Another player refuses to bet on celebrities suffering from AIDS. "Maybe I'm too much of a liberal," rationalizes Beckee Brownlee, who admits she had no similar qualms about capitalizing on Doug McClure's fatal lung cancer in this year's game.

What do experts make of players' attraction to such off-the-beaten-track betting? While several psychologists have suggested that the pools are a backlash against celebrity, at least one observer sees the game as a form of whistling in the graveyard.

"This is actually the flip side of grief," says Fernando Delgado, an ASU West instructor who teaches classes in pop culture. "The notion of predicting death and playing with it is like a game. It kind of empowers you because it allows you to have the illusion of some degree of predictability over your environment."
Pointing out that there's nothing new about mocking the macabre, Delgado asks, "What else can you do with death? It's sort of like cracking morbid jokes or making fun of the O.J. Simpson trial. In some cases, it's inappropriate, and yet it's the only sort of solution to an otherwise inevitable subject. "The notion of life and death and the transition between them is bigger than any of us," Delgado concludes. "I would suggest that some people playing this game actually take death very seriously and might even be afraid of it."

Not surprisingly, such deep-dish rationalizing is lost on death-pool devotees who counter that the game has a lot more to do with Las Vegas than the Pearly Gates.

"Being able to predict who's going to live and who's going to die is a helluva lot more intriguing than guessing who's going to win a football game," explains David Pasztor of Dallas Observer, the former New Times staff writer who started the Phoenix pool two years ago. "Two teams go play each other and one of them is going to win. Big deal."

As the '95 pools come down to the wire, players across the country anxiously observe the changing of the guard.

Rose Kennedy's passing means that frail Katharine Hepburn inherits the "Queen of the Death Pool" crown, an honor she shares with reigning king George Burns. Other death-pool lifetime achiever awards go to stalwart perennials Mother Teresa, the Queen Mother, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart and the pope.

New blood is expected to be pumped into '96 lists courtesy of ailing luminaries Greg Louganis, Louis Malle, Larry Hagman and Dr. Timothy Leary. Expecting a replay of the jailhouse justice that cost Jeffrey Dahmer his life, several players foresee heavy action on baby-killer Susan Smith. On a lighter note, one Web pool player is already laying odds on the brief life expectancy of "the next husband of Anna Nicole Smith."

And from the Seattle-based pool, whose players receive quarterly progress reports, ghoul-pool guru Hillburg offers this upbeat tiding: "Until the [next] update, here's hoping the next bleeding colon on everyone's list turns out to be a gusher!

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