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.