"Bring me my arrows of desire," wrote William Blake in 1809, indicating that he may have been the first of the many English poets who were also dart players.
Darts, which goes back to medieval times when it sharpened yeoman archers' eyes, was extremely popular in 19th-century literary circles. Ruskin, Morris, Rosseti and Wordsworth were all better than average, and Oscar Wilde, with characteristic immodesty, described himself as "an adept." As usual, Wilde may have been telling no more than the truth - the grudge matches between him and Establishment champion Matthew Arnold still command hushed tones whenever oldtime darters meet.
At least that's what my friend the dart player says, and it may be true, though he's a bit vague about how this upper-class intellectual game turned into England's great tavern sport and Andy Capp's life's work.
But none of that really matters: Darts is fun. And darts is slowly becoming big business. This week the Washington Area Darts Asscoiation is running its fourth annual. Washington Open - Oct. 7, 8 and 9 at the Convention Center of the Twin Bridges Mariott - with more than $13,000 in cash and trophies, and darters from all over the country. If you've never been to a dart tournament, this is your chance.
Bar-pale failed surfers from California.
Mixed teams from the date-bars in Manhattan, with nylon shirts that look just like bowling shirts only covered with darts and names like Mr. Goodbar, Tropic of Cancer or Fear of Flying.
Heavy guys in their mid-40s, whose beerbarrel chests seem to slip slowly toward their knees, an inch a drink, as the hour gets later and their shooting gets better, and who are all from Philadelphia and shoot better than anybody - except reigning champion Conrad Daniels, who is from Trenton, N.J.
Plus any number of the kind of guys you always thought spent their lives hustling pool, who will try to hustle you a game of darts, or pool if you like, or pitching pennies if all else fails. Guys who don't like the hotel brand and so bring their own beer in duffel bags, and wear hats made of empty beer cans and knitted tassels. Guys who will offer to bet you they can hit any number you pick - throwing three darts at a time, or backward, or with a sheet of newspaper covering the board. (Never, never, bet any dart player that he can't do something - especially if it sounds absolutely impossible.)
Lots of friendly family bar camaraderie.
Some amazing shooting - Conrad Daniels will be here, and as Muhammed Ali says, "It's gotta be something to be the best - at anything, I don't care what it is."
After watching Daniels, and a couple of the Philly shooters like Ray Fisher and Frank Ennis, you may decide along with Dante Gabriel Rosetti that even being good at darts is "an ambition worthy of a lifetime of effort."
If Rosetti ever actually said that, of course. All I have is the word of my darter friend - whom I can beat twenty times in a row at a dollar a game, and then when we raise the stakes to $5 I lose 10 games before I realize what's happening. So I don't know why, or if, I trust him.
If you want to make a weekend of it, the tournament starts tonight at 8:30 and will probably adjourn to several easy-to-find dart bars later. Saturday, four-man team and doubles day, starts at 10 a.m. Sunday - individual shooting, the most tension-filled and exciting event - also starts at 10 a.m., with the trophies and prizes (possibly including the traditional case of beer for the highest round) given out at 8 p.m. Dress casual. Admission free.
Dart tournaments are usually something like a cross between celebrity bowling, a day at the races and a holiday wekend at a neighborhood bar. Try one and see.