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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dewey Webb