Celebrity Death Pools
Making money from mourning
By Christopher Ditto
April 15, 2002
The deaths of Billy Wilder, Dudley Moore and Milton Berle on Mar. 27 created a statistical cluster of near mythical proportions for one group of Internet junkies.
"Most amazing 24 hours in pool history," announced one Internet posting.
"Talk about a rapid triumvirate!" proclaimed another.
For Internet-based death pool participants, who bet when celebrities will die, the near consecutive passings of three legendary figures is unprecedented.
Death pools, according to both competition fans and participants, provide a competitive outlet for those with exceedingly morbid curiosities. Players enter each death pool by submitting a list of living celebrities who, they predict, will die within a certain time period. Most contests, like Stiffs.com, The Game and The Ghoul Pool, take place over a calendar year.
They play for fun, they play for sport, and some even play for money. At Stiffs.com, participants pay $10 to enter the Lee Atwater Invitational Dead Pool, hoping to win $2002 at the stroke of midnight, December 31, when the competition ends. Smaller contests, like Cash4Cadavers and The Dead Club, offer winners just a few hundred dollars, but the smaller amounts don't prevent the players from taking them seriously.
Last December Ray Urie, a Scotsman who goes by the online moniker Drunk-As-A-Skunk, submitted a list of 30 celebrities to The Ghoul Pool as his 2002 picks. Urie's list, which contains seven members of royal families, is a mixture of Scottish optimism and daily online research.
So it should be no surprise that on March 29, while millions of fans of the British royal family grieved the death of the Queen Mother, Urie was inviting friends over to watch the funeral on television. The death of the Queen Mother, who was Urie's 10th pick, along with the Feb. 9 death of Princess Margaret, Uries 14th pick, combined to tie Urie for first place in The Ghoul Pool.
"At last, she has acted her age - and died," Urie wrote in a posting to the uk.local.Glasgow newsgroup. "Will we get a national holiday for the party?"
In an alt.obituary newsgroup posting following Princess Margaret's death, Urie suggested "the more royal funerals we have the better - but let us not wait 50 years between them," adding that he would like to see a royal funeral "every second Tuesday for starters?"
Urie won the Ghoul Pool's "Minor League" contest last year, beating out 27 competitors and qualifying him for this year's "Major League." Thirty percent of Urie's 2001 celebrities were dead by the year's end.
Divining a good death pool list is a tough task. Zachariah Love, who runs the Stiffs.com death pool site, recommends using search words like "inoperable," "malignant," and "intensive care" and reading online news feeds.
But picking the oldest and sickliest celebrities is not guaranteed to result in death pool victory. In most contests, the more popular your choice is, the fewer points he or she is worth. At Cash4Cadavers, Bob Hope, who is 98 years old, will score a paltry 169 points this year if he ends up six feet under. Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who is looking healthier at age 77, would pull in a full 2200 points.
Players who think they can win easy points from scheduled executions can think again. Many of the online competitions have been forced to institute specific amendments to counter sticky death-related circumstances that have arisen in the past. Cash4Cadavers.com, for example, was forced to create the "McVeigh Exclusion," which specifies that celebrities scheduled for execution do not count unless they die by other means. There is even a "Siam Caveat," for those thinking they might score double points if two conjoined twins die. The twins, according to the rules, would count as only one death.
The "Bart the Bear" clause allows famous animals to be chosen, so long as they meet the "celebrity criteria." One clever team competing in the death pool The Game chose Clarry, the world's oldest male koala, to go this year. Not a bad choice considering that he was 19 years old at the time, seven years past the average lifespan for a male koala. Sadly for most, Clarry passed away Feb. 7.
"I used to go more on just getting a feeling for someone but now I prefer to do more research," said Elizabeth Fleming, winner of the Ghoul Pool's 1999 and 2000 major league competition. Fleming lists watching the news and performing searches on Yahoo and Associated Press online news feeds as part of her strategy. "You keep a lot of notes that someone's not looking too good. It's actually kind of sick after a while."
But research is not always enough. Fleming singled out Rod Roddy, host of "The Price is Right", when she learned that he was undergoing surgery for colon cancer, but now she is not so sure he was a good choice. "I just saw him on TV for the Las Vegas 'Price is Right' show and he looked great," said Fleming. "The thing is that a lot of these celebrities have the best medical care in the world, so he could hang in there for another 10 years for all I know."
Urie, who lives across the Atlantic and at least five time zones away from most of his American death pool competitors, relies heavily on information gathered from Internet newsgroups for his predictions. Urie posted a message on a Cambodian cultural newsgroup last year in an attempt to get a health update on King Norodom Sihanouk. Urie's inquiry, along with several others, has ruffled a few feathers among those who take death more seriously.
"Why do you care about the rotten king?" responded one frequent participant in the soc.culture.Cambodia newsgroup. "Do you want him to take Cambodia down there one more time?"
"I was merely asking after old Kingy's health because I predict that he will die this year," responded Urie, "and, if he does, I hope to win some money out of it." King Norodom Sihanouk suffers from diabetes and has recently survived several strokes.
Once players find a death pool to enter (there is an entire category for them in Yahoo), the first step is to check up on a celebrity's health. The easiest way, for many players, is to visit the online Dead People Server or the Dead or Alive Web site. Step two, if the celebrity is still alive, usually involves calculating age, which for contests like The Game is a major factor in determining score. Biography.com and the Internet Movie Database both provide many celebrity's birth dates along with photos and news updates.
Love shares his celebrity health news with others on the SickTicker, a line of text that scrolls across the bottom of his Stiffs.com Web site much like a stock ticker. "Janet Reno collapses during speech, cause not made public," read one SickTicker entry. Another read, "Lyle Lovett trampled by bull, undergoes surgery... Kurt Cobain still dead."
The SickTicker, according to Love, is popular with competitors but does not provide enough information for serious players. "It's meant to entertain more than inform," said Love. "No one who relies exclusively on The SickTicker can expect to win any money here."
It's a way, says Love, to lampoon the way society "deifies" the famous. When Princess Diana died, Love explained, "millions of people were overcome by grief, the kind of grief that I personally hope to save for the friends and family members I may one day lose. You know, the people that I have actual relationships with."
But death pools are not a phenomenon created with the birth of the Internet. Anyone who has seen 1988's "The Dead Pool", starring Clint Eastwood, is familiar with the concept. In the movie, Eastwood's Dirty Harry character races around San Francisco as famous celebrities from a dead pool list, which contains his own name, start dying. It is hard to forget Dirty Harry saying, "Maybe I'll start my own dead pool, and put you on it."
The online death pool newsletter, The Game Gazette, maintains that the first recorded death pool was in the Vatican in 1591, when newly appointed Pope Gregory XIV banned "all wagering on the duration of the pontificate." The length of Pope Gregory's duration, in case you too share a morbid curiosity, happens to have been a mere 10 months and 10 days.
The Game, possibly the longest-running death pool in operation, has posted on its Web site a handful of past prophecies that reach near Nostradamus proportions. Especially gifted players have predicted the deaths of John Lennon in 1980, River Phoenix in 1993 and Princess Diana in 1997. A few of The Game's legendary predictions, like the death of Janis Joplin, go back as far as 1970, when participants played via mail.
"Last year on my birthday I got two hits and it was very special," said Fleming, former Ghoul Pool winner. "I got Dale Evans and Anne Morrow Lindberg and that was nice. The double-header is always kind of strange."
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