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Tacky, Ghoulish, Undignified: Hey, Everyone! Into the ‘Dead Pool’!

| December 27, 2013
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Contestants Joel (left) and Jamie (right) join teammate Lisa at Ritual Café in San Francisco as they huddle over spreadsheets and data before making their 2014 Dead Pool picks. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Contestants Joel (left) and Jamie (right) join teammate Lisa at Ritual Café in San Francisco as they huddle over spreadsheets and data before making their 2014 Dead Pool picks. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Let’s acknowledge right at the outset: This is tacky, ghoulish and definitely beneath the standards of a classy public media organization like KQED.

OK, now let’s get started.

For the past 35 years, a shadowy organization has sponsored an annual contest where participants predict which celebrities will die in the coming year. The organizer of this “Dead Pool” — “Jim” — claims it’s the oldest contest of its type, with about 150 players across the country.

The rules are relatively simple. With a $30 entry fee, each team submits the names of 10 famous people from any field — politics, arts, sports, entertainment, etc. — predicted to pass along to the next life in the next calendar year.

Nine of the 10 celebrities can be old, infirm, sick, reckless, drug-abusing or ideologically vulnerable (victims of political assassination count). But one must be a “wild card” — someone under age 50 with no apparent vulnerabilities, illnesses, risky hobbies or affiliations (like gangs, organized crime, etc).

The team with the most correct choices by year’s end wins the pot, which can approach $5,000. However, any team that correctly picks a wild card (apparently this is rare; the last was John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999) also gets half the pot.

I was recently invited to observe one team mulling over its list for 2014 at a San Francisco café. The first thing  I noticed: Nothing is sacred.

“They’ve taken off so many body parts from her, how can she still be alive?,” asks team member, Lisa. (All ask to be identified by their first names only. I wonder why?) The object of her disbelief is 96-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor, who has survived a car crash, strokes and debilitating surgeries, and is on their 2013 Dead Pool list.

Referring to a health emergency the Hungarian-born actress had in 2011, team member Jamie adds “her right leg was amputated above the knee.”  Despite Gabor’s apparent immortality, she seems a shoo-in to make the list again next year.

‘They’ve taken off so many body parts from her, how can she still be alive?’

Also returning to this list: former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who’s been on life support since 2006.  Reading over Sharon’s Wikipedia entry on his iPad, Jamie exclaims “What the hell?” He’s already dead!.” But Sharon’s still a viable pick for the contest.

Someone notes that Nelson Mandela, who died the previous week, was on 66 teams’ lists this year. “If you don’t have people like that on your list, you’re not a serious contender,” says Jamie.

The group pores over a master spreadsheet compiled and updated by team member Joel. It lists and rates dozens of candidates, ranging from former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (age 93) to blues virtuoso B.B. King (88). Each candidate’s birth year is listed, along with any known diseases, the presence of “hard living” (an added risk) or “healthy living” (a plus) and random notes.  Among those rated most likely to die, in addition to Sharon, are author Edward Albee, singer Aretha Franklin and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The group spends a few minutes focusing on 88-year-old actress Elaine Stritch.

Lisa: “She does walk with a cane.” Joel adds, “A recent New York Times profile of her read like a swan song interview.” Not a good sign. Or in this case, perhaps a notable sign worth considering.

“She’s struggled with alcohol,” says Jamie, with an odd combination of concern and enthusiasm, “and Stritch doesn’t have a companion.”

These kinds of details are important, others note, because the presence of things like intimate relationships, grandchildren, just-released books, Oscar nominations and the like can add time to a person’s desire to live, thus making them less “attractive” for the dead list.

The toughest part of the contest of course is the Wild Card pick. Trying to explain who would be eligible and who would not, Jamie says, “Charlie Sheen won’t count” because of his repeated bouts with alcohol and substance abuse.

There are written guidelines for Wild Card picks, including the “Liza Minnelli Rule“: A substance-abusing celebrity who has managed to stay clean and sober for five years since his or her last stay at Betty Ford’s place will be eligible as a wild card. In other words, if they have cleaned up the old act, you can use them.”

Lisa admits they sometimes choose as Wild Cards celebrities who “travel a lot or who annoy us.” Enter Miley Cyrus. In addition to Wikipedia, the group turns to “authoritative” background source material on the rich and famous. “Star magazine, People and religious readings are all good stuff,” says Lisa.

When I met with the group in early December, it had had four “hits” in 2013, including Mandela.

It turns out that a spate of celebrities died in the closing weeks of 2013, complicating matters for these Dead Pool contestants. Within 24 hours of our meeting, several celebrities died, including actor Peter O’Toole and actress Joan Fontaine. Neither was on this team’s 2013 or 2014 list.

Not so for two others. In the past week, famous train robber Ronnie Biggs and Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the AK-47 , died, and both had made the group’s 2014 Dead Pool list. But because they died before January 1, it won’t count.

“They had the nerve to die on us too early,” Jamie wrote in a tongue-in-cheek email.

There are of course different ways to look at this contest. Jamie tries to put the best spin on it. “It’s life-affirming,” he says. “You want others’ picks to live.”

“It’s healthy to discuss this,” adds Joel. “We’re all going to die after all.”

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