Cashing in Their Chips

On the Internet, celebrity death is a spectator sport


Published October 16, 1996 10:50AM (EDT)

Some guy once said that "there are some things so tragic, you cannot help
but laugh at them." The guy who said that isn't laughing now, of course,
because he's dead. We living people can laugh at death; even better, we can
wager on it.
Dead Pools are the online Kentucky Derbys of Death. The specifics vary from
one pool to the next, but they're all pretty much based on the same
principle: pick a celebrity who you think is not long for this world, then
wait until you're proven correct. When the celeb kicks the bucket,
congratulations! You're a winner! (It is presumed that greasing the
celebrity yourself is cheating.)
Some pools are annual, with elaborate scoring systems based on how many dead
celebrities pile up in each team's virtual morgue at the end of a year.
Other pools are perpetual, permitting players to draft replacements after
one of its celebrities is placed on the permanent disabled list, as it were.

Zachariah Love runs an annual pool
known as the Lee Atwater
, named after the bad-brains Republican politico who was the
first "confirmed kill" scored by the originators of the contest way back in
Love says that the idea of a dead pool "appealed immediately to my natural
cynicism and my general disdain for celebrities. So many of the people we
deify are really just regular creeps with a lot of gall." The Atwater
Invitational currently has 47 contestants, each of whom pay $10 annually for
the privilege of playing.

Christian Ruzich runs a dead pool on the
conferencing system The Well. He notes
that some of his pool's more unlikely picks -- Julia Roberts, Bill Keane,
James Earl Jones, Whitney Houston -- are "all healthy people with no known
drug habits." Maybe they just appeal to a certain wishful thinking.

Elizabeth Fox, who runs the 32-member
Dead Club, also
observes that many
candidates for imminent extinction seem picked for reasons other than their actual potential to join the ranks
of the heavenly choir. Members of Fox's Dead Club have picked such presumably hale and hearty specimens as Richard
Chamberlain, Drew Barrymore, Erik Estrada, Don Ho, and the Pam
Anderson-Tommy Lee fetus.

Choosing a fetus in a dead pool? Now that's genius.

Fox's pool has a Junior Guppy Division, as well. "There are plenty of
venomous choices, like Cody Gifford," she says.

If only.

The Lee Atwater Invitational permits players to submit its own separate
"hate lists," says Love. "Some of the favorites for '96 who seem to stand
little chance of actually dying are people like O.J. Simpson -- a favorite
for women -- Anna Nicole Smith, and Courtney Love," whom he describes as
"Generation X's Yoko."

Dead pools that permit players to choose the same celebrities provide us
with a giddily creepy death-watch barometer. Jimmy Stewart was picked
17 times by Fox's Dead Club players, while Richard Pryor, O.J.
Simpson and Ronald Reagan were chosen by 16 people each. Boris Yeltsin
and Mother Teresa -- this summer's close-call candidates -- don't even rank in
the top 10, pushed into obscurity by the bad-karma show horses of Simpson
and Reagan.

And while we're on the subject of karma -- don't people think there might be
something a little bit wrong with betting on who's going to die next?

Ruzich notes that the karma factor has affected his pool, but only
slightly: "I had one person who said he was going to enter and then withdrew
because he couldn't deal with the thought of rooting for someone to die. But
I think for the most part, people don't pick people they care that much
about one way or the other. If and when Meat Loaf dies, for example, I doubt
the person that picked him is going to suffer pangs of guilt."

This leads to the dilemma of determining whether a particular celebrity has
actually departed this mortal coil or not. (Quick: Charles Nelson Reilly,
dead or alive? Pencils down! He's still alive.)

If you don't know if your chosen celebrity has actually died yet, there's
the Dead People Server. This
phenomenally useful site lists pretty much every celeb you'd ever care to
know about -- and tons you couldn't care less about. F'rinstance:

Buddy Hackett (comedian/actor) -- Alive.
Danny Kaye (actor) -- Dead. Leukemia. Mar 3, 1987.
Charles Nelson Reilly (comedian) -- Alive.
Telly Savalas (actor) -- Dead. Prostate cancer. Jan 22, 1994.
Alex Trebek (game show host) -- Alive.
Evelyn Wood (speed reading guru) -- Dead. Natural causes. Aug 26, 1995.

They even have a special subheading for "various Kennedys" -- one-stop
shopping when you really need to figure out who's checked out of Camelot.

Mortality handicappers would also do well to stop by Ed's Ill Celebrity Server,
which contains synopses of celebrities on the brink of death. While not as
thorough as the Dead People Server, it includes articles on a number of
likely candidates, from the cancerous Paul Tsongas to Mohammed's clay pigeon
Salman Rushdie to the handgun poster boy James Brady.

In a world where the only certainties are death, taxes, and Microsoft, the
appeal of playing with the Grim Reaper is inevitable. But instead of a
chess match on the beach, it's turned out that it's a horse race on the

Other notable dead pools on the Web:

David Sugarman's Dead

Phil Montgomery's
Dead Pool

The Aces & Eights

Death Pool


Jeffrey P. McManus is a writer and consultant who lives in San Francisco. A co-host of the Pop Culture conference on The Well, he has also worked as a news reporter for the Camarillo Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His last piece for Salon was on his News Babe page.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------