In a dark bar near Dupont Circle, John Blankenship pulls out a newspaper clipping. It's about a dispute over a game of darts. In Baltimore, it says, a guy who quit in the middle of a game was beaten to death by his partner. The murderer was sentenced to life.

"That would never happen in Washington," Blankenship says. "The game is too tame in this town."

The smoke-filled barroom image is just what the sport is fighting, 33-year-old Harry Seel says. "It's an international sport now, with international rules" -- which to the uninitiated may seem as intricate as the playoff procedure in the National Football League.

Some 5,000 registered members of the Washington Area Dart Association (WADA) are spread among 200 teams at more than 50 bars.

Blankenship and Seel are members of a team which includes a roofer, a photographer, a hairdresser, an auto mechanic and a librarian, most of whom devote at least three nights a week to shooting darts.

The most popular game of darts is called 301. Each eight-member team begins with 301 points and the first side to shoot down to zero wins.

It may sound simple, but the twist is that the first and last players must "double in and double out." To do that, the dart shooter must hit the part of target designated as a double-point area. It's three-eighths of an inch wide -- and tough to hit. Other variations on the same game -- 501 for instance-- are also popular.

"It's a mindless activity," claims photographer Steve Szabo, who took up the game 11 years ago as a diversion while writing a book. "It's a sort of Zen activity. If you think about what you're doing, you can't do it. You have to concentrate only on the number you're shooting at, not the whole board."

Szabo, 40, plays at Mr. Eagan's, a bar on Connecticut Ave. NW, three nights a week (dropping somewhere between $5 and $10 each night on refreshments) because that's where he started playing.

"Another appealing aspect is that nobody cares what you do for a living. We never talk about work. It make no difference," said Szabo. "The only thing we have in common is that we are all good dart players."

His team is Class AA, the highest in the league, and a player must be invited to join. "Right now we have all the good players any team could ask for," said Gerry Dault of Adams-Morgan, a researcher at the Library of Congress. "For new players, it's best for them to just call the WADA and work their way up through the ranks.

"It's actually more of a mental game than it is physical," Dault said. "The dart board must be five foot eight inches [high] at the center, with the toe line seven feet nine and one-quarter inches back.

"You have to stroke the dart when you shoot," he explained. "The trick is in the wrist. You have to have a lot of flexibility."

Costs to a player include darts and $10 membership dues to WADA and $10 to his new team. A set of three darts can cost from $20 to as much as $60, depending on quality.

Warren Levy, an auto mechanic, took apart his dart in order to explain further: "Barrel, shaft and flight," he said. "You can buy them all seaparately.

"The barrel is the part with the point. The shaft is the most important part -- it should be thin and lightweight -- and the flight is the end with what used to be feathers. Except now, the feathers are made of plastic."

Levy proudly exhibits his top-of-the-line tungsten darts, with the American flag on the end of the flight. The price? "Well," he said, "they were $60. But a good set with a slim barrel can make the difference in how many bulls (bulls-eyes) you get in one turn."

Levy's wife Catherine is one of the few women in Mr. Eagan's bar. She occasionally shoots as an alternate on the team. She has shared her husband's passion for the game since they met during a match in a "dart bar" seven years ago.

"Nowadays if you go in a bar and there is no darts, it's empty," said Randy Bean. "Our sponsor thinks it's great for business."

For Jerry Eagan, owner of the bar that bears his name, darts became a matter of survival. "During the riots in 1968, nobody wanted to come downtown," said Eagan. "So in order to hold my business together. I started the darts. In the beginning we had 14 teams. Now we're down to five or six. The game has now spread to the suburbs, but I don't need it now like I once did."

But almost any night of the week a visitor walks in off Connecticut Avenue, a group of shooters can be found gathered around the board, drinks and darts in hand.

The barroom image may never be eliminated.

"Win or lose, there is no difference between this and any other sport," said Szao. "It's just unfortunate it has to be in a barroom atmosphere."

"Yes," adds Bean, "but after a couple of beers it does add more of a challenge."