It all started innocently. I walked into a favorite pub and stopped to greet some friends at the dartboard. One, about to step away for a few minutes, handed me his darts: "Here, you play till I get back."

Well, I completely missed the board with the first two, but a least didn't injure anyone; then my third dart hit a 17. And I continued to throw for the rest of the night. Now I can't walk by a dartboard without feeling the urge to shoot. Don't think it can't happen to you, too. First you stand and watch. Then someone hands you some darts and -- well, you know the rest.

Or do you? Did you know that Anne Boleyn gave her husband, Henry VIII, a set of darts? Some even say she beat him in a dart match, hastening the loss of her head, but this is just conjecture.

And don't think, as I did, that the object is simply to hit the bull's-eye (also known as the cork or bull): There are elaborate rules for a variety of games, the most common ones ending in an 01, as in 301, 501, 601 or 1,001. On the standard "clock" board, the inner ring is a triple score, the outer ring double. For the 01 games, you start at the agreed-on number (301 or 501, say) then subtract points until you reach zero. But you have to hit a double before you can start scoring, and to end the game you need a double for the exact amount remaining.

In cricket, you must score three of one number, from 20 down through 15, in addition to three bulls. You gain points by closing out a number before your opponent does.

Over 3,000 registered members of the Washington Area Darts Assocation (WADA) play these games in league play. About 1,700 of those are active participants, but the figures don't include those who merely throw when the whim strikes; most are dedicated players who meet regularly in pubs for games and constant practice.

All it takes is a dartboard, three darts, two to three players and a chalkboard; choose a slow bar night, add a few beers, and the resulting tableau evokes an atomosphere of camaraderie and gamesmanship in the one sport that doesn't require great physical agility -- some even argue that overweight players have better balance.

David Tucker, executive director of WADA, says the sport evolved rather haphazardly from "the 13th or 14th century. There's a lot of legend surrounding it, but it sounds reasonable: Crossbow archers practiced throwing quarrels at a section of a tree trunk, to keep their eye in. Then they used the butts of barrels. The game was originally known as 'butts,' not darts. It developed from there. The object was to hit as near to center as possible; then somebody got the idea of marking it into divisions. The current board is approximately a hundred years old. Apparently, the archers got the idea to move the target indoors during the winter to prolong their entertainment. The tavern wall was the selected site, and it remains a fixture there to this day."

Tucker recounts another popular legend: "A dart player was hauled into court for gambling. He did in fact wager money. But he was so good at darts, he contended he was not gambling. On continual tries he hit 20s and bull's-eyes. Then he asked the judge to try his hand. The judge couldn't do it, so he ruled darts a game of skill and not gambling."

A friendly wager does add interest to a game. Traditionally, the loser buys the winner a pint of beer. Although competitive sports do not ususally encourage alcoholic consumption, darts grew up in pubs, establishing a bond between the game and drink that continues today. The bastion of darts is easily the local bar, though dartboards can be found elsewhere. What do the bars get out of sponsoring teams, or just keeping dartboards available for patrons? Mike Heibel, owner of One Flight Up on Wisconsin Avenue, says the presence of dart throwers is quite lucrative, especially on the traditionally slow night at the beginning of the week: "The dart players are like a bowling crowd. An older group of people drink and play darts. They never fight or cause trouble. And there are few complainers."

Most teams are formed by people who break away from an existing team and create another from among people at work or in their social circle. In WADA, the 8-person teams usually average 10 or 11 members to provide for substitutes. The team's manager decides whether to rotate shooters during a particular week. On some teams, all the members throw; on others, players are designated as starters and substitutes.

Standard equipment includes a "clock" of Bristol board, 15 inch in diameter. When purchasing the darts themselves, true aficionados consider weight (in grams), length, shape, material (such as brass, nickel-tungsten or steel-tungsten), the type of flight and the type of shaft. Scoreboards, traditionally chalkboards, sometimes come mounted into elaborate cabinets.

Basix rules include standing behind the throw line, 79 1/4inch from the board in WADA competitions, and being careful not to throw near other players or spectators. An individual removes his own darts from the board, and one doesn't disturb someone who's throwing. Darts may be entertaining, but it's a serious business to its enthusiasts.