GILBERT – Many of the trophies and plaques that line the darts wall at Jester’s Billiards in Gilbert are engraved with the same name.
Jester’s owner Daryl Chester can remember the days when he used to beat his friend Puleo at the game, although those days are long gone. Chester knew from his experience playing with Puleo when darts became a serious endeavor for his friend.
“For a while there I was able to beat him when we first got together,” Chester said. “We could keep it even. Then he started really dominating me – and I finished in the top four in the state at one point. Then he started winning the state championships.”
Puleo quickly moved up the rankings until finally joining the Championship Darts Corporation, the equivalent to the NHL in North American darts. This league is not nearly as popular and talented as the league in Europe, the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), which is the peak of professional dart competition.
While darts might not be the biggest sport in the United States, the trophies that have Puleo’s name all over them prove it doesn’t just flourish overseas.
For one weekend each year, the best darts players from around the world gather for the PDC World Cup of Darts. Last September in Jena, Germany, Puleo was called in as a last minute replacement to be one of two players representing the U.S. It was the third consecutive World Cup where Puleo was a participant. He competed in 2019 in Hamburg, Germany, and the next year in Salzburg, Austria.
Despite the late notice, Puleo produced his best performance at a World Cup, teaming with Danny Lauby Jr. to defeat Sweden 5-1 in the first round.
Although the pair were knocked out in the second round by seventh-ranked Australia, 2-1, it equaled the best performance by a U.S pair since 2012 when the American team also advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion England, 2-1.
Since it was Puleo’s third World Cup appearance, he had a sense of what to expect from the competition, but after a year with no fans at the World Cup because of the global pandemic, he was not sure how Team USA would be treated by the crowd.
“I thought they would be all over us, but they were actually cheering for us for the most part, chanting, ‘U.S.A.,’ calling my name,” Puleo said. “I made contact with a couple guys in the front just to keep them safe, be on your side.”
Familiarity was a theme for the pair representing the U.S. as this was the second time that Puleo and Lauby Jr competed together at the World Cup. In 2020 they lost in the first round 5-2 against host Austria, the eighth-ranked team in the world.
“We have gotten better every year and agreed that we played better in general as a team this year than we did last year,” Lauby said. “I was totally ready for the competition and felt really comfortable.”
While Puleo has had some success on the world stage, nationally he has regularly finished among the best while competing on the CDC Main Tour.
The CDC Tour is the most important darts league in North America with players from across the U.S. and Canada competing for a chance to represent their country in the World Darts Championship in London each December.
Only one person qualifies to represent each country, but everyone who finishes in the top eight in the U.S. and Canadian standings competes in the Continental Cup with the winner qualifying for the PDC U.S. Darts Masters and North American Darts Championship.
In 2019, Puleo was the U.S. representative at the WDC in London. This year Puleo finished fourth in the standings, high enough to qualify for the Continental Cup in New York City on Nov. 20. As the tournament approaches, Puleo, 49, has begun to mentally prepare for what is ahead.
“I feel great because I’m a hunter again, that is the biggest thing,” Puleo said. “In my mind, I can beat any of these guys, and that’s how I approach this tournament – trying to play good darts and then upset some people.”
Lauby, Puleo’s international teammate, also competes on the CDC Tour and finished atop the standings in 2021.
“We were kinda used to playing against each other one day, then the next event being partners,” Lauby said.
Puleo said he began playing darts around 1990, as an activity to pass the time during cold Boston winters.
“My brother was playing darts and I was there doing something,” Puleo said. “They needed a guy and said, ‘Hey you want to play?’ Back then, anything you did with the older kids that was cool. I was willing to do anything. I was like, ‘Yeah, I will play.’ I just played and that’s really where it all started.”
He eventually realized he would never go pro in any other sport and turned his full attention to darts.
Fed up with Boston winters, Puleo relocated to Arizona. Once he settled in the Valley, he approached the Scottsdale Darts Association about joining a team. He moved up in the divisions and eventually formed a team with Chester, who is a former president of the Scottsdale Darts Association.
Recently, Puleo entered the Phoenix Cup in Las Vegas, where he competed in three different events: Open Cricket Doubles, Open 501 Doubles and Open Singles. He and doubles partner Juan Carlos Martinez finished seventh in the Cricket Doubles and fourth in 501 Doubles. Puleo finished seventh in the singles competition.
Now Puleo turns his attention to the Continental Cup in New York City in November. After that, he said he hopes to win a PDC Tour card at the PDC Qualifying School.
“As far as goals, I would have to say I take each tournament and then make a decision (about the next event),” Puleo said. “We’ll see how the Continental Cup goes, but hopefully I’ll do well. Then I’ll go to Q (Qualifying) School, but really the next goal right now is the Continental Cup. So that is really all I focus on.”