Arachnid Man to the Vortex -- Back to the Future of Darts

The other day I dashed off a confirmation e-mail message to Mike Broderick, the creator of the outstanding web site about the Philadelphia area darts scene, www.philydarts.com.

For months, Broderick and I had been trying to coordinate a night out to test the highly-touted new self-scoring, bristle dartboard, the Vortex. Broderick had arranged with Glenn Remick, President of the American Darters Association (ADA) and the creative brain behind the thing, to have a sample shipped from St. Louis.

The anticipation was over. The Vortex had finally arrived. Broderick and I finalized our plans.

TO: Mike Broderick (mbroderick@phillydarts.com)
SENT: Thursday, September 19, 2002 (9:19 a.m.)
FROM: Dartoid
SUBJECT: The Vortex

Yo, Mikey!

Here's the thing...

I have been doing a little research to prepare before we meet up at the Nutty Irishman on Saturday. I've checked with Merlyn Technology and GJR, Ltd. I've called Remick. Yesterday it occurred to me that there might be something about the new board in an old issue of Bull's Eye News. So I made a note to myself on a little card and stuck it in my pocket.

"Check BEN for Vortex," it read. It was my reminder to look through my stack of darts magazines when I got home after work.

So the phone rings and it's my wife, Marylou, who just got home from walking my dog, Bentley. She asks me, kind of worried-like: "Is there something wrong with Bentley that you haven't mentioned?"

"Huh?"

And Marylou says: "Well, I found this card in your shirt pocket that says 'check Ben for Vortex' and I thought he might be sick or something?"

So, I had to tell her I wouldn't be home on Saturday night.

I arrived at the Nutty Irishman (8183 Bustleton Avenue) just about dinner time. Owned by Ed McDonald and operated largely as a darts bar since 1994, the two-story "Nutty" is one of the more popular establishments on the local darts circuit. McDonald was there to greet me when I walked in the door and quick with exactly the right answer when I asked him how, as a businessman, he could justify taking up valuable table space with his excellent darts set up. The joint has three boards, plus the Vortex, on the ground floor and another five boards on the upper level.

McDonald's answer? "Darts is it! I love the sport." The man should be cloned.

Along with McDonald and Broderick I was also met by darters Mark Whited, Mike Alemi and Jeff Baxter. Whited owns Bull's Eye at 4740 Frankford Avenue, one of the area's two lone darts supply shops. The other shop, owned by Andy Tabas and called the House of Darts, is a bit of a haul for most of the faithful. It's located about thirty minutes north on Route 611 in Bucks County. But it's just down the road from me. Sorry Mark.

So, just what is the Vortex? What the Vortex is NOT is a soft-tip darts machine.

The Vortex is a steel-tip darts machine. It is a miraculous piece of machinery that, had it been invented first, I have no doubt would have squashed that moment in time which gave birth to the soft-tip game.

I mean no disrespect. Honest I don't. But facts are facts. In what was a strictly steel-tip world, three elements converged to create the environment, the giant petre dish of darts, in which the soft-tip game was conceived.

The soft-tip game was born some two decades ago because the time was right and some ingenious soul at Arachnid, Inc. in Illinois took advantage of the opportunity. Arachnid Man observed three things. First, he noticed that many of the purveyors of our sport are just plain lazy. They don't like to keep score. Second, he realized that, unlike the Nutty's McDonald, many of the hosts of our sport -- the tavern owners -- can't promote darts simply for the love of the game. They've got to make money. Third, he noted the beginning of a trend among bar owners to find new ways to make ends meet. He glimpsed the dawn of what is now the age of "shared revenue devices." For example, he saw that coin-operated pool tables were beginning to replace those that once could be played for free.

It's true. Billiards, exactly as we know it today, with the green stuff, little blue cubes and pretty balls, once could be played for NOTHING. You had to ride to the pub in a buggy. Televisions were black and white. Raptors prowled the streets. But it WAS possible to shoot stick for free.

So, what did Arachnid Man do? He whipped out his petre dish and mixed need with opportunity. With the limited technology of the day he built a coin-operated darts machine that did it all -- kept score AND paid the bills. Granted, the board looked like a Lego pancake and required wussy-boy darts. It wasn't perfect. But it WORKED. So, another genius at Merit Industries started manufacturing the machines too. They called theirs the Scorpion. Still others followed.

