The Intimidator Why is a stay-at-home dad from Foster City striking fear in the hearts of San Francisco darts players?
BY MARK ATHITAKIS ( 2002 )
Chris White scares people.
More specifically, Chris White scares darts players. Darts and fear don't seem as though they ought to go together; darts, after all, is a laid-back sport that's all but welded to hanging out in bars, drinking beer, and not taking anything too seriously. But go to the Glen Park Station on a Wednesday night. Walk up to a guy named Steve, one of the regular, serious darts players who hangs out there. Ask him if Chris White is going to be playing there tonight. Watch the panic. "Oh, God, I hope not," he blurts out, and the look on his face is one that you get used to seeing when you talk about Chris White. It's a sort of awed grimace. Awed, because they've watched him play -- hitting the toughest shots like they're second nature, winning matches with a lazy cool that would put Dean Martin to shame. And a grimace, because eventually they have to play against him -- the best darts player in America, the man who's been both the inspiration and ego-crusher for serious darts players here for nearly three years.
The best way to find Chris White is to spend a Friday night at the Eagles Drift Inn, a roomy Sunset pub with blood-red carpet, seven boards, and a Friday-night money shoot that attracts players from Belmont to Santa Rosa to Livermore. Patricia Miller, one of the best female players in the country, organizes the shoot. "We all want to kill him," she says of White, who'll be showing up here any second now. "Everybody hopes he breaks his arm or something."
She's joking, probably, but before she can elaborate, there he is: Chris White, striding through the swinging doors of the Eagles Drift Inn. He's 30, of average height, with a bowl haircut and a trace of stubble on his boyish face. In sneakers, jeans, and a T-shirt, he cuts a stout figure; when clothing designers think "husky," they sketch a man who looks a lot like White. This is the man who's been terrifying the local darts community?
Might as well ask him. So is it true, what everybody says? That you intimidate players just by showing up? That you single-handedly turned the Bay Area into a darts powerhouse? That the best players in America are getting their butts kicked by a stay-at-home dad from Foster City?
The reigning U.S. darts champion just smiles and laughs. He's got a pack of Marlboros in his pocket, a drink in one hand and a set of darts in the other.
"Do you want me to be modest, or do you want the truth?" he says.
It's hard to look at Chris White, or any top-ranked darts player, and see what the difference is. He does what any darts player does -- stands at the line, aims, throws. Simple. He doesn't set himself off from other players or put on airs. He's happy to chat with folks over a few drinks at the Eagles, chain-smoking cigarettes and talking shop, telling jokes, telling war stories about past tournaments, giving miniclinics about mental conditioning. He doesn't appear more focused than anybody else; if anything, he seems less so. While most competitive darts players seem almost obsessed with how they plant their feet, where they stand at the line, how they throw, White just walks up to the line and throws, shifting back and forth across the line when most players prefer to stay completely rigid. And so the results typically fall in White's favor.
"I never fuss about anything," he says. "There are guys who change their darts every week, shafts every week, flights every other day. They think it's the darts. It's not the darts."
At a recent Eagles shoot, he was matched against a player in a game of 701, where the goal is getting from 701 to zero with as few darts as possible. His opponent was good, but simple mistakes do in darts players -- miss a 20-point shot by a quarter-inch and you've scored one measly point ("Whoever invented this game was a sadist," one player carped). For four straight turns, White shot 140 points a turn, just like that. From eight feet away, he'd nail a 20-point shot on the triple ring, hitting a space an inch wide and half an inch high. And another 20-point shot, and another. Over and over. He did this throughout the night. Sitting in a small alcove by the dart board, Patricia Miller kept track of the players' "highlight" shots, and Chris White continuously fed her numbers: 140s, 180s, 135s. It's like bringing a flamethrower into a culture that hasn't invented fire yet.
"I always strive to win everything I do," White says. "But I use the Bay Area for ... I use it for fun, to get out, but what it's really done for me is that it's been great for practice."
The legend of Chris White -- and that's probably how darts players will talk about it here years from now, as legend -- began in Canada. In Whitby, Ontario, White grew up in a family of darts fans and began entering youth competitions at 14. At 16 he became Canada's youth darts champion. And then, according to his friend and fellow competitive player Brian Keenan, he got a little cocky. "We dominated the youth leagues, and we thought things should be handed to us," he says. "We had names for ourselves -- people touted us as the next Canadian darts champions. We got complacent. But we were 15, 16, 17 years old, and you start getting interested in other things around that time, you know? We started to discover other things. So we were going to tournaments but not taking them seriously, treating them like fun road trips. People were going past us."
