It's mixed-doubles night at Caffney's Emerald Isle Room in Northwest, a neighborhood bar where the "Space Invaders" game is silent and all the action takes place in the back room.

Dartboards and small chalkboards run the entire length of the building, and lines to mark the throwing distance are painted on the floor.

The ashtrays overflow with cigarette butts; the beers and drinks on the small tables near the teams empty quickly as the players take sips after each turn.

The dart enthusiasts say that people think they're crazy for wanting to play the game: "Most people think it's childish, so I ask them to come shoot me in a game," says Mike Dabby, former chairman of the Washington Area Darts Association's nine-member board of directors.

"People assume it's easy. A good dart player makes his sport look easy just like any athlete does."

Clara Reinburg, WADA executive director, says she used to be ignorant about the sport. That was when she used to watch the darters while tending bar at an American Legion post. "I called them 'the nuts,'" she said. "I thought it was so stupid. Here were these dumb people throwing things at a wall every week."

But a friend started a mixed-doubles team and asked her to play. Reluctantly, she played that one night.

"That was a Thursday," she recalls. "On Friday I went to Memco and bought three sets of brass darts, because I wasn't sure what weights I needed."

And many a bowling ball has been pushed to the back of the closet in favor of the dart board. Louise Cleary of Annandale was once an avid league bowler.

But that was two years ago, before she discovered WADA and became preoccupied with darts.

"My friends laugh at me because I carry my darts with me all the time," she says. "You never know where you're going to be where there's dart board."

The darters take their darting seriously. Some boast several dart sets, many of them in tungsten, at $50 to $75 a set. The removable flights are usually plastic and printed with designs ranging from American flags to cartoon characters or even nude figures. The darts are carried in cigarette-pack-size leather or plastic cases.

The activity continues at the pub:

"Hey, anybody got more quarters for the juke box?"

"Play Number 85 -- Night Fever."

"We need a chalkie on board four."

"Here, go get me a beer, will ya?"

"Charile, what board are you on?"

"Good darts, Larry. Good darts."

Many WADA members feel that the game's association with bars give darts a bad image.

"Drinking is to darts what the 19th hole is to golf -- something to do when you're through," says Reinburg.

But most of the bar owners enjoy the crowds that their dart boards bring. "I've been in the bar business for 25 years," says Nick Chantiles, owner of Caffney's Emerald Isle Room. "I've worked nightclubs, restaurants, you name it.But I've never been more at ease or had more fun than these last six years when I've had darts. I've never had a problem in my bar with darts."

Chantiles, a short, stocky Greek with white hair, mustache and goatee, is the regional director for the American Darts Organization. Called "The Pooh Bear" by his fellow darters, he is a father figure in area darts:

He sponsors 10 to 12 WADA teams each season plus "Caffney's Ladies All Stars," the first all-star women's team in the country;

He holds the only women's dart tournament in the United States every May;

He has been the tournament coordinator for both the U.S. Open and the Washington Open the past three years;

He runs his own dart supply business and sports a license plate with the letters DARTS.

Dart is relaxing, he says, and he credits his enjoyment to the people he meets through the game: "I can go into any bar and if they have a dart board, all I have to do is pull out my darts and I'm immediately welcomed. Darts transcends everything. There doesn't seem to be any distinction of class."

WADA, with 55 pubs and more than 5,500 members, is second only to the Southern California Darting Association in size.

What's the big attraction? "Anyboy can play darts and play darts well," explains Reinburg. "It's also inexpensive. It cost $4 a night to bowl, but darts costs only 35.7 cents a night."

The friendships and camaraderie that result from playing in a weekly dart league add to its popularity. "We are people with Ph.D.s and people who dig ditches," says Dabby. "Darts gives you a common bind. You don't have to talk politics or occupation, but you can talk about darts with anyone." h

In addition to weekly league play, local playoff winners may advance to state and regional tournaments. Then for the East and West Coast champions and other national winners, it's on to the World Masters competion held each October in London.

The traveling players compete in a tournament circuit much like that in tennis -- there's a good-size dart tournament every two or three weeks throughout the country. Most of these tournaments, like the Washington Open, scheduled for February 13 through 15, are sponsored by local dart organizations.

One Chicago darter, K.C. Kullaney, travels each weekend to tournaments throughout the country, sponsored by a Chicago pub that picks up his expenses. He's interested in the money first, then the competition: "If I'm lucky I can increase my imcome by $20,000 a year," Kullaney says. "But sometimes I travel a thousand miles and don't win a thing."

One open tournament, the North American Open, is sponsored by the Southern California Darting Association. With a total purse of more than $40,000, it's considered the largest tournament in the country today.

Still another tournament, the biennial World Cup, sponsored by the World Dart Federation, is much like the Olympics: Each of the 28 countries in the federation is eligible to send one eight-member team. The tournament will be held in New Zealand in October.

Back at the pub, the last shooter steps up to face the board. The whole bar is silent; even the jukebox stops. This is the deciding shot for the home team. The teammate aims the dart, then lets it fly. It hits and the bar explodes with cheers. The losing team puts its darts back in their cases. The game is over, but there's always another next week.