To Live and Die in LA – Interview With the Guru of Celebrity Death

"Celebrity death pools" allow people to pick which celebs they think will die in an upcoming year. Stiffs.com has been running a death pool online for almost 20 years.

"Celebrity death pools" allow people to pick which celebs they think will die in an upcoming year. Stiffs.com has been running a death pool online for almost 20 years.

How many people guessed that Paul Walker was going to die this year? The answer, at least as far as the celebrity death pool goes on Stiffs.com, is no one.

With more than 1500 paid players, the website runs what they say is the world’s largest celebrity death pool. Players enter a list of celebrities they think will die in a given year and whoever gets the most entries correct wins prizes. Digital Dying recently spoke with Stiffs co-founder Kelly Bakst about celebrity death pool strategies, Lindsay Lohan’s cocaine problem and as the year draws to a close, just who is heating up the leader board.

How does a “celebrity death pool” work?

Basically, you pick 10 celebrities you think are going to die and whoever gets the most right at the end of the year wins. Our Lee Atwater Invitational Dead Pool game runs from January 1 to December 31. In some death pools, younger celebrities count for more points but not in our game. The idea that a 95 year old is going to die has proven acutely wrong for years. Just look at Zsa Zsa Gabor. You have people who live for years and years, and then there are young people who just die unexpectedly.

Like Paul Walker I imagine?

Paul Walker was actually not on the list because he was never tried. Players can write people in, and then we have a process of determining whether or not that person is a celebrity. No one had tried Paul Walker because no one knew he liked to get in his friend’s Porsche and drive a billion miles an hour. So there are the people like him, for whom it never occurred to you that they would die at that age.

Other Great Reads: How to deal with grief after an unexpected death

How do you determine who is a celebrity?

For a while we used the AP news but everyone gets an AP obit, like the CEO of some Japanese tennis ball manufacturer. That’s not a celebrity that is noteworthy, so we came up with a fame committee, 55 people all over the country. They are different ages, different socio-economic status, different races, different areas of interest. If 15 percent of our polling group knows who they are we consider them a celebrity. And for us celebrity is not just about name recognition. If you see someone in a restaurant and say, ‘Oh, I know that guy he is from that chicken commercial,’ that is not a celebrity, that is just someone who is interesting.

Is there strategy involved with predicting celebrity death?

This isn’t just a luck thing, this is a game of research. I met with one player who showed me the spreadsheets he uses. He looks at 15 different factors and weights them differently. A huge one is lifestyle, like thrill seeking, or drugs. This guy had even broken it down by favorite drug. So cocaine users have better odds of dying than someone who just smokes a lot of weed. Take Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen, when you throw in their lifestyle of drinking and drugs they become more at risk. But a lot of people playing will say, ‘Oh Lindsay Lohan, she is going to die.’ Well, that was last year. This year she has actually gotten her act together and is not doing as many drugs, so she is not as good a pick.

Other Great Reads: The world’s dumbest deaths, now on TV

What’s a good strategy for first time players?

Pick three or four celebrities you think really have a good chance of dying, your Zsa Zsa’s, Fidel Castro. Then pick three or four people that have better than average but are not locked. Then one or two dark force picks, your Lindsay Lohan’s and Charlie Sheens, on the chance that one goes and you just shoot up the leader board. They have a shitty lifestyle but are not so much obvious picks.

Do some people complain the game is in bad taste?

Seriously, there is nothing funny about someone dying, but if Paris Hilton dies we want to make fun of the fact of her being a celebrity. It is interesting that people follow her day to day doings, because she has contributed absolutely nothing to society. We are not making fun of these people, just how they lived their life. After Michael Jackson died a fan called up, he had to be the greatest Michael Jackson fan in the greater Milwaukee area. And he was so mad. I said, ‘just stop 60 seconds and think why you are mad.’ He said, ‘because you’re making money off it.’ Well, after expenses are paid we are not making very much money at all.

What’s the leader board look like right now?

Usually around mid-December you hear someone has taken a turn for the worst and all of the sudden it is a death watch. It’s a matter of, are they going to make it to the end of the year or are they going to go this year. And there always seems to be a shake-up at the end of the year with some big deaths. This year it was Nelson Mandela, that really shook up the leader board. Currently the leader has seven hits. We have had nine. Last year we came about two weeks away from having a 10 out of 10—the person’s tenth choice died two weeks after the game ended. By no means is it a lock this year. A player named Ghost of Stiffs Past has seven, but you can get someone coming up from anywhere. Anyone with five or more hits can actually come up and tie them, and exactly the top 100 people have five or more. So you have 100 people who are still in this thing.

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