Now that White is climbing back again, he describes his time away from competitive playing as happy but lost years -- he worked, snowmobiled, fished, and routinely got beat at the local pubs by even the most mediocre darts players. Then he got a change of scenery: In the summer of 1998, White moved here with his wife, Kelly, from Toronto, Canada. There, he had a job managing a plant that made office cubicles; here, he lacked a work visa. That left him with something a lot of players pray for -- more time to play, more time to get better.
San Francisco first saw that shortly after his arrival. Before he came, the best player in the city was a man named Peter Fiore. At a recent Friday-night shoot at the Eagles, Robert Adams, a laid-off dot-com worker who manages the San Francisco Dart Association's Web site, remembered the first time Fiore and White played each other.
"It was late '98, maybe early '99, something like that," he recalled. "It was crazy. I remember looking at Peter after the game, and he was just shaking his head. It was like, "What am I going to do? I played my best game and got beat.' Chris just crushed Peter so badly."
The hell of it is that White doesn't spend that much time practicing. Parenthood cuts into playing time -- he's the father of twin daughters, now 2 years old, and "they're starting to learn not to walk in front of the board." But because his goal is to start winning national and international tournaments, he'll try to get in an hour or so a day, maybe more if a big tournament is coming up, and he takes the Eagles shoots more seriously. The plan is to build up enough world-ranking points to get him playing against the machinelike darts masters, Brits like Phil "The Power" Taylor and Wayne "Woody" Jones, or the best player in Canada, John "Darth Maple" Part. No more being complacent.
And if people around here start improving because he's around, so much the better. More competition. More meat. "I can only go by what people have said," White says. "You're getting your ass kicked by somebody, you're not gonna want that to happen week in, week out. You're gonna say, "I might never be as good as Chris, but maybe I should be able to give him a game here or there.' I think that might have happened."
There's no getting around the fact that darts is a drinking sport. According to a survey by the American Darts Organization (ADO), 86 percent of the American darts-playing population drinks alcohol, and 70 percent prefers beer (55 percent smokes). Reports from overseas seem to attest to beer's skill-improving powers. In last month's Embassy Darts Championship, Britain's leading darts tournament, Woody Jones credited the seven pints he consumed before a match for his wins in the early rounds. The strategy, alas, failed him in the quarterfinals. "I had a few beers but I wasn't as pumped up tonight," Jones lamented to the BBC after his loss.
Despite its reputation, darts at the level Chris White plays it is also a mental game, players say. White has run into enough cocky people in bars to laugh at those who try to intimidate him. "You'll see guys who are great basement players or great bar players," he says. "But take them out of their local bar and put them in a huge tournament, in the finals playing a top guy, and you'd think they'd never played before. I've told a lot of guys, "Win something, then talk to me.' You have to go through three different stages: from your house to the bar, and the bars to the tournaments."
Serious darts players talk a lot about discipline and mental toughness. "It's Zen," says Jennifer Daggy, a San Franciscan who's also a top-ranked ADO player. "When it's done well, you're subtracting all motion. You have to forget your mistakes and just refocus."
"When I'm playing, the only thing I see is the board," Jason Paine explained one evening at the Eagles while he sucked on a pint of cola. "Somebody could be getting mugged right by the board, and I just won't see it."
"If you're gonna play your best game, you've gotta hammer him from the beginning," says Chris White. "You can respect somebody, but you can't fear him. As soon as you fear somebody, you're done."
To that end, Brian Keenan suggests reverse psychology as the best method for beating White. "Don't piss Chris off, that's my advice," he says. "Don't get him going. If you want to beat him, respect him. Wish him good luck, tell him he's great. Maybe then he'll fall into a false sense of security."
Good darts players may be mentally disciplined, but apparently it also doesn't hurt to be a little obsessive.
"I chose darts over girlfriends at one point in my life," says Tim Shore, who in the early '90s was playing in the Bay Area seven nights a week. "In hindsight, it was a huge commitment. Ten years of playing six, seven nights a week was a tremendous amount of time I could've spent on other things. But what usually sparked an interest was if there was some new kid on the block -- I wanted to hone my game a little bit, to show him what I can do. It can be an addiction."
"It's an addiction," says John O'Leary, a San Francisco construction worker who began playing darts since moving here from County Cork, Ireland, two years ago. He has recently started using the nicotine patch to quit smoking, so addiction is a theme he can work with. "When you start winning games, you start to feel like you're somebody. You get sick of losing. You watch good players, and you feel like playing 40 hours a week to get better. Chris is one of my motivations."
