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Leighton Rees, 63; 1st Darts Champion Popularized Pub Game

June 19, 2003|From Associated Press

LONDON — Leighton Rees, a factory worker who became the world's first professional darts champion and helped give the working-class pub game broad appeal, has died. He was 63.

Rees, a physically imposing Welshman with a history of heart problems, died June 8, his family announced.

With a dry sense of humor and a thirst for strong drink, Rees was credited with helping give darts mass appeal in Britain and the United States in the 1970s and '80s.

"He was a friend to everyone, a gentleman and a true ambassador," said Brian Watkins, chairman of the West of England Darts League.

Born Jan. 17, 1940, in Ynysybwl, near Pontypridd in Wales, Rees left school at 15, with one of his teachers declaring that he would be "good only for reading the sports pages."

He worked for 21 years with a company making spare car parts until 1976, when the money he earned in amateur contests allowed him to become a professional darts player.

A year later, his team won the first World Darts' Federation World Cup and he was crowned the World Cup singles champion.

The highlight of his career came in 1978, when he won the inaugural Embassy World Darts crown.

That event helped popularize darts as a television event.

Rees displayed his characteristic "cobra" throw, a relaxed action in which he let his arm drop limply back to his side.

And he treated the audience to his teasing nature by making faces.

Rees also became a favorite with fans for his cheeky nature and love of a drink.

His usual warm-up for a final match was to down a couple of pints of beer and a brandy.

Rees never won a second world championship. But he continued to tour the world as a darts professional.

During his travels he met his Anaheim-born wife, Debbie Ryle, a keen darts player.

The couple married in Las Vegas in 1980.

He is survived by his wife and a stepson, Ryan.

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