The smoke hung heavy in the grand ballroom. Spotlights beamed on 30 black-and-white boards. Sixty-eight players, their faces etched with determination, waited their turn.

The sport was darting. The event was the Fifth Annual Military Invitational Dart Classic, a three-day affair for military families that drew hundreds to Arlington's Twin Bridges Marriott Hotel last weekend.

The tournament, sponsored by the U.S. Armed Forces Dart Organization and Lowenbrau, is limited to military families, except for one event called the Fun Doubles, which is open to military and nonmilitary players of all levels of skill. Sixty-eight people, randomly drawn and randomly paired, compete until one team wins.

Frank Owens, president of the military dart group and director of the tournament, called the Fun Doubles event an opportunity for players with average skills to compete with top-of-the-line players. At least 5 percent of the tournament's participants are recognized by the American Dart Organization as tournament champions.

The darting game has become increasingly popular since its invention in the 15th century when Englishmen were said to have hurled makeshift darts at wooden wine casks in efforts to relieve boredom. Darting officials say participation in the sport has grown to almost a million people in the United States.

To hard-core darters, the expression Fun Doubles is a misnomer. Anxiety over the possibility of being paired with a less-skilled player can bring feelings of utter frustration.

"The thought of drawing a joker doesn't appeal to me," said a tattooed corporal, clad in blue jeans and a T-shirt.

To most people, however, darting is recreational. The beauty of the game is that it is inexpensive, has great social appeal and is easy to play.

Although the threat of physical injury is almost nil, the sport does have its perils. Players say many an ego has been bruised because of a lackluster performance.

A half-hour before the event, players begin their pregame rituals, getting both mind and body ready for the event.

"I begin by going out and throwing at the doubles and triples. Games are won and lost on them," says Paul Teague, a player from the Navy reserves who admits to smoking a pack of cigarettes to combat nerves during the course of a four-hour tournament.

Preparation among contestants varies. Most shoot. Some socialize. Others go to a much higher source.

"I just pray a lot and hope my rhythm's there," commented an Army sargeant, chomping on an El Producto.

Other players are superstitious about warm-ups. "I shoot cold," says Debbie Causey, a dart enthusiast whose husband is in the military. "If I practice, then shoot in the tournament , all the good stuff is done in practice."

The players use English rules, which concentrate on the ability to hit the doubles and triples in the narrow ( 3/8-inch) confines of the concentric circles around the bull's eye. Surprisingly, hitting the bull's eye is not terribly important in this system of rules.

Most dart shooters say they go into a game expecting that anyone can have a bad day. In fact, being well known can work against a player.

"I know what he can do, but he doesn't know what I can do. Sometimes this gives me the advantage," offered Marine Lt. Col. Monty Tennes, vice president of the military dart organization.

For those who need phychological therapy, Causey offered some advice: "Attitude adjustment is down at the bar."

As for the notion that darting and drinking are inseparable and that drinking relieves tension, the consensus seems to be that while most players do like to have a drink or two, becoming inebriated does not help one's game.

"Darters are much more attuned to watch how much they drink," said Causey, who limits herself to soft drinks during matches. "Darting concentrates on hand-eye coordination. Drinking heavily only hinders that."

Darters, like their custom darts, come in all shapes and sizes, each with his or her personal creed underlining the secrets of successful play.

"A steady throw and consistent follow-through are the most important aspects of the game," claimed Ron Codney, one of three members of the Coast Guard participating in the tournament. "Find a stance you're most comfortable with, pick your point, putting the dart in line with the sight of your eye and the point , and fire."

Dart player Teague offers his outlook: "Once the game's in your blood, darts can become quite a fixation."