Something seemed different about the small group of friends gathered in a back room at Memory Lanes, a south Minneapolis bowling alley.
It wasn't that they were playing darts, a bar activity almost as common as sipping brews. It was that they were all doing it blindfolded. And the dartboard was talking back.
Turns out you don't need to see the board to play in this league. In fact, if you can, you're disqualified. Many of the players in this league are totally or partially blind. So why the blindfolds?
"They level the playing field for everybody," said Sam Jasmine of Maple Grove, current president of the Audio Darts League. "And we use nylon-tipped darts, so there's no issue with safety."
The atmosphere was ultra laid-back, with players talking quietly over cocktails in between casually lining up to wait their turn at the board, placing their feet up to grooved spots on the floor.
On this night, the only sighted person in the room was Nancy Giddings, who served as a spotter and unofficial emcee: "That dart fell to your three o'clock. No, a little farther to the right. Miss another one, you might still get a ride home, but it'll be strapped to the top of the car!"
While the play that night was relaxed, the players were preparing for a bigger, more competitive event. Six local teams made up of players ranging in age from 19 to their 60s will compete this weekend in Bloomington for the league's annual tournament.
The other two practice spots are Merlin's Rest, a pub on E. Lake Street, and another bowling alley, Elsie's in northeast Minneapolis. There are a few other audio dart leagues nationwide, including in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Texas. Some will be on hand at this weekend's tourney.
Jasmine, whose company Access Education provides technological training to visually impaired people, also served on the state Rehabilitation Council for the Blind in the mid-2000s, appointed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Jasmine is so wild about throwing darts that she developed a side business selling audio boards she developed with her husband, a computer programmer. One of the 30-inch-high boards, which start at $500, is installed at Merlin's Rest.
"The old boards are big -- like you have in arcades," she said. "These you could install in your house."
Jasmine's boards do more than keep audible tabs on the score. After players' names are keyed in at the start of a game, it calls each of them up in turn, and has sound effects like a scream and a "boing-boing" for particular achievements.
Twin Cities Audio Darts got its start in 1989 through the late John Ross, a blind wrestler who won the Minnesota state high school championship in 1953, competing for old Marshall-University High School in Minneapolis. With $20,000 from his Braille Sports Foundation, Ross commissioned an audio dartboard that would announce what was hit and when the game had been won.
"If he hadn't just wanted to drink beer and play darts with friends, it wouldn't have gone anywhere," Jim Mastro said about his former colleague. Mastro, also a visually impaired athlete who has medaled in wrestling, judo and track and field in the Paralympic Games, is now a Bemidji State University professor who also runs sports camps for blind youths. He said he plans to buy one or two of Jasmine's boards for camp.
Joe Russell, practicing for his first tourney, had the word "mindfold" printed on his mask. Highly focused as he threw his darts, he seemed determined to hit the bull's eye.
Gar Giddings, Nancy's husband and a champion blind bowler who's been playing darts for nine years, was more circumspect.
"You either hit the board or you don't," he said, as his guide Lab, Primo, snoozed in a corner.
Albert Alexander Fryc was sporting a T-shirt as wry as his expression. It read "Attitude Impaired -- Deal With It."
"When I first started throwing darts 12 years ago, Sam kicked my butt," he said. Since then, his skills have improved enough to win games at tournaments: "You always feel like you know where the bull's eye is. I rarely do, but sometimes it works."
So how does one manage to hit a dartboard at all, let alone get bulls' eyes and zero out of games, when you can't see the wall, let alone the board? Kinesthetic memory helps.
"It's not as thrilling as it sounds," Mastro said. "It's muscle memory. It's concentration and always letting go with your body in the same position."
Fryc says it's different strokes for different players.
"I'm more of a tactile person, so I get a feel for what I'm trying to shoot at, and how I line my feet up," he said. "Some of us hold our bodies real steady and line our feet up the same each time. Others try to listen to the board."
Other sports created or adapted for blind players include bowling, "beep" baseball and goalball, a game invented in Europe after World War II to help rehabilitate blinded veterans. But the most popular seems to be bowling.
Darts season runs through mid-April. Many of the players are also be practicing for a national blind bowling tournament coming up at Memory Lanes in May.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046