RICK WIPF, rolling a dart on his fingers, stepped to the throw line and intently eyed his target -- the dart board's center, the bull. It's a small target, roughly the size of a half dollar, and Wipf needed to score three to win the game and to clinch the first doubles cricket match of the evening for his team, the Hard Times Hit Squad.

With a crisp flick of his arm and wrist, Wipf's first dart flew smartly toward the board's center. Just out. Second dart. Double bull! (His dart found the tiny dime-size ring tucked within the larger bull ring -- counting for two bulls.)Wipf, 39, of Springfield, paused and patiently aimed his last dart. The surrounding players quieted and sipped their beers. They knew he could win right then and there. Double bull! Again!

"Right in there," said Wipf's playing partner, Chris Leithiser, 34, his voice resonant with admiration. The game-winning throw gave Wipf and Leithiser victory in the third "leg" of the best-of-three doubles cricket match and an early 2-1 win for their team against new league rivals -- Fast Eddie's Beer Swillers.

It's easy to imagine this scene playing out in a crowded, boisterous English pub where darts and beer have gone together for hundreds of years.

These days the game of darts is thriving in the Washington area, where almost every night of the week, hundreds of players gather in taverns, restaurants and other locales to participate in league and tournament play, not to mention the countless number of casual pickup games happening around the region.

Explaining the appeal of darts, Dave Long, 40, of Woodbridge, a dart player for 20 years and owner of Dave's Dart Shop, noted that it's a "fascinating, competitive sport that doesn't require physical strength or mental prowess to be competitive. . . . Anybody can play darts, and everybody can be competitive."

Beer Swiller team member David Lynes, 30, of Falls Church, who enjoys the game's social aspects, enthused, "It's a great combination: food, beer and darts." Added Swiller teammate Dennis Flynn, 42, of Alexandria, "It's a night out of the house, and it certainly beats sitcoms."

Both Flynn and Lynes, as well as Wipf and Leithiser, are members of the Washington Area Darts Association (WADA), one of the larger organizations involved in coordinating league and tournament dart play in the Washington region. According to Executive Director Gene Glasser, WADA currently has 65 teams participating in league play, each with five to six players.

WADA organizes three seasons of league play a year -- fall, winter and spring -- with each season running approximately four months, followed by a two-week playoff and a two-day league championship. League play takes place nightly Monday though Wednesday, running from about 8 to 11 p.m., with each team playing one match a week. Teams are separated into divisions according to player skill level and location. Currently, there are three levels of play, ranging from the serious, very dedicated A level to the casual yet competitive C level.

The Hit Squad and the Beer Swillers compete at WADA's C level. As Flynn noted, "We're out for fun, but we're here to win."

For the most part, the other dart organizations in the Washington region feature similar leagues and programs. There is variation, however, within each association, in terms of rules, scoring, team makeup, types of games played and so forth.

In addition to leagues, most of the area's dart associations organize large-scale annual and semiannual tournaments that award cash to winners. These events, which draw players from the region and beyond, usually require a $5 to $20 entry fee. Several smaller, informal, luck-of-the-draw tournaments are sponsored by local eating/drinking establishments. Here, play usually takes place on weekend nights with a nominal entry fee.

While darts players are predominantly male, a considerable number of women do play in the area. Most local associations offer a mixed league, and the Virginia Dart League has a league for women only. Glasser estimates that 10 percent of the region's players are women.

To get involved in darts, Glasser suggests spending $30 to $40 for a set of darts and shooting around in pickup games to determine if the game has any appeal. The next step is to join a league; Glasser recommends calling around to see what each area dart organization offers. WADA, he said, will assist in placing interested persons on teams, taking into account skill level and location. The WADA Web site has a section where players and teams place notices to match teams with players and vice versa. Glasser emphasized that new teams are in demand and that he currently has a backlog of eager sponsors.

The outcome of the match between the Hard Times Hit Squad and Fast Eddie's Beer Swillers? After darting out to a big lead, the Hit Squad ran into a determined bunch of Beer Swillers, who ultimately prevailed, 22 to 17, in a squeaker.

ON TARGET

The following is a partial listing of locations where darts are played in the area. Most of the listed establishments are major dart league venues; others were selected to give coverage to the area in its entirety. For more information on venues, contact one of the dart associations listed below.

The District

ANGLES -- 2339 18th St. NW. 202/462-8100.

ATOMIC BILLIARDS -- 3427 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/363-7665.

BEDROCK BILLIARDS -- 1841 Columbia Rd. NW. 202/667-7665.

BUFFALO BILLIARDS -- 1330 19th St. NW. 202/331-7665.

IRELAND'S FOUR PROVINCES -- 3412 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/244-0860.

MICKEY'S PATIO -- 406 Eighth St. SE. 202/544-4842.

Maryland

BACKSTREETS -- 12352 Wilkens Ave., Rockville. 301/984-0394.

