Who's in your celebrity dead pool?

Cheap thrills—and some profit—for those who bet on the next star to kick the bucket

Kathleen Kennedy | Feb 1, 2008 | 19:34:40

With the news of Heath Ledger’s death it seemed like everyone with an Internet login chimed in on how his death affected their life. Celebrity bloggers said they felt terrible for the young actor’s friends and family, CNN.com posted heartfelt messages from people who had met him on the streets of his Brooklyn neighbourhood, or who had seen him in a yoga class or a shopping mall. And 31 “Rotten Dead Pool” players struck him off their list of celebrities they think will die this year.

Celebrity dead pools are (almost) exactly what they sound like. People bet on which stars they think will die over a specified period of time, usually a year, and whoever predicts the most deaths wins. Named after the Dirty Harry flick Dead Pool, they’ve been going on between slightly morbid groups of friends for years, but the Internet has afforded said pools the freedom to prosper, multiply, and get rather nasty.

When a star dies, players can win money, bragging rights, and perhaps a secret smugness that they won’t be hearing about anymore of that star’s antics. So is betting on death just a laugh, a pastime—or is there something even more macabre to it? You’d hate to think participants actually wish these celebs any ill will.

“There is something about a celebrity death that strikes us more than even the death of neighbours,” says Dr. Ivan Emke, of the Department of Social and Cultural Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Emke says dead pools are not just an outgrowth of our star-obsessed culture, but a way to participate in their drama.

Some of the earlier sites just kept track of which stars were still alive, says Emke. “And then seemed to morph into not just who’s alive and who’s dead but who we wish were dead.”

At least one dead pool site, stiffs.com, has a “Hate Lists,” section for people to divulge just who they hope to see in tomorrow’s obituaries. “Briefly put, a Hate List is a way to show the world how much you care, without screwing up your chances to win money,” the site says.

The actual game at stiffs.com is a year long, similar to online fantasy sports leagues or pools that last a whole season. Only, in dead pools, when someone on your roster has a fatty diet, sluggish performance or erratic behaviour that’s a good sign.

Deadpool.rotten.com is a sister site to the infamous, and admittedly despicable, Rotten.com. This dead pool lists nearly 70,000 players and has a massive and well-researched database of A- to D-list stars and well-known names. The homepage includes a list of the “most popular” celebrities, the recently deceased, and celebrity birthdays (one can only assume to keep track of who’s getting on).

The site says it’s free to join so there’s no kitty to be won—top players are rewarded with a mention in the site’s “Hall of Fame.” Be warned, its first rule bars over-achievers from killing their celebrity picks, on pain of one year’s gaming suspension. Cheating, however, is considered such poor sport that perpetrators are barred from games for life.

YouBetTheirLife.com “is a game that provides cold, hard, cash for cold, hard stiffs.” Players earn points for each demise they successfully predict and at the end of the year the players with the most points win a percent of the pot. The site’s owners also give out points for special categories, such as the “River Phoenix Under 45 Award” for those players who correctly predict celebs unlucky enough not to make it to a mid-life crisis. “You Bet Your Life” is also pretty strict about players taking the game into their own hands--“if you must stalk somebody, chose a celebrity who is not on your list.” The site has a yahoo forum, where players keep up to date on bad news. One player, called “rigmort” complained that it was a long wait for “a lousy five pointer” in the recent death of Suharto, the former dictator of Indonesia, but “another 5 pointer, Roger Ebert, has entered hospital for more surgery,” he posted.

Coffindodgers.co.uk offers, if possible, a more sophisticated death pool. People don’t pick their celebrities, but rather are randomly assigned a “coffindodger”—described by site owner, Peter Mundy as “somebody who doesn’t look their best, whether they be old or frail.”