Near the door, where the cigarette smoke and jukebox-laden chatter were gently dismissed by yesterday afternoon's unseasonably warm breezes, a young bearded patron at Caffney's Emerald Isle Room leaned intently on the "Mata Hari" pinball machine.

He was facing the room, not the machine.

Folks generally go to Caffney's to pitch darts rather than quarters, and yesterday was Caffney's third annual dart tournament to benefit the D.C. Area Chapter of the Epilepsy Foundation of America. Bar owner Nick Chantiles eventually counted a crowd of about 100, including 65 contestants who paid $5 each to enter. They came to his Colorado Avenue neighborhood bar in Northwest Washington from everywhere around except, it seemed, from the neighborhood itself, to compete on a dozen dartboards for a dozen gold-tone trophies.

"Darts is more than a hobby, more than an avocation," said Chantiles, 52, who is short, squat, has a gray mustache and goatee and car license plates that say "DARTS." "It's more like a way of life for me."

Besides running Caffney's and a local dart supplies business, Chantiles regularly directs national tournaments for the Washington Area Darts Association -- of which he is one of about 5,500 card-carrying members. He is considered by many of the ever-increasing number of local dart enthusiasts as a kind of father figure for their game.

Patty Roberts, an old friend of Chantiles who was sitting at the bar nearby, said: "He does it for people. He enjoys people. Darts is just a way to get to know them."

It's cheaper than bowling," said Red Spillan, a red-haired, red-bearded auto parts store manager from College Park who converted only recently from throwing bowling balls to darts, although along the way he paid $90 for a set of top-of-the-line tungsten darts in a leather case. "It's also a lot more competitive, and a lot more fun."

"I thought at first it was a really dumb and stupid game," said Sue Gingell, a 27-year-old Langley Park woman who never played the game until she was hired as a barmaid by Chantiles when he opened Caffney's six years ago. "Then I started shooting, and I realized hey, this is hard. Then you get determined, and pretty soon you're addicted."

Gingell, who last year won the U.S. Open darts tournament held annually in Virginia, said she tried to quit once for about three or four months. "It didn't work," she said. "I got really unbearable at home."

"No doubt about it, this can get expensive," said Dave Staake, a 26-year-old Wheator player whose name is pronounced like the word that best describes his build. Staake said his theory about alcohol's oft-(and sometimes disparagingly) mentioned relationship to darts has to do with keeping the muscles loose.

"The arm can't be tight," he said, demonstrating a smooth-flowing elbow action, "or you're in trouble. For some people, maybe a couple of beers can help."

Yesterday's crowd came largely by car from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, Chantiles estimated as he surveyed the room from his seat at the registration table. Around him, contestants stood with cocked arms and momentarily grim coutenances, their sneakers and cowboy boots edging up to the foul lines taped or painted on the floor. Others sat back and watched from tables strewn with half-empty bottles of Budweiser, half-full ashtrays and boxes of chalk to keep score. The jukebox exuded Kool and the Gang.

"I think I've enjoyed myself the most in the last six years of my 25 in the business," Chantiles said, picking up the microphone to announce the next players due at Board Five.

The contestants shared his enthusiasm as they threw their darts at the targets. Even the losers didn't seem to mind when they missed the bull's eye. t

"It sure beats discos," concluded Patty Roberts.