BRADY'S -- 20260 Golden Rod Lane, Germantown. 301/972-6700.

BUNKER HILL INN -- 9800 Bunker Hill Rd., Waldorf. 301/932-7467.

CHAMPIONS BILLIARDS SPORTS CAFE -- 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville. 301/231-4949.

FLANAGAN'S IRISH PUB -- 7637 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 301/986-1007.

GOLD MINE SALOON -- 3090 Old Washington Rd., Waldorf. 301/843-3566.

GOLDEN SPORTS BAR -- Routes 40 & 29, Ellicott City. 410/480-2994.

MAC'S SUNNYBROOK TAVERN -- 9000 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. 301/248-9596.

MAGIC CUE -- 13032 Middlebrook Rd.,Germantown. 301/916-7665.

NATHAN HENRY'S -- 6228 Sykesville Rd. (Route 32), Sykesville. 410/795-7572.

PADDY MAC'S IRISH RESTAURANT & PUB -- 8241 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301/608-3360.

THE PUB AT WILDE LAKE -- 5430 Lynx Lane, Columbia. 410/730-8444.

REMINGTON'S -- 11500 Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville. 301/937-6809.

SHEA'S PUB -- 6801 Douglas Legum Dr. #D, Elkridge. 410/799-0028.

SOLE D'ITALIA -- 14324 Layhill Rd., Silver Spring. 301/598-6660.

Virginia

BRITTANY'S RESTAURANT -- 12449 Dillingham Square, Woodbridge. 703/730-0728.

BUNGALOW BILLIARDS -- 13891 Metrotech Dr., Chantilly. 703/502-3825.

CHAMPIONS BILLIARDS SPORTS CAFE -- 2620 S. Shirlington Rd., Arlington. 703/521-3800.

CROSSROADS BAR & GRILL -- 3988 University Dr., Fairfax. 703/352-1547.

CLUBHOUSE -- 9008 Mathis Ave., Manassas. 703/331-0998.

DOUBLE RR SALOON -- 22330 Sterling Blvd. #112, Sterling. 703/421-8920.

FAST EDDIE'S (FAIRFAX) -- 9687 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703/385-7529.

FAST EDDIE'S (SPRINGFIELD) -- 7255 Commerce St., Springfield. 703/912-7529.

FOXHOLE -- 555 S. 23rd St., Arlington. 703/685-0555.

GATOR'S BILLIARDS & CAFE -- 3801 Golansky Blvd., Woodbridge. 703/670-8079.

GREVEY'S -- 8130 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703/560-8530.

HARD TIMES CAFE (SPRINGFIELD) -- 6362 Springfield Plaza, Springfield. 703/913-5600.

HOPSFROG TAVERN -- 5945 Burke Center Pkwy., Burke. 703/239-9324.

LITTLE ITALY -- 6920-L Backlick Rd., Annandale. 703/256-9122.

MADIGAN'S GRILL -- 4120 Merchant Plaza (corner of Old Bridge Road and Prince William Parkway), Lake Ridge. 703/583-1409.

MR. SMITH'S (TYSONS CORNER) -- 8369 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 703/893-5500.

PIZZA BOX -- 330 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. 703/751-4777.

RHODESIDE GRILL -- 1836 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703/243-0145.

SULLY'S RESTAURANT -- 14513 Lee Jackson Hwy., Chantilly. 703/818-9292.

SUNSET GRILL -- 7250 Columbia Pike, Annandale. 703/658-0928.

TINO'S AT MAMA'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT -- 9715 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703/385-2646.

WHITEY'S -- 2761 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703/525-9825.

WINFIELD'S -- 5127 Westfields Blvd., Centreville. 703/803-1040.

Dart Organizations

COORS CHARLES COUNTY DART ASSOCIATION -- P.O. Box 1356, White Plains, MD 20695-1356. e-mail: ccda@hotmail.com. Web site: www.cyberdarts.com/ccda/

HOWARD COUNTY DART ASSOCIATION -- P.O. Box 574, Columbia, MD 21045. e-mail: dartinfo@hcdadarts.com. Web site: www.hcdadarts.com

PRINCE WILLIAM DART ASSOCIATION -- care of Dave's Dart Shop, 13840 Smoketown Rd., Woodbridge, VA 22192. 703/680-4120.

TOURNAMENT DARTS INTERNATIONAL -- 922 Heron Dr., Silver Spring, MD 20901-3701. e-mail: smires@email.usps.gov. Web site: members2.boo.net/~tdi/

VIRGINIA DART LEAGUE -- 4917 Tydfil Ct., Fairfax, VA 22030. 703/278-0221. e-mail: vadlt80@aol.com

WASHINGTON AREA DARTS ASSOCIATION -- P.O. Box 2123, Vienna, VA 22813. 703/941-7266 or 202/232-9232. e-mail: wada.director@erols.com. Web site: www.wadadarts.org