Shortly after the 2013 death of Paul Walker, our Justin Nobel had the chance to visit with the Guru of Celebrity Death Pools, Kelly Bakst. Kelly is the long-time runner of the Lee Atwater Invitational Dead Pool on stiffs.com.
With the spate of big-name celebrity deaths so far this year, we thought it would be a good time to catch up with Kelly to get an update on his unique perspective on life, death, and the business of celebrity death pools. Here’s what Kelly had to say.
FW: There have been a lot of celebrity deaths this year. Do these big deaths have an effect on your pool or are you locked in for the year?
KB: A lot of people look at a “big death” as somebody that is very famous. But in terms of the way the game works, people have set their lists for the year. So, say, for example, somebody who is very widely picked like Zsa Zsa Gabor dies, then it is big news. But it wouldn’t appreciably change the leader board because so many people have her.
What you’re really looking for are the dark horse picks that not a lot of people have. That moves players up the leaderboard faster. David Bowie was picked by maybe one person. That would qualify in the dead pool as a big death because it changed the leaderboard significantly. The big deaths are your Paul Walkers–someone you did not expect—they’re young, healthy and not expected to die. Paul Walker was actually not on the list because no one knew he liked to get in his friend’s Porsche and drive a billion miles an hour.
FW: Do you think when people are picking who is going to be in their pool they’re betting on real people or are they just choosing a name on a page in a tabloid magazine?
KB: I think it’s probably a little bit of both. 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. That’s what really separates it for most people. They’re not betting on whether or not someone is going to die. They’re betting on whether or not they’ll die this year.
As we’re also fond of saying, “there’s no room for sympathy in the winner’s circle.” We had a case many years ago where one of our most prolific players was playing Tom Bradley on several of her lists. She called one day out of nowhere and said she wanted us to remove him. It turns out it was because she ended up sitting across the table from him at lunch and she cracked. The instinct that carried her to victory in so many other games failed her when she sat with him because he became a real person. The rule is if you want to win dead pool, avoid lunch with the people on your list. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
FW: Has running the pool changed the way you think about your own mortality?
KB: It hasn’t made me think about my own mortality, but you can’t help but think about the comings and goings of people in general. It’s a monumental and enormous thing. It has more to do with us looking at celebrities and seeing how we put them up on a pedestal. The vast majority of the time they don’t deserve that. You never know what’s going on with a person in their private life. You only see their public persona. Two years ago Bill Cosby was a fine upstanding guy. You only know when it becomes news.
It hasn’t changed the way I look at that sort of thing. We all have loved ones that we don’t want to see go and it’s a tragic and difficult thing for your friends when they have somebody die. But these (the celebrities) are people that, by their very nature, you are separated from. But when Eddie Van Halen dies I’m going to be sad. He was a big part of my childhood. He was my boyhood hero, but he is going to die some day, that’s just the way it is.
Part of the difficulty in this game is defining celebrities. If Ted Cruz died tomorrow it would be national news. But if he doesn’t win the election for President, 30 years from now when he does die–or 40 or 50 or 60 or however long it is–people are going to be hard pressed to remember who he was. “Oh, he ran for President back in the early 2000s.” It’s fleeting in that regard.
There are celebrities that are “evergreen”. Elvis Presley will be a celebrity forever and ever. Tiger Woods will. People like that. But I’d be willing to bet you that 20 years from now no one will be able to tell you who Paul Walker was. And that was a big gigantic death.
FW: If there was one thing that you’d like people to know about celebrity death pools, what would that be?
KB: It’s kind of interesting that when I tell people that I have a website and this is what we do, they give that look. I always liken it to when you take something out of the refrigerator and you smell it and you’re not quite sure if it’s bad or not. Is it good? Is it bad? Should I taste it? That’s the look I get. That look of “I don’t know if I like this or not”. And the answer is that what we’re doing is entertainment. We do it for fun and there’s a lot of humor in the website. That’s what I’d like people to know.
We’re not hurting anyone. We’re not doing this to be mean to anybody–not the families of the deceased, not the deceased themselves. It’s not any different than us sitting around a park and betting on which pigeon is going to fly off a park bench first. It’s something that’s going to happen whether we like it or not and we just devised a little fun game around it. So it’s not as dark or as horrible or as evil as people might think, it’s not as sad as you think.
About Stiffs.com Celebrity Death Pools
Stiffs.com, home of The Lee Atwater Invitational Dead Pool, has been active for 20 years. Each year, some 1,500-2,000 players pick ten famous people who they think might die between January 1st and December 31st. Each entry costs $15. At the end of the year, the list with the greatest number of dead celebrities wins a cash prize along with having his or her name engraved on The M.T. Graves Memorial Trophy.