By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Currently leading his own six-state pool with five correct picks to date, Hillburg warns that a diagnosis is not the same as a death certificate. "No way would I pick Magic Johnson--not this year, anyway," says Hillburg. And although Ronald Reagan's pool popularity skyrocketed after it was learned he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, don't look for the Gipper's name on Hillburg's list. "Very iffy," he says. "Some of those Alzheimer people can go on for years." Of course, it's always a better bet if a celebrity has a pulse to begin with. But in their eagerness to cash in on famous faces whose mugs haven't been seen in a while, players occasionally name figures who've already finished out of the money (see box). One player in this year's Deathwatch pool selected Tip O'Neill, a winning entry in the '94 game. And it wasn't until someone pointed out an incomplete listing in an almanac that another player realized why he hadn't heard anything about Jackie Gleason since 1987. Some seasoned death-pool pros say they wouldn't dream of sitting down in front of the TV without a pencil and a pad handy. "I wished I'd picked Frank Sinatra," rues Dallas player Janeen Newquist, still reeling from news footage of the toupeeless crooner doddering through a crowd. "He looked terrible--I think he's going to kick." The only Deathwatch player to foresee Mickey Mantle's death now credits the prediction to a TV appearance late last year in which the ballplayer's nose "looked like the lunar landscape."
Other players swear by the supermarket tabloids. The closest thing around to a death-pool tout sheet, the National Enquirer and its ilk have heralded the final days of successful death-pool picks like Martha Raye, Dack Rambo and Lana Turner. And while the supermarket press death watches are usually right on target (the late Anthony Perkins learned he'd contracted AIDS only after reading about the results of an unauthorized blood test in one of the tabs), some skepticism is still advised.
Still stinging from premature reports of the "tragic last days" of such still-living luminaries as Tammy Wynette, Dean Martin and the husband of Loretta Lynn, several players have learned that one emergency-room visit or unflattering paparazzi shot does not a death knell make.
Meanwhile, computer-savvy players are using the information superhighway as an on-ramp to the highway to heaven. Cross-referencing computer searches dealing with age, disease and hospital visits, at least one dead-pool diviner couldn't come up with any better info were she sleeping with the Grim Reaper himself.
"My old method just wasn't working," reports player Lisa Hoffman, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist whose new system has the competition wondering if she isn't actually sticking pins in dolls. After last year's flop methodology (her top-of-the-head prognostications resulted in zero hits during the '94 contest), Hoffman used newspaper databases to compile the names of ailing "oldie moldies" that appear on this year's list. And with three months still remaining before the contest ends, Hoffman may well set an all-time ghoul-pool record, having already correctly predicted the deaths of Margaret Chase Smith, John Stennis, Warren Burger, Alfred Eisenstadt, Rose Kennedy, J. William Fulbright and George Abbott.
But Hoffman points out, "I don't necessarily put everybody on my list that I think is going to die. I would never put Mother Teresa on the list," she insists. "I don't want her to die."
While death pools draw players from all walks of life, a disproportionate number of the games appear to have sprung out of newspaper offices. So what's the Fourth Estate's fascination with people no longer able to return their calls? "We're sick," quips Bill Husted, a Denver-based writer who's been monitoring a regional ghoul pool in his Rocky Mountain News column for several years. Chalking up the popularity of the game to a "newsroom mentality," Husted theorizes, "One, we get the news first. Two, people who work at newspapers get kind of a world-weary attitude about events. I think that leads to laughing at death."
Perhaps not surprisingly, many nonplayers fail to get the joke. Muttering "Get a life," some observers merely shake their heads at the congratulatory interoffice hoopla that often surrounds the latest obituary "score." Others, however, are downright hostile, especially when the freshly picked daisy-pusher turns out to be a much-beloved star like Jessica Tandy. Witness the bummed-out New Times staffer who practically came to blows with two colleagues as they high-fived each other upon learning one of them had successfully predicted Jerry Garcia's death.
And it's just that sort of squeamishness that makes it difficult to round up players.
"I don't want to be responsible for anyone's death," says one New Times writer who wanted no part of the pool. "What if I just randomly picked Alicia Silverstone and then she died in a freak accident? I couldn't live with the guilt."
Yet even jaded Deathwatch cynics confess to superstitious quirks. One Valley player limits his list almost exclusively to Asian leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Pol Pot, claiming that the would-be decedents are so far removed from his world that their deaths don't seem "disturbing."