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Betting on death: Just for fun, or just sick?

Participants in betting rings to predict the grim reaper say it's only a joke. Others say it's in poor taste.

Published June 19, 2004

While much of the nation mourned Ronald Reagan and soul singer Ray Charles last week, Internet junkies and office gamblers cashed in.

Reagan and Charles were worth $15 to a handful of college students and 307 points to several speculators who bet on when famous people will die.

"Scoring a death is kind of like landing on "Free Parking' in Monopoly and getting all the money in the center of the board," said Alex Webb, a 25-year-old Oklahoma screenwriter. "You get a brief morale boost, but the game continues."

Webb is part of a macabre section of American culture that participates in a celebrity death pool, or ghoul pool. His Web site, asks people to predict the demise of celebrities worldwide. Whoever gets the most right at the end of the year wins $920.

There are similar pools across the Internet, even a soccer site has its own side game. In the office, a death pool can keep employees busy the 11 months that there is no NCAA bracket to scrutinize.

"The game is morbid," said Webb, whose mother also plays online. "But we're no more morbid than, say, life insurance. "

Generally, players in celebrity death pools select from 10 to 30 stars at the beginning of each year they expect to die. The older the celebrity, the fewer points a player wins. For instance, comedian Chris Farley's death in 1997 at age 33 was significantly more valuable than Reagan's death at 93.

There are other rules to most pools. Executions are excluded. Famous animals like Flipper are fair game. And to be counted, a death must be reported in a national mainstream publication, like the New York Times or USA Today, not Field & Stream.

In Florida, wagering on the "endurance of human or beast" is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

But that hasn't stopped the pools.

Olsen Ebright, a 22-year-old senior at Kent State University in Ohio, started a game with friends in 2002. Last year, the pool was shrouded in controversy when Unsolved Mysteries host Robert Stack died hours after competition began.

"No one wanted the game to end 20 minutes after it started," said Ebright, a public relations major who also keeps a blog, "So we gave the kid $25 and kept going."

This year, four people selected Reagan and won $15 apiece. Another made $15 when Charles passed.

"My mom thinks the whole thing is kind of morbid, but she did congratulate me when I won," said Caroline Hirt, a 21-year-old Ohio University graduate who picked Reagan in Ebright's pool.

"(Death pools) are a little disrespectful, but we aren't saying that to win we're going to go out and cause the death of someone," Hirt said. "It's only 60 bucks. It's just something on the side. Not meant to hurt anyone, which may be a side effect somewhere along the line, but really just something of a little joke."

Suzanne Altare of Trinity became interested after reading about political operative Lee Atwater's death. Though Altare, 37, has never participated in a death pool, she has considered it.

"It would depend on how much money is involved," she said. "People bet on a lot of things...You have office pools for the NCAA tournament or the Super Bowl. What's one more?"

But a death sweepstakes does offend Curlew Hills Memory Gardens cemetery president Keenan Knopke.

"I find it to be in very poor taste," said Knopke, whose funeral home holds 700 memorials a year. "If people haven't got anything better to bet on, well, I feel sorry. I would hope they wouldn't want them to die. But just the fact that they're particularly interested is bad enough."

Locally, second-guessing the grim reaper is nothing new.

Until this week, Largo stained glass artist Mike Straub ran where people predicted when someone would throw themselves off the 150-foot-high Sunshine Skyway bridge between Pinellas and Manatee counties.

No money changed hands on Straub's site, which he launched in 1998. Instead, he and others criticized jumpers, whose family members have often clashed with Straub on a Web site forum.

The site also drew opposition from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Joan Fine, who heads the Florida chapter of the nonprofit group, said Straub's treatment of suicide was troubling.

"It's horrible," Fine said. "It's making a joke out of people committing suicide."

On Tuesday, Straub declined to respond to critics and said he would remove the site from the Internet. Wednesday his site redirected traffic to the Tampa Tribune's Web site. By Friday, the site was up again.

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