The art of the dart

Bob Tolken focuses in on the task at hand.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Bob Tolken focuses in on the task at hand.

The throwing of darts has a long and rich history, a game with a bellicose past that has morphed over 800 years into a social pastime.

Last Thursday evening, 24 dartistas convened for their weekly dart league competition at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs. They were in search of the fame and fortune that comes with accuracy in hurling an eight-inch winged dart nearly eight feet into impossibly small spaces on a circular dartboard.

OK, I’m exaggerating. Fame comes in the form of fist-pumps from teammates and admiration from opponents after a lights-out game. Fortune? Well, you and your teammates can win $10, maybe $20, if the Supreme Hand is guiding your darts throughout the two-hour competition.

Islanders and residents have been playing darts every week at the P-A Club for nearly 40 years because they like the people and the game and the chance to engage in a skills competition. Darts is not a full metal jacket deal. You throw your three darts and chat up your pals, sip a cold one and keep an eye on the board to check how the other team is doing.

Darts are fun and darters are a fun, droll bunch. They get funny. Asked for the deep and underlying reason she is drawn to the game, Melody Tucker picked right up on it. “Well, it’s a chance to bury a sharp metal object in the dartboard. To work out aggression in a healthy way rather than acting out in society,” she said in a mock staccato shrink voice.

Really?

“No. Not anything like that. The league is a fun and inexpensive night out. I spend time with my friends and catch up on their lives,” she said.

Justin Lucas has been the Grand Executive Vice President (yes, that’s a made up title) of the dart league for the past two-plus years. He’s spent much of that time building up league membership which had recently dwindled to about 16 players from 100 players in two leagues one for women and the second for men, 25 years ago.

“Mostly it’s word of mouth,” he said, noting he also did a flyer campaign. “I focused on package stores,” he said.

In that sense, Mr. Lucas was channeling the game’s roots which hinged on two critically important breakthroughs in the Medieval Age: development of the English longbow and the creation of local taverns.

The longbow was a winner for England. It allowed them to stay out of range of shorter bows used by foes and to potshot to their heart’s content. In those more leisurely days, wars were suspended in winter and resumed when the weather was more compliant. Some bright warrior thought the layoff would diminish marksmanship so he encouraged bowmen to whittle down a few arrows and repair to the local pub to practice throwing at an upended cask. Like baseball’s spring training, with more beer.

Darts became an egalitarian sport in a feudal world. Henry the Eighth was enamored and played whenever he took a break from marrying, divorcing, and chopping off his spouse’s heads. Anne Boleyn, his most famous wife, presented him with an expensive set of darts and a dartboard. Smart. A good try, though it didn’t save her noggin, more’s the pity.

Darts is a simple game, I was assured by Richie “Ripper” Roy, a darts player and the ne plus ultra of Island softball umpires. People have been playing and scoring dart games for 800 years. Certainly these two dozen men and women played and scored it effortlessly. Despite Mr. Roy’s growing concern with my inability to grasp the nuances of scoring, I did get the big picture.

Dartboards are composed of a group of pie-shaped slices, widest at the perimeter, narrow at the center where the bull’s-eye (called a “cork”) sits, plus an outer band worth double points and an inner band worth triple. I was shocked to learn that getting bull’s-eyes isn’t the point of competitive darts, it’s merely a high-scoring shot. In the game of cricket, for example, each of those pie slices has a different value inscribed on it from 15 through 20. You need to fill up your six numbers, plus the bulls-eye before the other team does.

In the Martha’s Vineyard Dart League, the players are like their game: fast and accurate. Players are rated as A,B,C, or D level players. You don’t get a rating card, people just know.

“A level players ALWAYS hit what they’re aiming at,” advised Lenny Vanderhoop, an Edgartown resident.

“Ratings can be moving targets. Some players are in-between,” mused Robert O’Sullivan who moved from Dublin to the Island 22 years ago and took up the game.

I wondered whether there is a Beer Curve in darts, on which accuracy decreases in proportion to the amount of beer consumed, like the Bell Curve we hoped for in school where your failing grade on a test would become a pass if enough of your classmates also did poorly.

Mr. Lucas, who hails from upstate New York originally and Michael Lipinsky, a carpenter from Houston who moved here 26 years ago, considered the question. “You have to find that fine line between focus and … no more focus,” Mr. Lucas said with a chuckle.

“A couple of beers are actually good for some players: it loosens them up,” Mr. Lipinsky said. “You just don’t want to get too loose.”

We checked with the barkeep Coreen Alton, a former player in the halcyon days of 100 league members and, as it turns out, the oral historian for all things dart-related on the Island.

“This is a good crowd, laid-back, easygoing, a blend of Islanders and people who’ve moved here,” she said, noting that Islanders Gerry and Bill Corellus were founding members of the league in 1976. “We had a banquet, awards, and a huge tournament with leagues from off-Island coming for three days,” she said.

So what happened to the players? “We were all the same age and I guess we just got involved in life — jobs, families,” she said. But Justin has done a great job since he’s taken it over, and the numbers are up.”

The dart league has two seasons: the fall league and a larger winter league with more than 30 players. “We can handle virtually any number of players,” Mr. Lucas said. “We have the space and the boards. We’d love to see more new players for the league which begins in January.”

Entry fee is $4 a night to play a variety of competitive team and singles games. For players like Ms. Tucker, a 10-year player, and Lisa Mathieu, a three-year player, the dart league represents a low-cost night out that combines fellowship with a low-impact competitive game that enlivens their sense of community.