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Dead Man's Hand

Dead Man's Hand in Poker - Aces and Eights Explained

Everybody loves a good legend and gamblers, perhaps, even more so. The story of the dead man’s hand is not only one of the most well-known folk tales in poker circles but also one of the most famous poker hands in the modern gambling world.

So, how did the legend of the dead man’s hand come into being? What do we mean by the dead man’s hand in gambling today? How does one play the legendary poker hand? All that and more will be explored in today’s blog, so stick around as we spin our tale and share with you all there is to know about the dead man’s hand in poker. 

Dead Man's Hand - The Legend of Wild Bill

In the long history of gambling (and, more to the point, poker), there have been numerous famous poker players whose names still manage to ring a bell and mean a great deal to gamblers all over the world. One of those legendary names is James Butler Hickok, a.k.a. "Wild Bill" Hickok, and he is the reason we talk about the dead man’s hand to this day.

While our story begins and ends on 2nd August, 1876, Wild Bill’s story began in May, 1837 in Illinois. He was born James Butler Hickock and during his colourful life he acquired many titles, among them that of a soldier, scout, lawman, gunslinger, actor, showman, gambler, and ultimately folklore hero. As a man of the law, he helped put away numerous criminals and had shootouts with outlaws on a regular basis; as a gambler, he was known to play a mean hand of poker.

Wild Bill Hickok

All that ended on that fateful August day in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He was said to have usually sat with his back against the wall; not on 2nd August, 1876. That day in Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10, as fate would have it, Wild Bill sat in the only available chair at the poker table - the one facing away from the door.

While playing a game of five card stud, Jack McCall, a man who had lost to Bill the day before, entered the saloon and, in his indignation, shot Bill in the back of his head, killing him in an instant. The legend has it that in his hand Bill held two pairs: black aces and black eights. This particular poker hand has since become known as the “dead man’s hand”. 

Whether or not Will Bill really had two aces and two eights in his hands the day he died we’ll never know, but his legend and the legend of his poker hand live on.

What Is the Dead Man's Hand in Poker?

So, what do we mean by the dead man’s hand in poker and online poker today? Quite simply put, the dead man’s hand today is a poker hand consisting of two pairs - a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights. So, pretty much the same as what the legend says Wild Bill had in his hands in his final moments.

The dead man’s hand consists of two pairs: a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights.

While the dead man’s hand certainly has its place in history and urban legend, as a poker hand it isn’t as coveted as, say, a royal flush, a straight, or a full house. Ultimately, even though it contains the highest valued card in poker - the ace - a dead man’s hand simply won’t be good enough when stacked against a flush or full house. Not great, not terrible, as they say.

How to Play the Dead Man’s Hand

If you already know how to play poker, you might wish to give the dead man’s hand game a go, too, if only for the fun of it. However, as it’s already been established, the dead man’s hand is not considered one of the stronger poker hands today. 

In Texas Hold’Em, for example, the dead man’s hand might be a marginal hand, so how to play it will depend on the player in question. Experienced players will only go through with it if they deem the circumstances opportune. Otherwise, it might not be the most lucrative course of action.

What Is the Fifth Card in a Dead Man’s Hand?

Ah, the elusive fifth card. To go back to the legend of Will Bill once more, we “know” about the two pairs being the black aces and black eights; what we don’t know is which fifth card he was holding. One of the most popular theories is that it was the Queen of Hearts; however, certain artworks will tell you differently.

Some artists show the fifth card as the five of diamonds, while others maintain it should be the nine of diamonds or Jack of Diamonds. One thing is certain: they usually make sure the fifth card isn’t another ace or eight, as that would complete a full house.

Dead Man’s Hand in Pop Culture

All right, who doesn’t love movies about poker? While plenty of films have indeed referenced the dead man’s hand, other media have been known to mention Wild Bill and his famous hand of poker, too. The list includes TV series, songs, novels - even games! 

Here are some of the most famous references to the dead man’s hand in pop culture:

  • Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - two iconic John Wayne movies featuring the dead man’s hand as a foreshadowing of death
  • Deadwood - the beloved HBO show that ran from 2004 to 2006 had a major plotline featuring the death of Wild Bill Hickock
  • The X-Files - the famous sci-fi series loved referencing famous urban tales and one episode entitled "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" showed the title character playing poker with Agent Scully, holding a full house of aces and eights (the fifth card being the ace of hearts)
  • Fallout: New Vegas (specifically, the expansion Dead Money) - the popular video game ensured players are able to collect cards and acquire the famous dead man's hand in the ruins of the Sierra Madre casino
  • Various songs - Motörhead’s "Ace of Spades" and "Dead Man's Hand", Bob Dylan’s "Rambling, Gambling Willie", Ha Ha Tonka’s "Dead Man's Hand", to name a few

In the end, whether or not you decide to give the black aces and eights a shot yourself, we certainly hope you’ve had fun exploring the legend of Wild Bill Hickock and his, perhaps, immortal hand with us.

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