMP-STOMP. “And we will win ...” A friend stops him and leads him to a table, where he picks up a plastic cup of something, tries to drink it down without using his hands, and splashes it onto the floor.

The PA announces that Bob Thiede is to throw Sam Bauer, Sr., on the center board in the basement. To dart throwers, the name “Thiede” has the same effect as “Unitas” or “Jabbar” or “Nieklaus” has in other sports.

Thiede, from New Jersey, has been a dart thrower for ten of his thirty years and has won many tournaments. For a long time he was the best dart in America, but he’s been in a slump for the past year or so. In last year’s Cleveland Open, Thiede came in second.

Sam Bauer, Sr., is the reigning Ohio champion. I happen to think there are a few dart players in Ohio better than he is, but Sam won the title in a state tournament held in this hall last October.

A quarter of the people at the tournament have come down to watch this match. Thiede uses light darts and has an easy, classic style something like Bill O’Neil’s. Bauer sways back and forth as he throws and uses thick darts that thud heavily into the board.

The first game is a good, close one. Thiede sips on Budweiser between each of his rounds. When he has a double 8 left for the win, he stops and lights a cigarette. I am standing close by and can see that his hand is trembling slightly. He goes to the line, pauses, then throws a perfect winning dart.

In the second game, neither opens on his first round. Thiede opens on the second round with a ton and some. He adds another ton on the next round while Bauer sways and flays away, trying to hit an opening double. Thiede has 51 points left when Bauer finally gets on with 269 points left to go. Thiede hits a 19 to leave him 32 or double 16 for the win. He hits a 16 to leave him double 8. He hits the double 8 for the win and the match. I think it was a twelve-dart game.

I go upstairs and talk with a friend who had sessions with a hypnotherapist the week preceding the tournament and used self-hypnosis just before and during his matches. He won one match, lost the next. The hypnosis helped him stay loose and concentrate. but he says it took a lot of the fun out of the game. He’s right. The game of darts really is camaraderie, atmosphere, unforgettable images, a bringing together of all the solitary hours men spend practicing. It’s not the winning or the money. First place in the singles pays $700, second place is $200. First place in the doubles is just $250 per man. You’d have to be more than a little crazy to travel across America just for the chance to win that kind of money.

The second-round matches are well under way. The Croatian Hall is becoming a blur of hot dogs, bottles of beer being raised, and meaningless smiles to strangers. Someone falls down the stage steps. The Foxy Lady is sitting on someone’s leg. The moneyed man from Jersey is off to the side lecturing his wife, who will be throwing in the women’s tournament. “Bear down now, bear down. I’m tired of excuses. You can win if you bear down.” And everywhere there’s the incessant talk about scores and the games of the day and the games of the past.

Bill’s second match is against one of the roundest men in the world. Frank—five feet ten, 250 pounds—has feathers sticking out of his fist as if he had reached up and caught a bird. Those feathers are attached to wooden darts.

The two warm up silently with the rest of the tournament loud around them. They start and Frank wins the first game easily: Bill still has more than 100 points left when Frank hits the winning double. The second game is the same story. Frank opens quickly and scores more than Bill on every round, but Bill hangs in there and wins when Frank can’t seem to hit a double 4.

The Big Dart from Pittsburgh just might do it. I say to myself. They “cork” (throw for the bull’seye) to see who goes first in the deciding game and Bill puts one in the bull to win. But he doesn’t open on the first round and Frank does with 51 points. Bill doesn’t open on the second round and Frank throws a 79. Bill’s pressing, does not open on the third round, Frank throws 108, and for all practical purposes the game is over. Bill has 150 points left when Frank ends the game and match with a double 8.

I walk over a few boards to where Tex is getting ready to throw a match. Tex tells me that he’s won his first match against “an old nemesis” from Philadelphia. In his second match, he “beat a boy from Canada.” And now, in the third round, he’s up against another Philadelphian.

Tex has had a lot to drink. He’s vigorously chewing gum and snapping the darts back and forth between his fingers. He pauses for an uncomfortable amount of time between each dart he throws, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, walks slowly up to the board to take a good look at it.

His opponent and the twenty spectators watching the match don’t like Tex. There’s grumbling over how much time he is taking and somebody says, loudly: “This asshole should be banned from darts. Look at him. He’s making it a mockery.”

But Tex just keeps throwing beautiful darts, slowly. Despite terrible counting errors that cost him dearly, he wins the match. Nobody congratulates him, except me—I shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder and say, “Good darts, good darts.” He gives me a fine smile and says, “Hell, I’m a thrower, not a counter.”

