IT IS A SPORT with few limitations.
Recalls Sandy Kutzleb of Dale City: "A few years ago, I played on a team in Washington with a woman who had no arms . . . she shot her darts with her feet."
Darts is one of the best sports for head-to-head competition between man and woman at almost any age.
"Men have an advantage over women in a mind sense," says dart shooter and D.C. office manager Kutzleb, "but as far as skills go, no one has an edge."
Kutzleb is one of more than 300 women who compete in dart league matches here. There are an estimated 10,000 players in the Washington area between the ages of 18 and 60; nationally, two to three million people regularly toe the line that's drawn 7 feet, 9 inches from a regulation dartboard.
The game that got its start back in the Middle Ages (when soldiers used hand arrows to throw at archery targets for recreation) is nowadays a way to meet people and have fun -- while avoiding the often punishing world of perspiration at the health club.
Sue Dabbondanza, a nurse for a Bethesda physician, started playing because of knee surgery during her athletic years in college.
"I'm still competitive and I still hate to lose," she says.
Dabbondanza is part of an all-women team in a suburban Maryland league that often shoots against an all-male team.
"And we often win," says Dabbondanza.
Retired restaurant owner Nick Chantiles, now a local dart tournament promoter, says a lot more women are coming into the leagues.
"Women have the necessary hand-eye coordination for the game," says Chantiles, "and they can more than hold their own against men in tournament play."
Most players believe darts is about 75 percent mental -- an ongoing test of concentration. With that in mind, shooter Larry Brown has a logical reason for supporting women's participation in the game.
"If I run into someone that has a problem shooting with women and I know they're going to shoot against me in an upcoming match, I'll specifically try to put women on my team," confides Brown, an engineer with Eastman Kodak in Washington.
Maryland's current ladies singles dart champion, Patti Weber, was taught how to play by her ex-husband.
"I shoot against men twice a week," says Weber, who runs a Kensington antique shop when she's not practicing on the boards, "and love the competition."
She will be defending her title as state singles champion this October. As she was watching some of her past opponents at a pub-sponsored match at the Princess Garden Inn in Lanham recently, Weber recalled her first major tournament:
"It was a real experience because the man I played against blew me off the board," she said. "I went home and shot 10,000 darts it was so unbelievable."
At the Princess Garden Inn this night, 16 men are shooting in the first round of the pub's Pro League tournament. These shooters are here by invitation only. Talent abounds. Very few darts hit the floor.
Dressed in slacks and a tie, shooter Marty Schilling, a salesman from Columbia, is in the middle of a match that will last about two hours. He'll chat with his opponent, but his concentration on the board is more intense than one might think. Schilling's eyes move primarily from the board to the scorekeeper .
While players like Weber and Schilling work hard to maintain a high level of competence with steel-tipped miniature javelins, other active players are working at knocking down some misconceptions about the sport.
"One of the major problems we run into," says Tom Ward, a sales rep and executive director of the Washington Area Darts Association, "is the misconception that darts are played in a smoke-filled bar with a bunch of beer-guzzling fools who happen to have darts in their hands."
Ward admits there are a few that fit this description, but insists the vast majority of the area dart shooters aren't like that:
"This is really a respectable sport." STEPPING UP TO THE LINE
For beginners, the Washington Area Darts Association can usually arrange introductory lessons. They recommend novice shooters start with a set of three darts in the $5 to $40 range, with dart weight not exceeding 22 grams. Area leagues normally play Monday through Thursday nights at various pubs and restaurants. WASHINGTON AREA DART ASSOCIATION -- Tom Ward, 1725 Berry Lane, Forestville, MD 20747. 232-9232. METRO DART LEAGUE -- (Montgomery and Prince George's counties.) Sue Dabbondanza, PO Box 888, Rockville, MD 20851. 340-6161. TOURNAMENT DARTS INTERNATIONAL (TDI) -- (D.C.) Becky Reeves, 5521 Colorado Ave. NW, DC 20011. 726-9768. HOWARD COUNTY DART ASSOCIATION -- Kelly Gilbert, PO Box 1503, Columbia, MD 21044. 301/461-4331. SOUTHERN MARYLAND DART ASSOCIATION -- Terry Gilmore, PO Box 265, Lexington Park, MD 20653. 301/862-4065. TRI-COUNTY DART ASSOCIATION --
(St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties.) Fred W. Evans, 151 Morgan Rd., Hollywood, MD 20636. 301/373-8309. A DART THROWER'S HIT LIST The dartboards at some pubs, including some in the following sampling, are open only to area league members. It's best to check first. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ABBEY ROAD -- 2000 L St. NW. 293-2060. BLACK ROOSTER PUB -- 1919 L St. NW. 659-4431. CAFFNEY'S -- 5521 Colorado Ave. NW. 726-9768. STEVAN'S ON THE HILL -- 231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 543-8337.
MARYLAND BOSCO'S -- 8210 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 588-4440. THE HIDEAWAY -- 6421 Old Alexander Ferry Rd., Clinton. 856-1158. LASICK'S -- 9128 Baltimore Blvd., College Park. 441-2040. PRINCESS GARDEN INN -- 8950 Annapolis Rd., Lanham. 459-4250. ROYAL MILE PUB -- 2407 Prince Ave., Wheaton. 946-4511.
VIRGINIA ALEXANDRIA BOWLING CENTER -- 6224 N. King's Highway, Alexandria. 765-3633. COCKNEY PRIDE -- 7607 Centreville Rd., Manassas. 703/369-6526. STEAK AND SURF -- 3529 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax. 273-4310. MAMA'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT -- 9715 Lee Highway, Fairfax. 385-9774. CHARLEY'S PLACE -- 6930 Old Dominion Dr., McLean. 893-1034.