Celebrities: As they go, so goes your success in the ghoul pool, a group wager on which star will die next. It's all in perfectly bad taste.


March 12, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Lloyd Bridges is dead. Why shouldn't there be something in it for you?

A ghoulish thought, perhaps. But in the world of ghoul pools, a celebrity's death is a commodity, awarded points and cash. It's nothing personal -- in fact, like any form of gambling, it tends not to reward emotion. Astute pool players like to point out that those who bet on celebrities they wish to see dead -- paging Dick Vitale -- often have the lowest-performing "mortfolios."

Excuse the pun. For some strange reason, bad jokes and bad taste seem to go hand in hand when it comes to ghoul pools -- the Grim Reaper's version of the NCAA basketball pool, in which Internet-connected players make wagers on which celebrity won't be standing by year's end. When ancient comic Henny Youngman died last month, more than 50 people e-mailed the popular Internet site known as stiffs.com -- aka "The Lee Atwater Invitational" -- and suggested this send-off: "Take my life ... please."

Bridges' death Tuesday inspired another one-liner, which requires at least one viewing of his movie comedy "Airplane!" to understand: "Looks like he picked the wrong week to stop breathing."

Bridges was a big score at stiffs.com. Eight entrants had his number in the "Lee Jr.," a month-by-month contest for those who couldn't, or wouldn't, get their death picks made in time for the annual Atwater contest. Another lucky contestant moved up to sixth place in the 1998 rankings for having the prescience to put Bridges on his annual list.

Then there was the sole risk-taker who has his money on former "Diff'rent Strokes" star Todd Bridges, just 32. That's the kind of bold move that can really pay off for the seasoned ghoul pool player. Just ask those who were holding Chris Farley futures last December.

Many people are bothered by the Lee Atwater and its ilk, and stiffs.com has the hate e-mail to prove it. (These include repeated missives from "Mrs. Hewey," a woman who claims to be the daughter of an oft-listed celebrity, but has never heard of late Republican strategist Lee Atwater.)

A man who identifies himself as a friend of Atwater's found the site by accident and was, of course, appalled. One has a sense of what he must have felt when the name of Sun columnist Jack Germond pops up on the Atwater list, one of 281 "lone wolf" entries (including Todd Bridges and mega-model Anna Nicole Smith).

"Of course it's morbid," says a cheerful Richard Berman, a New Yorker who plays in his own private pool for very small stakes -- a dime a death -- with friends he met years ago at Johns Hopkins University's summer program. "This is Schadenfreude meets the pop consumerism of the '90s. ... Obviously in a perfect world everyone would live to a ripe old age. But if that were the case, there would be no ghoul pools."

Others have analyzed ghoul pools and found them to be the inevitable result of a celebrity-loving, death-fearing culture where people have entirely too much time on their hands.

Finally, there are those who have plumbed the history of these morbid games and traced them back to the one group responsible for just about everything wrong in the country -- the media. Journalists, forced by vocation to be up on current events and prepared to write obituaries, began handicapping the deaths to come.

The Internet proved to be a huge boon to death pools, making them accessible to ever larger numbers of players. The Lee Atwater, which began as two guys with a bet, has expanded so much that it's now selling T-shirts and caps via its Web site.

(No weapons, however. Offing one's celebrity picks is strictly prohibited in virtually all ghoul pools.)

One of the quirkier, smarter versions of the game is an invitation-only affair known as the Greater Northern Virginia Ghoul Pool, run by Jim Greenwood of -- now here's a surprise -- Northern Virginia.

Unlike most pools, which reward people for the sheer quantity of corpses on their lists, the Greater Northern Virginia Pool allows .. its approximately 25 members to buy exclusive rights to certain celebrities, sort of like mineral leases. Each celebrity costs $1 per month, no matter the age. When the pot is awarded, everyone kicks in again. Let your dues expire and your celebrities go on the open market.

This way, celebrities can change hands, although most people are devoted to their picks, Greenwood says. The player who is betting on Julia Child's passing, for example, has paid for her rights through May 1999, possibly on a hunch about all those French sauces.

Celebrities who have been diagnosed with fatal diseases are not considered fair game, but if you secured, say, Frank Sinatra or Elizabeth Taylor before their recent hospitalizations -- bonne chance!

Over the years, Northern Virginia's pay-outs have ranged from a low of $14 for former President Richard M. Nixon to a whopping $795 for alleged Communist operative Alger Hiss. Ghoul pools do irony very well.

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