You tell stories to your family and friends about your usage, trying to put a positive spin on it, to justify your obsession. "I tried telling my friends and family that I play steel-tip darts," says Marina Furlan, a former Daly City cop. "You know, instead of just darts. It didn't really work."
Jim Banta, president of the San Francisco Dart Association, tried to give the game a noble spin one night at the Blackthorn Tavern. As a father, he explained, he's found that darts is a wonderful way to teach math to kids. As he stepped away for a moment, his wife, Linda, smirked. "That's how he justified putting a dartboard in the living room," she said.
Patricia Miller played darts so much -- often five nights a week for over 30 years -- that it eventually helped lead to a shoulder injury. She could have quit playing; instead, she had surgery and adjusted her throwing style. "You meet good people, but it's the competition, really. That's why people play."
And while there is more competition now, fewer people are playing darts in the Bay Area than ever before. Fittingly, stricter DUI laws are cited as one reason. Lack of good money is another; darts tournaments in Vegas, Tahoe, and Sacramento had $10,000 purses 20 years ago, and they have $10,000 purses now, spread out over more competitions, thinning out winnings that were paltry enough to start with. Quality players are another issue; if you lack them, people stop coming, it stops being fun. You need a better fix. Whereas in the '80s heyday more than 200 people would play in the city on a regular basis, now only 70 or 80 serious players are coming in, Patricia Miller estimates. The SFDA used to host A, B, C and D leagues, but even filling out a boozier C league is tougher these days.
The SFDA's Jim Banta explains this change by pointing out two plaques at the Eagles. One is from 1994, listing nearly 20 Northern California darts leagues -- most of which have folded, he explains. "We're a smaller league now, but I think we're a better league," he says. "And [Chris White] is wonderful to have around for that. In a strong association, if you have a group of strong players, it all comes back." That leads to the second plaque he wants to show off. It lists 15 SFDA players who won a Northern California all-star tournament last year. White's name is at the top of the list.
"This team," says Banta, pointing. "I'd take this team right here anywhere in the country."
The Prince of Wales Pub in San Mateo, where Chris White began his Bay Area darts reign, sells something called the Habanero Hamburger. It also sells bumper stickers that say "I survived the Habanero Hamburger." On a chair in a corner, a mock tombstone reads "Reserved for Habanero Hamburger eaters."
"It's a hamburger with habaneros on it," the bartender explains.
As he makes a few practice throws, Chris White takes a moment to point to the ceiling rafters, where players write their names in chalk each time they hit a 180 score on the dartboard. Hitting the 180 -- three consecutive darts hitting the tiny triple-score sliver of the board's 20-point section -- is the apotheosis of dart-playing skill, more so than hitting the bull's-eye. But White's name is nowhere on the rafters. "Kinda silly if you ask me," he says. For somebody who's gone to British, American, and Canadian competitions -- where hitting the 180 is simply taken for granted -- names chalked on rafters are strictly B-league. But more people around here are throwing 180s these days.
"Those shoots at the Eagles aren't easy anymore," White says between throws. "There are at least eight people with a legitimate chance to win."
For 30 years, the Prince of Wales has hosted a Monday-night darts tournament, and the list of winners is kept by the board closest to the bar. White was the winner of the 1999 season. The 2000 one as well. And last year. His name tops the leader board for the current 2002 season. A whiteboard announcing the winner of last week's shoot reads: "Monday Darts Winner Chris W. Congratulations."
In the '70s, owner Jack Curry removed the pool tables to run off the Hell's Angels who dominated the joint. Installing dartboards instead not only calmed down the clientele but allowed him to get in some practice time on his way to becoming the U.S. darts champion in 1976. "We were pretty good back then," he says. "But Chris ..." He trails off. "You know, people come down here specifically to challenge him."
"Before I found this place, I had nothing to do here," White says. "It was only me and my wife, and we didn't have the kids then. I was looking for something. I went to a couple of places that had boards, but nothing was going on. Nothing. I'd throw for a while and then I'd say, "OK, Kell, let's go.' Then we went out with a couple of people from Kelly's work, and they said, "Let's go to the Prince of Wales, they have dartboards.' I talked to a few guys who told me about darts in the city. And I said, "OK, let's get serious again.' That was it."
"The change was that he had more time on his hands," says his wife, Kelly. "He was basically doing nothing with his time. He was a little stir-crazy. Within the first week [after coming to the Bay Area], he was saying, "I gotta find a pub.'"
