June 26, 2002 -- -- Is nuclear war inevitable in these shaky times? Want to bet?
Death pools — a ghoulish twist on college basketball tournament pools — are nothing new to the Internet. Participants typically throw a few dollars into a pot and guess when various newsmakers will die for cash prizes and bragging rights.
Now, Luke Heidelberger is taking this morbid game to an all new level with the Indo-Pakistani Death Pool.
Just guess the exact time the first bomb detonates and you win. It's that easy. You don't even have to guess who strikes first. Just make sure to also guess how many millions of innocent people die — that's how a tiebreaker is decided.
Are you sick yet? Heidelberger hopes so.
To be sure, Heidelberger's stab at dark humor is intended to get people talking about how close we're coming to nuclear war in South Asia.
"My little death pool isn't encouraging the Indians and Pakistanis to nuke each other. I'm just trying to emphasize how absurd this whole thing is in my own small way," he says.
"If the leaders of those two countries are going to be so stupid and so arrogant as to gamble with the lives of millions of their citizens in a deadly game of nuclear brinksmanship, why shouldn't we gamble too and at least have some fun with it? At least my game might get people talking."
Heidelberger, a 28-year-old computer programmer from Indianapolis, says he's not affiliated with any political group. This is just his own personal statement and in keeping with his own personal favorite statement on war, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
"I'd like to think that Stanley Kubrick would join the pool if he were still around," said Heidelberger. Still, his girlfriend isn't so sure. "She's a little afraid of a backlash."
War: The Sport of Kings
Ghoul pools existed way before the Internet. European nobles were known to bet on everything — including the outcome of wars, sometimes referred to as the "sport of kings."
Compared to the bigger games on the Internet, the Indo-Pakistani Death Pool is small potatoes. The prize is only $120, and Heidelberger put up most of the money himself.
"You don't have to pay to enter," Heidelberger says. "You can contribute as much as you like — or nothing — and you still make a profit on the war."
As of June 25, 303 people had entered the pool. The latest contestant, according to the Web site, was Andy Huchings of Buffalo, N.Y. He predicts the first nuclear bomb will fall on Nov. 19, causing one megadeath.
"Megadeath" is Cold War-speak that means 1 million in casualties. Many entrants are guessing that the first strike will yield 30 megadeaths.
‘Death Pool’ Dave’s Banner Year
The serious death pool players aren't really interested in Heidelberger's site. The prizes are small, and many players say it's more fun to pick on celebrities.
"Famous people are going to die no matter what. This is our little way to thumb our nose at the Grim Reaper," says "Death Pool" Dave, one of the high-profile gamblers on the Internet's death pool circuit, who's appeared on dozens of radio and TV shows.
The Detroit health-care researcher says he won't give his full name. "I'm sure my company doesn't want people to know that one of their researchers plays the death pools," he says.
Popular picks in the death pool world include aging celebrities like Katharine Hepburn, former President Ronald Reagan, Muhammad Ali and Bob Hope.
In a typical game, you give the pool a list of celebrities and earn points for each death. Usually, the points are determined on a "Minus 100" rule. When Mafia chief John Gotti died recently at age 61, Death Pool Dave earned a cool 39 points.
"Everyone picks Bob Hope. But he's 99, you only get one point," Dave says.
Should Hope reach his 100th birthday — and The Wolf Files ardently hopes that he will — he'll still be worth one point.
Cash Payments for Inside Information
The big death pool scores come when younger celebrities meet an untimely passing. Dave hardly cried when Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley died at 34 of a drug overdose earlier this year. He won $15,000.
Some rock fans sent Dave nasty letters. "They said I was a sadistic necrophiliac. But I say that's beating a dead horse," he said, adding that Staley "threw his life away" with drugs.
Dave says he zeroed in on Staley after an EMS worker told him that he had been to the singer's home and saw that he had gangrene on one arm. "I paid that guy $2,000 for that information," he says. "I usually don't give that much. But this information was that good."
With the $13,000 win, Dave could be headed to his best year since 1999, when he won an equal amount, largely based on the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in a plane crash.
"It's not just drugs we're looking at," Dave says, referring to the 20 or 30 serious players around the world with whom he competes. "We're looking for telling articles in local newspapers that show the sort of lifestyle that might lead to an early death. We're also looking for insider tips who can tell us something that the rest of the world doesn't know."
High on his current list are former baseball star Darryl Strawberry, actor Robert Downey Jr. and Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, all of whom have a history of drug abuse. "Strawberry is a good pick because he's under 40, he's had colon cancer and he's suicidal," he says. "I guarantee Strawberry doesn't field forever."
Dave says that a friend of Downey's complained for putting him on his list. "I told him when Downey proves that he's cleaned up his act, I'll take him off my list."
Honor Among Ghouls
If there is any honor among Dave's peers, it's that they resist average people who are thrust into the headlines. Nobody was betting after journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted in Afghanistan several months ago.
"With the celebrities, it's fair game," Dave says. "I certainly have pity for the Pearl family and their loss."Even with tensions heating up between India and Pakistan, Dave says he has no desire to join the Indo-Pakistani Death Pool. "I don't get the point, what if there is no nuclear bomb? Nobody wins. Why play?"
Still, Dave checked if there were any newsmakers in the area who might be good candidates for his regular ghoul pools. "You never know," he says.
Heidelberger, however, says he's hoping that the bombing never comes. In a perfect world, India and Pakistan will disarm and he'll throw a "nonproliferation party" with money in the pot.
"Unfortunately," he says, "I'm a pessimist. Someone will win my contest and the rest of the world will lose."
Of course, if the world ends, all bets are off.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producerat ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files ispublished Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice whena new column is published, join the e-maillist.