Today there are more than three million shooters, including many predominately steel-tip darters, throwing darts at boards named after insects. The concept has enticed a substantial number of new players into our ranks. Many soft-tippers have crossed the line into the steel-tip realm. Surely the game's kept some bars in business. There ain't a damn thing wrong with any of this. Except...

Except the game's not pure!

Forget the coins. Nothing's free these days. The day is fast approaching when the issue will be much different anyway. It'll be "DAMN, I remember when I could throw darts for a QUARTER." The debate will have moved far, far past the trivial question of whether darts should be free. Doubt this? Go talk to a pool player.

Soft-tip darts is nothing more than a mutant version of the real thing. Why? NOT because it costs a quarter or two to play but because the doubles and triples are the size of small cars and the bull is bigger than a frickin' gorilla's ass. Soft-tip is no more real darts than pool would be pool if Arachnid Man had decided to double the size of the pockets.

Still, Arachnid Man deserves credit. He took a hell of a shot at marrying need with opportunity. He just didn't get it quite right.

Well folks, the Vortex HAS got it right.

The reality today is that the need has not changed a whit. Indeed, with changes in drunk driving laws and the ever-increasing tendency of those of us who frequent the bar scene to drink more responsibility, the need is greater that it's ever been. Bar owners are desperate for any new revenue source they can find. Just look around at the proliferation of shared revenue devices -- the CD juke boxes, video games, electronic golf and poker.

Yep, it's back to the future for darts.

MARK MY WORDS. Just as surely as steam power replaced water power and internal combustion replaced steam... just as nickel-silver replaced brass and tungsten replaced nickel-silver, the invention of the Vortex will ultimately be the death knell of the game of soft-tip darts. The Dodo bird is gone, baby. That's evolution. That's progress. That's life.

Look at it this way. As long as Beefaroni comes in a can we're going to need a way to get it out of the can. There's not a sane reason I can think of to wrestle the can open with a screwdriver when you can attach the can to a Hamilton Beach "Walk 'N Cut" hands-free device that buzzes around the can in moments, opening as it goes and then shuts off automatically. And as long as darts exists on this planet -- as long as some darters would rather not add and subtract and as long as bar owners gotta make a buck -- there will be a demand for a coin-operated darts machine. When it comes to automated darts machines, the Vortex is to the typical soft-tip machine as the Walk 'N Cut is to the screw driver. It's a world apart. It's a world AHEAD. For the steel-tip darter who simply won't throw plastic, the Vortex offers as pure a game of darts as any bristle board.

So Broderick and I stepped to the line to give the Vortex a go. Before us loomed a colorful, six foot robot-like display. It was quiet, but alive.

The board is recessed slightly into the top of the apparatus. From around the perimeter emanates an invisible radio wave-like electro-magnetic force. This energy swirls like a tornado (like a vortex) across the face of the board at a furious pace of 20,000 times per second. Just as the antenna of an automobile collects a radio wave, the constant wash of the Vortex's force is picked up by the tip of a dart as it intersects the electro-magnetic swirl and pierces the sisal. Then, PRESTO, the score is tallied. It's amazing.

Just as KISS can flip to Reba and Reba can blip to Chopin on your radio as your toolin' down the expressway, the Vortex chalks up exactly what the dart registers and, unlike many soft-tip machines, if the dart withdraws from the force (falls out of the board) the machine instantly subtracts the score from your tally.

Broderick and I threw some 501 and cricket. He took a few games which, of course, pissed me off. So I wrapped his ass in aluminum foil. Damn right.

I shoved him into the force. 20,000 invisible rays of magic energy bolted through his body. He sparked. Flames shot from his ears. In a moment, just like an arachnid or scorpion in a microwave, Broderick was fried to a crisp. This of course, is another one of the advantages of the Vortex. It's also a crappy simile.

I teamed up with some of the others for reverse cricket and Shanghai. The Vortex functioned perfectly, testament to the fact that it has been thoroughly tested. Had the Vortex screwed up even a handful of times it would have been a huge handful less than the human brand of chalker makes in an evening. The Vortex was instantaneously accurate. And we didn't have to track it down in the toilet before we could start the next game.

