It’s a little bit morbid, it’s a little sardonic, it’s the Celebrity Death Pool.
An informal betting game based around picking the death dates of famous people, Celebrity Death Pool is the latest pop-culture incarnation of the long-lived dead pool. Bets made on predictions of death have long been a dark way for humans to deal with suffering and mortality.
You’ll find dead pools operating informally among staff in hospital wards, among the betting crowds at the Daytona 500, even in the online posts of TV and movie fandoms.
Celebrity Death Pool Rules
Here are five basic rules for your Celebrity Death Pool:
Rule #1 – You Can’t Cause a Celeb’s Death to Win
One set of rules I found at online sportsbooks says it this way – “Thou shalt not murder thy picks.” Going on, the rule forbids “harming, murdering, or in any manner affecting the general health or well-being” of any celebrity to earn points.
Rule #2 – Only Approved Celebrities Count
I found this definition for “celebrity” in Merriam-Webster’s – “a famous or celebrated person.” Pretty much any famous person counts.
Celebs may include sports figures, people from the film or music industry, TV stars, media figures, heads of state, persons of interest, even scientists and inventors. Generally, you can’t pick people who are locally famous or only well-known to a select group of people.
How will you know if a person you’ve picked “counts” as a celeb? This is a big part of the fun of most games – revealing your picks and having them vetoed or confirmed by the other players. Some games make use of the Notable Names Database or some other list of famous people to determine a pick’s includability.
Rule #3 – You Have to Pick xx Number of Celebs
This varies from game to game. Online Celebrity Death Pool games seem to love the number 20. The home games I play with family and friends tend to top out at 10. The more players, the great the variety of point totals, but the game also becomes more unwieldy, especially at point-tallying time.
Rule #4 – Duration Matters
Most games decide on a start and ending time. The game I play with my extended family starts on January 1st and ends on December 31st, a literal calendar year.
You have to settle this rule with the people you’re playing with, otherwise, it can be chaos when it comes time to tally points.
Rule #5 – How to Score Celeb Deaths
The most basic scoring method is to deduct the celeb’s age from 100 – the number leftover is your base score for that death. Most games offer bonus points, in part to help settle the question of “what to do about people who die over the age of 100,” and in part to add interest to what can otherwise be a bit of a bore.
Celebrity Death Pool Bonus Points
In my home games, the bonus points are where the competition is really at. If you want to pick celebrities of advanced age, you’ll suffer from the small point totals that come from their deaths. But if bonus points are in place, and you make strategic picks, a 102-year old death can turn from a -2 point play to a positive point total.
You can tailor the bonuses in your game to your group’s preferences. My family offers 100 bonus points for any celeb death on New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve. Other common bonuses include 50 points for a celeb who dies on their birthday, 25 points for “first blood” (being the first picker with a verified celeb death), and 50 points for a solo pick, meaning the death of a celeb picked by one else in your game.
Betting on a Celebrity Death Pool
You can make the financial part of a death pool game as complicated or as simple as you’d like.
The easiest thing to do, if you want to wager on your pool, is to collect a buy-in from everyone then distribute that money to the winner. You could even offer a split purse, with 50% going to the winner, 30% going to second place, and 20% going to third place. It doesn’t matter how you distribute it, just work it out ahead of time so everyone knows what they’re playing for.
My family game has grown complicated over the years – we have 12 bonus point categories, and we hand out three rounds of prizes to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.
Here’s how it works:
Our game’s three important dates are April 30th, August 30th, and December 31st. Each of these is a payout date. We allow 10 players each year for a buy-in of $50.
On each of the first two payout dates, 25% of the total purse ($125) is paid out to the player in the lead. Only one player earns money in those first two rounds, making them just as competitive as the big year-end pay date.
The last payout date hands out the other 50% of the $500 purse, but it rewards the top three finishers instead of just one player. The person in the points lead wins 25% of the total purse, with the other 25% split between 2nd and 3rd place.
Since mom had claimed the first two payouts to herself, she technically won more money than dad overall – $325 against his $125. Still, he had bragging rights for being the overall winner.
Celebrity Death Pool Strategy
The most obvious strategy for building an unbeatable celeb death pool is to tailor your picks to your game’s bonus point system. My home game rewards COVID deaths, so it makes sense to pick celebs who, for whatever reason, are more exposed – for me, this means looking for at least one prominent middle-aged unvaccinated celeb so that I get a big point base from age and a 19-point boost from the COVID bonus.
An American man’s average lifespan is 78 years and 9 months. Choosing a 79-year-old celeb seems to give you the maximum benefit in terms of points and likelihood of dying. Then again, that strategy limits you to a maximum of 21 points, bonuses not considered.
The death of a very young person would be lucrative in terms of base points, but a 20-year old healthy person has about a 0.1% chance of dying of any cause in any given year. At 60 years old, that chance jumps to 1.2%. That healthy 20-year old rapper you put on your list is about ten times less likely than someone in their 60s to die. At 90 years old, by the way, your celebs’ chances of dying in a given year are about 16.1%.
That 70-year chunk of points you’re giving away to list the name of an older celeb is worth about a 3200% increase in odds of winning overall.
Once you get past the “Oh, my” element of death pools, it’s easy to see why they’re popular among families and groups of friends.
If we’re going to read about, watch, and talk about famous people all the time, making side bets on the dates of their deaths is a natural extension of our weird obsession with their lives.
Using a little strategy, and with some measure of luck, you can have a year-long contest among friends for bragging rights, a little cash, and added conversation at the dinner table.