Originally created 11/14/97

The dying derby



Sure, most of the world stopped and mourned this year when Mother Teresa, Jimmy Stewart and Princess Diana died. But forgive Zach Love, Jim Wishart and Todd Baldau if they emitted a hearty "finally" and perhaps even a few cheers.

It's not that Love, Wishart and Baldau take pleasure in celebrity death.

They simply predict it.

Love runs the Lee Atwater Invitational Death Pool, and Wishart and Baldau organize the Ghoul Pool - deliciously morbid annual contests in which participants earn points by predicting which famous people won't live to see the new year. All three have been playing with friends for years, but since both contests moved to the Internet - the web being the largest office pool in the world - their games have exploded, with hundreds of participants worldwide wagering whether Robert Mitchum (good call) or Frank Sinatra (still hanging on) will make it to 1998. The game is even played in offices throughout the country and informally among friends.

The rules are simple: Just pick 10 celebrities - whether rock stars with known drug addictions, old-time actors making the tabloids for hospital stays or once-beloved politicians with debilitating diseases - and start watching the obituaries. All of a sudden, the celebrity death-watch takes on new meaning.

"Some people find it in bad taste to make bets on when people will pass on. But we don't cause them to die - we do consider it in bad taste to help them along - and we don't sit up wishing them to die. It's a fact of life. Some people are going to pass on. We just enjoy guessing which ones," said Baldau, whose pool out of Washington, D.C., boasts more than 100 players.

"A lot of my friends think it's an unhealthy fascination with death, but this game is less about death than celebrities and the twisted way the world deifies celebrities," said Love, whose Lee Atwater Invitational in California, running since 1990, is the Internet's largest. "When Princess Diana died, people were acting as if they lost a friend. But none of us had ever met her. This connection to celebrities is something people create in their mind.

"Now, when a celebrity dies, it has a chance to really mean something to me. When George Burns or someone dies, it's exciting. Now it affects me. It really does mean something to my life," Love says.

What's the secret to success in the dead pool? Lots of research, especially in the supermarket.

"You have to watch the tabloids," said Wishart. But once the National Enquirer publishes that deathbed photo, everyone knows, so "The best candidates are people you haven't heard anything from the last couple years. They're sort of fading from the public eye, maybe because they're on their last limb," said Love. "The 90-year-old former prime minister of whatever country, baseball players who fail to show up for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a Supreme Court justice who steps down, anyone given a lifetime achievement award - that's a red star. Those are things you have to pay attention to."

The most popular picks in the Lee Atwater pool - named for the 1980s' Republican Party chairman who died of a brain tumor in 1991, included Mother Teresa (101 of 141 lists), Bob Hope (96 of 101), then Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn ("always a popular choice," said Baldau), the Queen Mother, Pope John Paul II, Milton Berle, Gene Autry and Beat writer William Burroughs.

Death, as life, offers no guarantees. Nobody in either pool picked John Denver or Princess Diana. Mother Teresa and Jimmy Stewart remained popular choices for years before dying this year. Liver transplant recipients Larry Hagman and David Crosby always make several lists, but they both seem to be doing fine. Same for HIV-positive celebs Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis, sickly looking Russian President Boris Yeltsin ("He fools some people," Love cracked) and former President Reagan ("His body's actually in pretty good shape," Love offered.)

Others make the mistake of turning the dead pool into a wish list, selecting celebrities they dislike. Love simply keeps a second list he calls a "hate list" - featuring ESPN anchor Chris Berman, comedian Adam Sandler and Charlton Heston - to "get the vitriol out of my system."

Obviously, dead pools - which cost little or nothing to enter - aren't for everyone. There's a certain sick sense of humor required. While most people gasp at first at the outright morbidness of the dead pool, even those most horrified at the concept tend to find a perverse appeal in the game sooner or later.

"The first thing people say when they find out is, `You guys are sick,' " said Baldau. "Then the next time someone dies, they walk in the office the next day and ask, `By the way, did anyone have John Denver?"'