The St. Louis man who beat me loses in the third round to a man from Detroit. The loudspeaker announces that Thiede has been polished off and a cheer goes up from the crowd. The big redheaded man with the Irish brogue is saying something. I can’t understand a word except “bloody” and “goddamn luck.”

On a board near the POSITIVELY NO DRINKING sign the only black in the tournament is throwing a third-round match against an Englishman from Los Angeles. I start a rumor by saying the black man has been throwing darts for just three weeks. There’s a glint of fear in the eyes of those who have heard me—once those natural athletes move in, there goes the game.

The Englishman looks a little like Papa Hemingway. He is drinking heavily and is turning redder and redder. He throws fine darts and wins. Three guys go up to the black and ask him how long he’s been at the game. He’s from Canada and with a soft voice he says, “About nine years now, I would say.”

Sixteen of the 140 dart throwers who started are still alive for the fourth-round matches. People move from board to board to watch the individual matches. Sometimes there are so many bodies around a board that I can’t see who’s throwing. But then, out of the mass, comes a small single wooden dart that Hies precisely to its spot on the board. Then another beautiful dart. Then another.

After the matches, the winners blend back into the crowd. A few people walk to the line where the match was played and imitate the winner’s form. “He threw like this,” they say, or, “Did you see the way he used his wrist?”

Someone is talking about getting the Wide World of Sports to cover one of these tournaments. Someone else is talking about Nietzsche and how he most certainly would have been a great dart thrower. There’s a lady standing by herself behind a crowd, crying silently to herself. Another lady sitting in the middle of the room is all smiles and thighs as she talks to two men. The loudspeaker says: ‟Frank Bee just threw a 180 on board number 7.” Tex comes over and lights a cigarette. “Just got beat by a boy from Jersey,” he says.

The boy from Jersey is George Silberzahn. I watch him as he chews up the lobster-red Englishman from Los Angeles to get into the semifinals. Silberzahn has long hair, a goatee, a blue velour smock with bell-bottom sleeves, and perfectly fitting slacks. He leans forward as far as he can on the line with his back leg extended out for balance. Then he holds the darts out in front of him. his elbow parallel to the floor. With precise, hard Hicks of his wrist he places the darts on the board.

Silberzahn moves to the other side of the hall to play Ray Fischer from Philadelphia. I stay where I am to watch Al Lippman play Fred Birdsteker. The winners of these matches will play for the championship.

I know all about Birdsteker from the Harbor Inn. This is the first time I’ve seen Lippman. He’s short, double-chinned, and has a gentle smile. His shirt collar is open and his sleeves are rolled up halfway to the elbow. Lippman’s arms, like Birdsteker’s, have elaborate tattoos on them. Of course he’s from Philadelphia and of course he throws wooden darts.

Lippman was seeded to win this tournament. Over the last year, he’s been winning everything. In February, he won the U.S. Open in New York City. The prize for that tournament was an allex penses-paid trip to London at the end of April to represent the United States in the News of the World grand finals, the biggest, most prestigious darts tournament in the world.

Birdsteker doesn’t read press clippings. He opens immediately, throws nothing but tons, and wins the first game in nine darts. But the next game is a mirror image of the first, with Lippman winning in a handful of darts. The deciding game is not a good one. Birdsteker falters and cannot open for three rounds. By that time, Lippman is ready for his final double and gets it quickly.

Now the whole tournament has boiled down to board number 4. Silberzahn lost to Fischer, and in a consolation match for third place, loses to Birdsteker. The championship match is three out of five games, and it’s worth $500. the difference between firstand second-place money.

There’s a pause while everyone gets settled around the board and Fischer and Lippman warm up. Fischer was the 1972 Culver City Open Champion. He’s short, always looks as if he’s ready to laugh over something, and retrieves his darts with a curt sweep of his hand.

On the other side of the room, a group of Philadelphians are throwing games. Thiede is sitting off by himself, a line of unopened beers stretched along the table in front of him. gifts from the people who want to say they bought Bob Thiede a beer.

Lippman beat Fischer three games to two for the championship.

Lve seen a grain of rice with the United States Constitution engraved on it. I’ve seen a 250-page novel without a word in it that contained the letter E. I’ve seen a man ride a unicycle across a piano wire while juggling a dozen flaming torches and balancing a glass of champagne on his nose. And I’ve seen the way Ray Fischer and Al Lippman throw dartsif a fly landed on the board, either of them could nail it dowm with a flick of the wrist.

I walk over to The Big Dart from Pittsburgh, who’s still smiling to himself over what we’ve seen. “Let’s go home. Bill,” I say. We walk out in silence. Bill stops underneath a large billboard on the corner of the street and takes out his darts. One at a time, he tosses them high into the top of the whiskey ad that’s hanging there. □