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Behind those dive-bar facades, a burgeoning subculture of sporting competition thrives around the game of darts.

By Mike Gibson

MARCH 9, 1998:  The downtown Hilton's Cherokee Ballroom has all the high-ceilinged grandeur and regal plushness that befits a hall with such a lofty title, but today's festivities seem starkly at odds with the decor. The lush green and crimson floral print carpet is powdered with a light sprinkling of scrap paper and dotted with a careless arrangement of tables, all of which are scattered with Bud bottles and plastic cups and score sheets and snack wrappers and ashtrays choked with smoldering butts.

The four walls are lined with more than 50 peeping and blinking electronic dart boards, each bearing the name of a local dart haven—Melody Bar and Pit Stop and Our Place and Old Towne Tavern among dozens of others—and the crowd has a beery, cheery, decidedly working-class flavor about it, all worn denim and logoed T-shirts, mullet 'dos, pot bellies, and ball caps. An overamped jukebox pumps out classic rock nuggets from the center of the far wall, but the oldies are mostly buried under the happy burble of voices, the intermittent thwack!a of plastic on plastic, the slapping of hands after shots.

On this particular Valentine's Day weekend, the Hilton is hosting the Knoxville stopover of the World Series of Darts, a string of 18 events that is to dart players what the Winston Cup is to auto racing or the PGA tour to golf. Sponsored in part by local dart-accessory supplier Precision Darts, the annual Volunteer Open will draw more than 600 people, including dozens of professional darters, to compete for $10,000 cash.

Precision Darts proprietor Ron Johnson posits that darts is the rising star of tavern sporting events, a phenomenon that has seen ever-increasing numbers of throwers drawn to amateur leagues and professional tourneys alike. Precision sponsors one of two citywide electronic dart leagues in Knoxville, and Johnson says his league draws at least 70 new players every season.

The Volunteer Open, meanwhile, has increased in size every year since its inception, to the point that the number of boards was increased by more than 25 percent for this year's event. "It's an addictive game," says Johnson. "And you can buy a set of inexpensive darts for a few bucks and that's all you need; no shoes, clubs, or anything else."

Ralph "Too Tall" Simmerman, an exceedingly long and impossibly lanky burr-headed professional darter and dart league director from Indianapolis, affirms that his chosen sport has indeed enjoyed a surge in popularity, as evidenced by new opportunities for professional players at events like the six-year-old Volunteer Open.

The appeal certainly doesn't have much to do with financial reward; one of the World Series' largest competitions, the Vol Open will split its purse across 11 events and hundreds of players, including nearly 50 pros.

"Most pro players look at it on a per-weekend basis," says Simmerman, who travels to World Series and other large tourneys two or three times every month. "It's a question of whether or not I can go and cover my expenses and possibly walk away with a few dollars. At a tournament like this [the Vol Open], you can walk away with $1,000 or so if you win two big events, but that's pretty hard."

"If I can walk away with $300 or so, I'm really happy," agrees Terry Bane, a mullet-coiffed steel worker from Millington, Tenn., and a pro for seven years. "The main reason I do it is for the travel and to meet new faces."

As Johnson notes, darting requires only a few highly portable accessories. According to Scott Havner, manager of the Good Sports darts and pool supplies store in Bearden, an inexpensive set of nickel-plated steel- or soft-tip darts costs as little as $15. And although tungsten sets with more exotically contoured grips may run as high as $150, Havener hints that the difference has more to do with perception than performance. "Over half of the game is personal preference and feel—how the dart suits your hand and your throwing motion," he explains. "The rest is just concentration and hand-eye coordination."

The expense—or lack thereof—involved with playing darts points to the nature of its appeal. Johnson suggests that darts is a game for "all walks [of life], from the guy who digs ditches to the guy in a suit and tie." To an extent, that's true; on any given night in any given league, you're liable to find salesmen and veterinarians throwing side-by-side with factory hands and warehouse temps. But there is a certain unmistakable blue-collar essence—perhaps owing to the fact that darts is a sport played primarily in bars—that seems to mark it as first and foremost a working man's game.

At first glance, Leisure Time Pub and Deli seems like little more than a darkened shack off some forgotten sector of Chapman Highway; on closer inspection, however, it possesses a certain disheveled, homey charm. Inside, the air is heavy with smoke and grease; the decor is neo-Nascar. Two wooden kitchen-style counters form the bar, which is overlooked by an old stick-up letter menu advertising various lard-laden treats—pizza, burritos, grilled cheese, onion rings.

Most of the patrons, however, are gathered in the same quarter of the venue, at the far end of the bar, swarming around a pair of electronic boards with darts in hand.

Bartender Kathy Couch says the three-year-old saloon hosts Precision Darts league play four nights out of the week. Each of the more than 40 league bars claims a certain number of "home" teams playing in any one of several divisions (women's doubles, men's doubles, mixed tips, etc.); Leisure Time sports 12 teams, including such colorfully-named squads as Touché Touché, We Are Women—Hear Us Roar, and Torture Time Is Back.

"For most of these folks, this is just a good excuse to get out of the house on a night they normally wouldn't have anything else to do," says Couch, suveying the animated group of darters lined up at the boards.

Couch says many of the more avid regulars may throw competitively four and five nights out of the week. One of Leisure Time's more accomplished throwers, 30-year-old Patty Ray, competes in "blind draw" tournaments every Friday and Saturday night as well in two separate divisions of league play. "I like playing for money," says Ray, who works odd jobs for a living. "The only trouble is that once you've taken people a few times, they don't want to throw you anymore."

Ray's competitive streak notwithstanding, darting is characterized by a decided lack of cut-throat rivalry, a singular sense of fair play. As players move between board and beer, it's often difficult to distinguish one team from another; after each turn, high-fives are doled out liberally, with little thought given to team affiliation. And particularly admirable throws are almost always greeted with a round of unison congratulations: "Good dart!"

"There's a sense of community among the players," Couch explains. "People get into the game, and then they end up playing with or against the same people for several years. There's a lot less in the way of hard feelings than in some of your other sports."

"You've always got a few people who take it too seriously," says Ray, recalling that frustrated players have occasionally hurled their darts onto Chapman Highway or into the tiny pond behind the bar. "But even if you get upset, you're mostly upset with yourself. We always slap hands, even when we throw bad darts."

What's most striking about the rise of darting as a bar-sports phenomenon is its strangely diverse charm—the jovial mix of competition, camaraderie, revelry, and accessibility that has fueled the sport's growth and put a set of boards on the walls of seemingly every working-class beer hovel in the country.

Lynn Grubb, a 28-year-old East Knoxville muffler specialist and a four-night regular at Leisure Time, submits an unusual theory about his favorite sport. A dart player for nine years, he suggests that the game is vested with a certain unique karmic balance, a competitive equilibrium that allows careful darters, carefree novices and careless barflies alike to participate at the level that suits their skill and temperament.

"Every person in the world has to have a certain amount of competition," Grubb says. "That's what playing darts does; it gives you the chance to find just the right level that suits you. All of that, plus you get to drink a whole lot of beer."

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