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Game on!

On Tuesday nights, the darts are flying in Framingham, where a neighborhood bar has drawn a crowd aiming for fun

By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2012
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FRAMINGHAM - It’s a Tuesday night and the joint is jumpin’ at the Tavern, a downtown Framingham watering hole. It’s darts night.

We’re not talking the Olympics, but it’s taken seriously enough to have teams competing in a league where standings are kept. On the other hand, win or lose, there is no agony or ecstasy involved.

“I’ve never played in my life, I’m just a regular at the bar here,’’ said Jimi Michiel. “I live down the street. I found out they had a darts team on Facebook.’’

Natick resident Becky Marso, 24, graduated from Keefe Technical School in Framingham and is a baker at Wellesley College. She just started playing darts. “I love it. It’s a great way to get out of the house.’’

Laura Jantzen, 28, of Ashland, is seven months pregnant and working on a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. “This is my first baby. I’m due the week after the dart season ends, which is also the week I have finals at school,’’ she said. Busy woman, yet she’s a Tavern regular on darts night. “My husband shot darts in the Army. I’m not very good. I just throw for fun.’’

Tom Dellisola, 53, a handyman from Shrewsbury, took a swig of beer before taking aim at the dart board. “The beer calms you down a little bit,’’ he explained. “The hook to all this is it’s a fun night out with friends.’’

Fun is what Natick resident Paul Sanford had in mind when he took over the old Connery’s bar on Irving Street and renamed it the Tavern three years ago. Fun was exactly what Sanford wasn’t having in the corporate world.

“The higher I went up, the more I hated it,’’ he said. “I took my 401k and opened a bar.’’

Sanford had friends who competed in the Minute Man Dart League. One of them asked whether he’d be interested in getting a team going at his bar. Sanford jumped on the idea. “We opened in February of ’09. We had darts in the spring.’’

Players from Ashland, Franklin, Hopkinton, Marlborough, Maynard, Natick, and other area towns take part in the league, which has more than 400 teams across Eastern and Central Massachusetts.

“Every match starts and ends with a handshake,’’ says Bryan Urato, who grew up in Marlborough.

The Tavern is on the rough edge of town, and Sanford says the bar “had a tough reputation’’ before he took over.

“I had to come in and clean it up. It’s a comfortable dive bar now,’’ he said. “You come in, and in 10 minutes you know everybody.’’

Darts has boosted the camaraderie. “This place is like an oasis,’’ said Michiel, who plays the trumpet locally on open mic nights.

Mike Helms, 43, of Northborough, wears a T-shirt that reads “You Can’t Scare Me. I Have Daughters.’’ They’re 11 and 9. Helms plays for a team called I Like Beer. “It’s nice to win, but it’s all about the people. We don’t take darts to an extreme.’’

“I came into the bar one night and Paul talked about being in a darts league,’’ said Urato. “I hadn’t thrown darts since I was in the service. It sounded like a blast.’’

His team, the Booze Hounds, started slowly, Urato said. “The first season we won once and lost 13 times. The next year we were 0-14. Then we won the area division, but got killed in the state tournament by a bar in Everett.’’

Wendy MacAlpine grew up in Natick and works for a hearing aid company in Marlborough. She’s the captain of I Like Beer, which competes in the league’s E Division, one of the lowest. Not that it matters. “It’s more relaxed playing for a lower level team. It’s not as competitive,’’ she said.

Still, the games get exciting. During a Valentine’s Day tournament, it went down to the final shooter, Michiel. “I won the match with the last shot, and it was after midnight, Feb. 15, which was my birthday.’’ Even more to celebrate.

Jack Hendler, 29, of Natick, and his two brothers own Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham. “Paul heard there was a new brewery opening in town and called us,’’ said Hendler.

Sanford put three Jack’s Abby drafts on tap. He also talked the brothers into entering a team in the darts league. “We didn’t know the rules, we knew nothing,’’ said Hendler. “Now we’re in second place.’’

The darts night has been good for business. “It rivals my weekend nights,’’ said Sanford, who is striving to make the Tavern a local destination.

His customers also appreciate his charity work, supporting local events like the Relay For Life cancer walks. At Gillette Stadium on June 3, Sanford will have his head shaved during the Kid’s Cancer Buzz-Off, a fund-raiser for Children’s Hospital Boston. “I do whatever I can,’’ he said.

The Tavern has given the proprietor a new life, away from the stranglehold of the corporate rat race.

“If I can do this and just pay the bills, and laugh as much as I do now,’’ Sanford said, “it’s really worth it.’’

Lenny Megliola can be reached at

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501 is the standard darts game played around the world, and the only game played at the professional level. Each player starts with 501 points, and deducts points based on where each thrown dart lands on the board; the winner is the first to reach zero. The catch is that the winning dart must hit the right number while landing in the board’s outermost double ring, or the bull’s-eye. A perfect game of 501 is achieved by using just nine throws, which is extremely rare.
Cricket is a casual pub game, more popular in the United States than 501 and a favorite among American players. The rules are much more complex than 501, and based on the strategies involved it is considered the “chess’’ of darts. Cricket uses only the sections of the board numbered 15 to 20 plus the bull’s-eye. Players try to hit each number three times to “close’’ the number and prevent their opponent from scoring points. The scoring is a bit complicated, but once you see the game played, its rules become very simple and clear. The person who closes all numbers first and has no point deficit wins.
SOURCE: Minute Man Dart League (