Celebrity death pools are where fantasy sports leagues meet pop culture. The concept is simple.
You pick a slate of celebrities, usually ten; that you think will die within the calendar year.
If one of your picks kicks off then you score points. At the end of the year, the player with
the highest number of points wins the purse.
Gambling is big business. In 2014, US gambling revenues were nearly $69 billion. And that’s just the legal stuff that is tracked by the industry. Even if you’re not taking trips to Vegas or buying weekly lottery tickets, you’re probably toying with the small stuff — fantasy leagues, NCAA brackets, Super Bowl squares. Yep, we love to gamble and we’ll find all sorts of inventive ways to do it. But there’s one type of betting game you may not be familiar with even though lots of people are playing—celebrity death pools.
Celebrity death pools are where fantasy sports leagues meet pop culture. The concept is simple. At the beginning of the year, you pick a slate of celebrities, usually ten; that you think will die within that calendar year. When one of your picks kicks off, you score points. The rules of the game vary somewhat depending on the pool. Some award points based on the number of people choosing the celebrity, others scale the points based on the age of the celebrity. Most allow teams to play as well as individuals. At the end of the year, the player (or team) with the highest number of points wins the purse.
Ghoulish? Maybe a little, but those who run and play the pools stress that it’s just for fun. As Kelly Bakst, who runs the Lee Atwater Invitational Dead Pool at stiffs.com puts it, “What we are fond of saying is that you’re not betting on whether or not people will die. Everyone is going to die. It’s just a matter of when.”
For those who play, much of the fun is the thrill of the hunt–doing the down and dirty research. The pool runner of cash4cadavers.com, who is also a long-time player, told us that for her “it keeps you more attuned to the news. You want to make sure that your celebrities are alive or dead. Personally, I always like the challenge of finding a person who will be famous when they die. Famous enough that people will notice, but not so famous that you expect them to be on the list.”
Still, the pools are not for everyone. For some, they are just too morbid and even the people who run them can face criticism for perpetuating such a grim sort of fun. “Most people are appalled at the idea,” the runner of thedeadpool.com, told us. “Family members have asked me not to run it and my good friend who loves gambling on everything joined in [one] year. The day he scored his first, was the day he called me and said he was out. He couldn’t handle being happy when he heard the news and then realized what he had cheered for.”
And then there is the story of the player who picked a famous politician. All was well until this seasoned pooler found herself sitting across the table from the luminary at a lunch. Once she put the face to the name she cracked and immediately pulled him from her lists. The long and short of it is, for most of the people who play, and maybe for the people who run the pools, the bets are more on a name from a tabloid, not a real living breathing human being.
One popular misconception about the pools is that they make lots of money for the people who run them. Quite the contrary. Managing a pool is really a labor of love. The people who run them keep their day jobs and handle the pools as a side project. The proceeds generally don’t go into the pocket of the person running the game. Instead, the money collected is used for the prizes or improving the infrastructure of the pool.
The inner workings of celebrity death pools can be fairly complex and most require some kind of technical expertise. And when the celebrity death scene is as active as it has been this year, keeping things up-to-date is no easy task. A key challenge is determining just what classifies someone as a celebrity. Each pool has its own method of deciding. Some require that the person’s obituary be carried in an “approved publication.” Others have a panel of judges that decide. Whatever method is used, there are appeals to review and arguments to settle over whether or not a person is well known enough to be considered a celebrity. The decision can make or break it for a player since being the only person to pick a certain celebrity can score big points.
Games based on celebrity deaths have been around for a remarkably long time. In the 1400’s speculation on the death of the Pope got so out of hand that it was banned. An 1885 work by Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami, refers to an actual game based on guessing when various politicians would die. These days, it’s not at all uncommon for celebrity death pools get shout outs in TV shows and films.
In the 1998 Clint Eastwood movie, “The Dead Pool”, Dirty Harry must work against the clock to stop a pool where celebrities become murder targets. FOX TV’s current hit “Second Chance,” and HBO’s “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” have both made reference to the games and while it’s got no release date yet, “Killing Hasselhoff,” a movie based on a death pool, wrapped production some time ago.
You would think that the pools would generate interest from the celebrities themselves since they are the unfortunate subjects of the speculation. But there doesn’t seem to be much interest from the people who are being bet on. None of the pool runners we spoke with had received any pushback from the stars. In fact, comedian Doug Stanhope, a bit of a celebrity himself, is behind the popular, Doug Stanhope’s Celebrity Death Pool. Even the runner of the Stanhope pool, whose email handle is Reaper, is a bit surprised by the lack of interest from celebrities. “No, we don’t get much pushback at all. I kind of wish we would since that would mean more attention.” Of course, it could be that many of the top celebrity picks just don’t know about the pools. Many are well into their later years and have been out of the public eye for quite some time. Perennial picks like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kirk Douglas likely just don’t pay attention.
Considering how fascinated we are with the whole notion of celebrity, it’s not surprising that tracking the deaths of the rich and famous has become a cottage industry. We follow the lives of the people who walk the red carpet, make news, and grace the covers of dozens of popular magazines. So why not track their deaths as well. Whether or not it’s the “right” thing to do is up to personal preference. For some, it’s just a fun way to keep things interesting. To others, it’s in bad taste. Regardless of where you stand on the propriety of the games, their popularity has stood the test of time. So if you’d like to throw your hat in the ring and maybe win a couple of dollars, now’s a good time to start your research. When January 1st rolls around it’ll be time to place your bets on which stars we will lose in 2017.