Players often credit White's arrival for the competitive growth in local darts, a change borne out by the number of players with national rankings: Five locals now reside safely among the top 50 players in the country. White is currently ranked 44th in the nation, but he's only been gathering points for the second half of last year; ADO rules demand that you live in the U.S. for a full three years before receiving ADO ranking points. David Hoag has been playing darts for 14 years, and he remembers White's arrival at the Eagles Drift Inn. "He started coming here on Friday nights and boom, he blows away everybody for eight weeks in a row," he says. "Now it's a struggle to win this. It can't just be a situation where Chris comes in every week and beats up on people. We've got to play better."
"There was nobody who struck the fear of God into me," says White of his competition. "But now it's improved, it's definitely improved a lot. It's probably ... I want to say 100 percent better, but no. I'd say it's about 50 percent better, for sure."
"When he showed up, everybody got better," says Alex Plachutin, one of the SFDA's up-and-coming players. The SFDA's A league is broken up into six teams playing in a dozen local bars; before this season, Plachutin had a chance to have White on his team but passed. You learn more playing against him. "Alex was always a good shooter," says Robert Adams, who spent the last year practicing to climb out of B league and into A. "But when Chris showed up, Alex stepped his game up. A lot of people took Chris' playing as a cue to pick up their game -- I know I did. Or not to play anymore."
The competitive aspect can be as intense as any sport -- and just as conducive to trash-talking. "Darts is as mental as you want it to be," says ADO President Dr. Roger J. Bick, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. "There are things you can do to your opponent. You can cough behind him, say something in his ear. Throw him off."
White himself was thrown off during his early 20s in Canada. "I was nervous," he says. "I was losing to guys, and I was getting all this pressure I never felt before and I was losing to everybody. I was playing horrible. I've never had dartitis or anything, but it was a little bit like that."
"It's when you bring your arm back and try to release the dart and ... and you just can't do it. It's a bitch to get rid of. It's all in your head -- you just can't release the dart. It's totally mental. It's this horrible, demoralizing thing." In 1998, Middlesex University psychologist Linda Duffy explained it to the London Guardian this way: "It can be linked to a traumatic experience and an inability to cope with stress. There is an overload on the system and it just shuts down. It seems to affect only target activities rather than team sports."
Must be a hard thing to get your head around.
"I don't know, I don't know," Chris White says. "I've never had it."
Last March, Chris White made the cover of the Bull's-Eye News, thanks to a strong pair of wins in men's doubles in the Las Vegas Open. He followed that up with a strong quarterfinal showing in the Golden Harvest in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the largest tournament in North America. In August, he won the American Darts Organization's national championship in Cleveland. The ADO's press release announcing his win declared that "White, a stay-at-home dad, has been quietly making a name for himself since moving to the U.S., and is expected to contend for international teams."
Either individually or as part of a U.S. team, his focus is now on traveling to as many internationally sanctioned matches as possible, building his reputation, gathering points, and bolstering his confidence. Which Kelly White supports. "I'll criticize him a lot because I want to see him play well. If he comes home and lost to somebody, I'll be a little nasty. I'll tell him, "Why are you letting that guy beat you?'"
"The girls are going to preschool in the fall," she explains. "So he'll have more time to go to the bigger tournaments."
It was White's bittersweet pleasure in Cleveland to play against another local in the quarterfinals. Paul Soncuya, who's been playing darts seriously for only two years, lost, but he concedes that White simply has more experience. "I'm proud of myself that I made the top 16," he says. "I did my best. You can't win 'em all."
Last year was White's first step in his climb up the national -- and international -- ranks. This year, the plan is to compete in as many major tournaments as he can get to, and do well -- Las Vegas this week, Sacramento later this month, Saskatoon again in May, St. Louis in the fall. It's not for the money; winning a shoot at the Eagles gets White about 50 bucks, and even a solid performance at the Golden Harvest earned him the princely sum of $5,000 Canadian.
No, what matters is simply getting good, getting so focused that nothing worries you. Nothing exists except the board, the shot, and transcending fear. "People say to me, "Chris, nothing bothers you,'" he says. "That's a load. Everybody feels pressure. It's how you handle it. A lot of people do get overnervous when they play me. Sometimes they get a little tight, miss one or two darts. That's all I need, right? But then you've got people gunning for you, people trying to knock you off."
So what's the reward, then? What's the goal? White takes a moment to ponder the question. "You know, I always wanted one of those basements where you keep all your stuff," White says. "You put up your plaques, trophies, articles. Put up a dartboard, have a pool table. A bar. That'd be great."