Walter Humm remembers when the best dart tossers in the world played in Alexandria. He has owned Pepi’s Pizza Box for 33 years, and said the darts craze began in 1975 or 1976 at the old Pizza Box on Jordan Street. For the next 20 years, the Pizza Box was packed with players. At one point, four of its regulars were ranked in the top 50 in the world. At its weekly luck of the draw tournament, 40 or 50 people might show up. The Pizza Box fielded six or seven darts teams.
But in the past decade, the popularity of darts in Alexandria declined. Until six months ago, the Pizza Box’s dartboards hung forgotten on the wall.
"All of a sudden," said Humm, "guys who played all the time, they had work, they got married. All of a sudden in the Pizza Box, for ten years we had no league."
Humm added that it was not simply Alexandrian tossers who were getting jobs, getting married, and forgetting darts. He said there used to be a darts mecca in Shirlington with 60 boards, "Like a bowling alley."
ALTHOUGH A 60 LANE darts arena may still not be possible, there are signs that the sport is growing in popularity throughout the region. Mick Nardelli, the chairman of the Washington Area Darts Association (WADA) said ESPN’s televised World Series of Darts is arousing new interest in the barroom staple.
WADA is a non-profit organization founded in 1969. It coordinates darts leagues and tournaments in D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland. There are four leagues ranging from D, the beginner level, to A, the semi-pro division. In addition WADA hosts one national/international tournament each year and two local tournaments.
A bar can host as many teams as it has boards. Teams typically play one game at their home court each week and one away.
Individual players can also participate in "luck of the draw" tournaments held all over the region each week. Players put their entry fee in a pot and draw an opponent from a hat each round.
Many league matches and tournaments will alternate between the most common British game, 501, and the American one, Cricket.
Nardelli said he goes to a luck of the draw about once a week and travels to national tournaments about once a month. This July he got married at a tournament in Las Vegas.
But he emphasized that although competition (and matrimony) can lend intensity to the game, most people play because it’s a relaxing opportunity to socialize and simply have fun. He cited the "general camaraderie you have with dart players in a given area [and beyond.] It really is an extended family wherever you go."
NARDELLI SAID too many people are intimidated by public dartboards. "The biggest thing I hear from people when they walk into a pub is, ‘Oh I’m not really good at the game and there’s a lot of people playing so I’m not going over there.’"
But he said that just because someone is already throwing darts at a board when you walk into a bar, it doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.
"If you’re a beginning dart player and you want to walk into a pub or a bar to play darts, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t need to be concerned about how you play. Darts is a fun game to play and 95 percent of the people don’t play very well, so you’ve got a fairly good chance that you’re not going to be completely blown off the board."
He added that even if you do match up against a superior player, most won’t mind. "The high caliber players all started at a low level today and they’re happy to help someone out," Nardelli said.
"Don’t be afraid to ask questions: how to hold your dart, ‘Is this a good way to stand?’ ‘How do you play the game?’"
"ANY PLACE that has darts will have pick-up games," said Joe VanVoorhees, director of WADA’s Virginia East Region. "You’ll find a dart game everywhere. Good, bad, ugly it doesn’t matter. People are just out to have fun."
He cited Carpool and Champion’s in Arlington, Fast Eddie’s in Springfield and Pepi’s Pizza Box on South Pickett Street in Alexandria as local places with strong darts league teams. He added that Bistro Europa on King Street is a good place to play in Old Town.
Van Voorhees said he started a team eight years ago with six friends from work. Although all but two have moved on to different jobs, they still all toss darts together.
Mike Pirtle got into darts when he was in New Jersey, where they throw wooden darts with feather flights at "Widdy" boards. When he moved to Alexandria, he began throwing at Bistro Europe, which he said had a small, but tight, darts family. He met a player from WADA and began playing with a team at Pepi’s. Last year, with a team out of Little Italy in Annandale, they won the B-League and graduated to the A-League.
"For me it’s a very relaxing sport and a good way to meet people and perhaps get out one night a week," he said. "I can’t just sit on a barstool for three or four hours and just chat all night. I like to stay mobile."
Pirtle said he learned by watching better darts throwers. He said the key to throwing well is "minimal movement," trying to keep the body and the upper arm still and shoot only with the elbow. "I try to have the same motion each time," he said, "the same release, the same timing."
But he added that stepping up to the line and simply throwing at the board is not complicated. "It looks harder than it probably is until you get to a certain level and then it gets very challenging and fun."
HUMM, WHO SAID he plays darts but "I’m not very good," said darts returned to the Pizza Box about six months ago. Some people came in and "asked me if they could shoot here. Because we had the dartboards up on the wall. And they knew about us. They heard about me." They began a co-ed team and now the Pizza Box has an A-League team and a lower level team.
"Darts is a nice game," Humm said. "It’s a bar game. It’s like people all of a sudden see some guys and the want to play. It’s coming back."
"I like it when the guys come. It’s the best bar game there is."