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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Beer and Darts and Democracy

Those archers had to do something after they came home from the Hundred Years' War. So they cut off the tips of their arrows and sat around drinking beer in local pubs, throwing their truncated missiles at a bull's-eye, and, lo, the game of darts was born.


While the Brits were enjoying both victory over the French and their new pastime, the Russians were shaking off the legacy of the Mongol invaders. But not until another horde -- the Communists -- had been routed did the game of darts sail across Europe to land in Yury Dolgoruky's backyard.


Since its importation in 1991, darts has quickly gained an ardent following in Russia. On Sunday night, about 150 of the new faithful gathered at the 2x2 club on Ulitsa Chekhova to catch the end of a three-day tournament that featured Russia's up-and-coming masters and the lord of darts, Britain's Eric Bristow.


"I like darts because it's a democratic game," said Oleg Ostashev, 51, a former archer himself and vice president of the Russian Darts Federation. Wearing a short-sleeved cotton shirt autographed on the left pec by Bristow, Ostashev leaned against the bar -- which was doing a brisk business in beer, the requisite liquid accompaniment to darts -- and added, "It's the most democratic sport in the world. It doesn't require a lot of space, it isn't expensive, and anyone can play it."


That anyone can play seemed clear enough from the variety of Sunday's contestants. Ostashev, who lost to Bristow and his partner in the men's doubles competition, towered over the bar with his 192-centimeter, 110-kilogram mass. But Eleonora Zagretdinova proved that, in darts, mass matters not: The 53-kilogram 13-year-old triumphed in the women's singles category out of a field of 29.


Zagretdinova, who used to be a track and field athlete, now spends three hours a day perfecting her darts technique. She traveled the 24 hours by train from her native Yekaterinburg for the competition, managing to overcome fatigue and a case of the jitters to wrest first place from Vika Amirova, 17.


"I was nervous," Zagretdinova said of her finals performance. "But you've always got to watch your technique."


To judge by the number of pubescent participants, that technique is more easily mastered at a young age. Bristow himself let fly his first dart when he was 11, eventually beating his father by the time he was 14. And Zagretdinova was not the only precocious Russian among Sunday's contestants: Igor Mantorov, another Yekaterinburger, became Russia's adult champion this year at the tender age of 14. But not all of Sunday's finalists were just into their double-digit years. Nizhny Novgorod's Vladimir Lavrentev, 45, faced Bristow in the men's singles, losing to that worthy but throwing darts' highest score -- 180, or three triple 20s -- where Bristow did not.


"I have a feeling for distance," said Lavrentev, a former basketball and soccer player who works as an engineer for his city's water and sanitation department. "I was often picked to do the penalty kicks in soccer games." Though he faced the acknowledged master of the sport -- Bristow, 39, has been puncturing bull's-eyes for 28 years -- Lavrentev said, "I wasn't nervous." He said he would have liked to play more than the best two out of three sets. "I needed more time to get into the game."


And now, having warmed up in Moscow, Lavrentev and other members of the Russian national team will head for the darts capital of the world, London, to participate in the World Championship this weekend.


Ostashev, also London-bound, tried to encapsulate the appeal of the game, delivering his philosophy through moist lips that revealed the occasional glint of a gold tooth.


"We're archers. The main thing is for us to hit the target. Any target. With any thing."