It"s that time of year again, where children of all ages assemble their Celebrity Death Pool lists with glee. While it"s true there are many thousands of pleasures in the world, few compare with the thrill that comes when a celebrity you"ve selected keels over. Actually, it"s a healthy reaction to the cult of celebrity that the media creates. With each new celebrity death given days and weeks of faux reverent media coverage, Death Pools are a way to speak out against the excesses of modern life. When I first started making Celebrity Death Pool picks in this column in 1994, it was a relatively new concept to people. Now there are at least 25 Web sites that cater to this morbid practice. I"m coming at all of this with a fresh attitude this year. I"ve had an awful run of luck the past few years. Few if any of my picks succumbed; it seems that my selection of them acts as a karmic shield protecting them from harm. Bob Hope has decided to keep living for as long as I keep picking him, for example, and the pope will stay alive until I take him off my list. My year of Death Pool glory was 1998, when more than half the people on my list complied with my predictions. In fact, several big names - Frank Sinatra, Barry Goldwater and George Wallace - all fell within weeks of each other. I was in heaven, figuratively speaking. I"ve thought endlessly about my picks and am confident that a few of them, at least, will not make it to 2004. Remember, I"m not wishing for these people to die, I"m just predicting that they will. And under no circumstances do I plan to pad my stats by causing the death of anyone on the list. That"s a gross violation of every Death Pool rule in existence. Drum roll, please. My Death Pool picks for 2003, in no particular order, are Ö 1. Abe Vigoda. Each year I pick this elderly actor, who played in The Godfather and on TV"s Barney Miller. I"m going to keep picking him until I win. He"s pushing 90 and his health insurance can"t be that good. He made an appearance this year in a TV commercial, however, so he may be catching his second wind. 2. Bob Hope. This man has clung to life so stubbornly that I didn"t pick him for a few years. He"s cheated death so frequently that one chooses him at their own peril. But he"s got to die sometime. Doesn"t he? 3. Pope John Paul II. This man of peace has done so much for so many people in his life. But he can"t live forever and he looks frailer each year. 4. Ronald Reagan. The Gipper has served his nation with honor and distinction. Now he spends his time in deep conversation with trees and books. However, I wouldn"t be surprised if he outlives the Olsen twins. He"s now the longest-living former president in U.S. history. Nobody can be so lucky for so long. 5. Lady Bird Johnson. She was first lady from 1963 to 1969. Her husband died in 1973. Her children are becoming elderly themselves. This might be her year to join her husband in the great ranch in the sky. 6. Strom Thurmond. For God"s sake, he"s 100 years old. The debate shouldn"t be whether the country would have been better off if he"d been elected president in 1948, but whether he"ll make it through the year. Again, he"s beaten predictions many times and may do so again. 7. Alonzo Mourning. This aptly-named basketball player is suffering from a variety of ailments. The shot clock is about to expire on him. 8. Darryl Strawberry. He"s got cancer and a drug addiction, not to mention a death wish. Give him six months on the street and he"ll succumb. 9. Fidel Castro. He survived dozens of CIA assassination attempts and outlived all his peers. He taunted JFK. He was a thorn in the side of Eisenhower. The Twist was a hot item when he became leader of Cuba. But he can"t beat time forever. 10. Osama bin Laden. He"s quick, but not quick enough to outrun a bullet, especially since there are so many people after him. He could, however, pull a Castro and hang around for another 40 years. My alternate picks are Zsa Zsa Gabor and Billy Graham, although there should be some sort of rule against selecting people already in a coma. Remember, all of this is in fun and in the spirit of a friendly (fiendly?) wager. If you"re offended by the notion of predicting deaths, get a grip. We"re all getting closer to the grave each day, yourself included, so you may as well enjoy yourself while you"re here. If you"re serious enough about your Death Pool picks to wager cash on them, stiffs.com is one Web site to try. I"m personally not that confident of my picks. And as I said, there are few thrills more visceral than turning on the news and saying, "Hey, that guy"s on my Death Pool list." Happy picking!