The Vortex is a sturdy, accurate, fast-paced, user-friendly marvel of technology that introduces the old (steel-tip) to the new (soft-tip) and visa-versa, AND which keeps track of darter's points-per-dart average. It even comes installed with the ADA's trademarked "Neutralizer" handicapping software -- for those who want to even the playing field before stepping to the line. It does everything seamlessly and without detracting one iota from the purity of our sport. Indeed, it RESTORES the purity. There's something in it for ALL of us. And the tavern owners.

Again, facts are facts. Here are a few more. They aren't debatable. They define the equation our sport faces in today's world.

But there's more to the equation.

Tavern owners used to a make decent living selling beverages. Not so long ago some $19 out of every $20 spent by a patron ended up in the cash register. Today the numbers are much different. Less than $12 of every $20 earned by tavern owners comes from cash passed over the counter top (the balance comes from shared revenue sources). And whatever steel-tippers may like to think, their leagues aren't much helping matters.

Why? First, sad as it is, far too many darts players just don't appreciate their tavern owners. They walk in the door. They expect a free drink and some buffalo wings. They need team shirts. They have to have fresh boards. This all costs the owner money.

It used to be that the best darts and the most drinking occurred after league play ended. When the match is up now-a-days, the darters split. They aren't loyal to their bars during the week. It's a shame. But that's the way it is. It's the tavern owners who are paying the price. Hence, the sport is also paying a price.

Add to all of this the impact of drunk driving restrictions. There's just plain a whole lot less drinking goin' on. Therefore, a whole lot less money is finding its way into the tavern owners' tills. Until somebody invents a rubber car that won't crash, it just plain isn't gonna change.

THE BOTTOM LINE is that as long as darts remains a pub-bred and pub oriented sport -- and it always will -- THE PUB'S GOT TO SURVIVE IF THE SPORT IS TO SURVIVE. If the pond dries up the salamander dies. It's that simple. This is why the Vortex is such good news.

The Vortex was Glenn Remick's brainchild. He just got inducted into the National Darts Hall of Fame. They should induct him again.

Remick developed this idea. He surveyed the market. He produced a prototype machine. For three years he tested and re-tested the machine in actual league play and took feedback from steel-tip and soft-tip shooters, darters who have stood at the line for years and newcomers to the sport. He listened. He learned. He fine-tuned the machine. He perfected it.

Remick found a manufacturer: Merlyn Technology. He set up a distributorship: GJR, Ltd. To rave reviews, he introduced the Vortex at the ADA's National Championship in Las Vegas earlier this year. Recently he unveiled it in more formal fashion in Las Vegas at the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) Expo. The response from the more than 8,000 operators in attendance -- those who purchase coin-operated products from distributors and place them in bars all over America -- was overwhelming. Remick couldn't take orders fast enough.

In due course, the amusement operators are going to begin contacting the tavern owners, particularly those who favor the steel-tip game. Their pitch is going to be simple, powerful and effective. "This machine does EVERYTHING. It costs you NOTHING. It makes you MONEY."

But it gets even better...

The Vortex is approved by the ADA for steel-tip American Dart League play. So the amusement operators and the tavern owners don't have to complicate their lives by actually running a darts league operation. The machine comes with NO WORRIES. Every Vortex operator will immediately benefit from the years of experience Remick and his crew has at running a fun, competitive -- and profitable -- darts business.

And better...

Nothing keeps a player coming back for more darts, and beer, than knowing where they stand and what they have to do to reach the next level. Thanks to the Internet, players and teams will be able to check their statistics and ranking AT WILL. Concerns about captains who forget to send in match results and days of waiting for league statisticians to publish (often messed-up) results will end. Arguments about the value of certain statistics (like "all-star" points) will also cease because there IS no argument about the fairness of the points-per-dart system. This is the Vortex system.

The Vortex's promoters tout the machine as the "next step in the evolution of the challenging game of darts -- a winning combination of both the traditional pastime and the high-tech future of the game." They are absolutely right. It marries the preferences of yesterday's steel-tippers and today's soft-tippers in such a way that they can compete together with tomorrow's newcomers at the very same line. The Vortex does all of this while ensuring that those we depend on most -- the tavern owners -- have a chance to survive.

But most important of all, the Vortex restores integrity to the sport of darts. For that, a couple of quarters is a damn small price to pay.

The ONLY thing the Vortex does not do, yet, is dispense Budweiser and Coca-Cola.

And it wouldn't surprise me if Glenn Remick is already working on that.

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From the Field,

Dartoid

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