Like life, death is full of surprises.
Ten months ago, who could have guessed that Jerry Garcia, Elizabeth Montgomery, Eva Gabor, Mickey Mantle and Orville Redenbacher would pass from this mortal coil during 1995?
Not me, sad to say. However, I'm happy to report that I did have money on the demises of Rose Kennedy, Lana Turner, Doug McClure and 107-year-old Broadway producer George Abbott--a feat that's earned me the No. 2 slot in a multistate death pool in which players try to predict who won't make it to the finish line. And unless I miss my bet, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Dr. Benjamin Spock and the other names on my list shouldn't buy any green bananas, either.
Of course, laying odds on Forest Lawn's incoming freshman class isn't everyone's idea of a good time. During the past year, I've been called "morbid," "ghoulish," "tasteless"--and worse. But the founder of Deathwatch '95 prefers to think of his disciples as merely "misunderstood." And in the introductory notes to last year's contest, the self-styled "Gatekeeper" defended the apparently perverse pastime.
"The less enlightened among us fail to appreciate Deathwatch for what it is--a meaningful intellectual exercise in national and world history undertaken by a gifted few who care passionately about the world around us. Or some such shit."
Started in Phoenix by former New Times staff writer David Pasztor two years ago, the Deathwatch pool now boasts players in four states and the District of Columbia. Headquartered in Texas (where Pasztor works at Dallas Observer), the 32-player contest is one of an untold number of similar underground betting pools reportedly operating in newsrooms, hospitals, college campuses and on Wall Street. High-tech players even compete in a 55-person pool on the World Wide Web.
Although the pools--or at least the recent publicity surrounding them--suggest that they're a relatively new wrinkle in wagering circles, some insiders claim that death sweepstakes have been around forever. Or at least since George Burns was still a long shot.
Variously known as "death pools" or "ghoul pools," most games operate under the same basic ground rules. On December 31, each player submits a list of ten public figures whom he expects to die before the end of the next calendar year. All candidates must be sufficiently well-known that their deaths make national news, a rule that effectively prevents players from naming terminally ill relatives or using inside information on local celebrities. (Local luminaries whose fame transcends the Valley include Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall and Erma Bombeck, all of whom turned up in both the '94 and '95 Deathwatch tallies.) Some games utilize a prorated scoring system that rewards players for predicting unexpected exits. Under those rules, naming the 50ish Jerry Garcia would earn a player more points than picking the 80ish Ginger Rogers. Other games, like the one in Phoenix, operate under a straight body-count system. In case of ties, the player with the youngest decedent wins. Last year, two Deathwatch players were forced to split the $150 pot when the contest ended in a dead heat. Both named Burt Lancaster, Cab Calloway and Joseph Cotten as future daisy propellant.
And contrary to the unsportsmanlike conduct exhibited by the protagonist of The Dead Pool, a 1988 Clint Eastwood flick inspired by the game, rules prevent players from cheating by offing the celebs who appear on their list.
Murder may be one of the very few gambits to which diehard players haven't resorted. Although a number of Deathwatch lists were seemingly assembled by simply picking every third name out of Modern Maturity magazine, some of the more ingenious competitors have left no tombstone unturned in their quest for blood. Turning the game into a yearlong research project, hard-core players routinely scour almanacs for early-20th-century birthdates, badger obit-desk editors for tips and even track down the identities of death-row inmates slated for execution.
"If you really think about it, there are some logical people who are going to die very soon," says Ross Ramsey, an Austin journalist who for two years running has bet on 120-year-old Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, the world's oldest living person. "Ideally, you want all the other players to slap their heads and say, 'God, I wish I'd thought of that!'"
A fellow player wins points for originality by submitting the name of the equally obscure Billy Best, the teenage cancer patient who made headlines late last year when he ran away from his Massachusetts home rather than face the ordeal of chemotherapy.
Second-guessing the Grim Reaper isn't nearly as simple as it sounds. Yes, 104-year-old Rose Kennedy was an obvious choice. And that's exactly why a lot of longtime players had lost money on her annually until this year's contest.
And then there are the fluke candidates who pay off the first year. One legendary player made death-pool history when he included the hale and hearty Malcolm Baldrige on his list. Seven months later, the former Reagan cabinet member met death when a horse fell on him.
And even in death pools, that's what makes horse racing. "I look for terminal illness over old age every time," reports John Hillburg, a Seattle-based ghoul-pool aficionado who's been handicapping death derbies since the early '90s. However, "If you've got ailing and aging, it's a double whammy."
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."
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.
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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!