What Is the Dead Man’s Hand? — History and References

Content Team 1 year ago
What Is the Dead Man’s Hand? — History and References

We can hear great stories surrounding combinations of cards over time because they have been part of our culture for centuries. One of the most famous legends is the dead man’s hand, which is made up of two black aces and two black eights.

Gamblers can be superstitious, and when it comes to gambling, we’ve all heard people talk about lucky dice and lucky cards. But what is the dead man’s hand? How can this seemingly unlucky hand be read as an omen of death, what part of this is historically accurate, and which part is mythological? Stay tuned to find out.

Bill Hickok (Wild Bill) and His Death

First things first, I’ll write about the man known for this hand combination.

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876), the famous gunman and gambler, is at the center of the story. Wild Bill Hickok’s real name was James Butler Hickok, but “James” doesn’t sound quite as impressive when you’re a legendary gunman in the wild west. He was originally nicknamed Duck Bill for his long nose and large lips.

Wild Bill earned his reputation as a respected lawman and gunfighter in the American West due to his service in the Civil War. Namely, the press closely followed his gunfights and conquests due to his many heroic feats. In addition, he earned respect as a professional gambler.

There was often a mixture of fact and fiction surrounding Wild Bill, so we can’t determine how many men he killed. A respected biographer believes it’s probably closer to half a dozen than over a hundred, as claimed by several journalists at the time. He helped build Wild Bill’s legend by exaggerating his contemporaries’ accomplishments, exploits, and stories by contributing some outlandish reports about them.

Wild Bill’s Death

He was no longer the crack shot he was in his youth, and his health was also declining. One of his greatest passions was poker, which he indulged at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. As a skilled player, Wild Bill has amassed a large fortune throughout his life.

Unfortunately, Jack McCall, a drunken buffalo hunter, lost so much on this occasion that he needed Wild Bill to buy breakfast. McCall might have considered this gesture a grave insult, as the next day’s events would demonstrate.

After playing poker with the other gamblers at the saloon on August 2, 1876, Wild Bill again headed to the saloon. There was only one seat at the poker table, so he requested that another player switch places with him because he was looking forward to seeing the saloon’s entrance and exit from this seat.

Then, Jack McCall shot Wild Bill from behind in the saloon, saying, “Damn you! Take that!” as Wild Bill clutched two black Aces and two black Eights, he fell from his seat and died immediately.

What Is the Dead Man’s Hand?

Did Wild Bill hold a pair of Aces and an eight? According to some historians, the account is not authentic. Wild Bill and this particular hand became popular after a book about Hickok was published fifty years later. Its publication contributed to the spread of what had already become a legend.

There is little information about it before the 1920s. However, dead man’s hands were associated with a completely different hand of cards and a completely different individual during the nineteenth century. The original event occurred over 140 years ago. Regardless of whether Wild Bill’s death was historically based or not, his story has become a legend.

Wild Bill Hickok’s death is frequently associated with the dead man’s hand because he held a pair of black aces and eights at the moment of his passing. As a result, novels, movies, and even video games reference this hand countless times throughout popular culture.

There’s a small casino called Saloon 10 where Wild Bill was killed, on the site where he was shot. In addition to the Dead Man’s Hand exhibit, there are signs explaining the story behind the object.

Dead Man’s Hand References

It makes sense that given the popularity of Wild Bill Hickok and the dead man’s hand in Western culture, the hand is referred to in many Western films.

  • John Ford featured the dead man’s hand in Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Liberty Valance’s title character is the victim, while Stagecoach’s John Wayne holds the hand.
  • In Frontier Marshal, released in 1939, Randolph Scott plays Wyatt Earp. After being shot in the back two years later, Wild Bill Hickok (Richard Dix) holds the dead man’s hand in the 1941 Western Badlands of Dakota.
  • Aces and eights were the winning hand in a poker scene in the 2001 film Along Came a Spider. Due to the dead man’s hand, a family shotgun changes hands. As the movie progresses, the shotgun plays a key role in solving a kidnapping.
  • Video games such as Fallout: New Vegas’ Dead Money expansion have featured dead man’s hands. For example, the player can collect cards that make up the famous dead man’s hand from the ruins of the Sierra Madre casino in order to complete tasks in the game.

How Should You Play The Dead Man’s Hand In Poker?

Even though dead man’s hand isn’t the best in poker, it can be a solid hand combination if you play it correctly. It’s best to be aggressive when playing this hand and try to win as many chips as possible early on. If you do so, you’re more likely to win the pot when the final cards are revealed at the end of the round.

Can The Dead Man’s Poker Hands Increase Your Chances Of Winning?

You have an approximately 1 in 730,000 chance of being dealt a dead man’s hand, and you have even lower odds of winning the hand if you are dealt one. However, it’s possible to increase the chances of winning in a few ways:

  • Make sure you don’t get into situations where you have to face more than one opponent at a time.
  • When you play against a single opponent, make sure that you are the one deciding how to bet.
  • Be aware of your opponents’ betting patterns and take advantage of them.


There’s no question that the dead man’s hand is one of the most famous poker hands. As a result, Wild Bill Hickok has become one of the most recognizable figures in both gambling and western history.

If players at your table are interested in poker history, they may even identify the hand during play if it occurs during a round of poker. Whether a 5-card draw, a 5-card stud, or No-Limit Texas Hold’em, the dead man’s hand often wins the pot and is a good hand combination.


What is considered a dead man’s hand?

It’s described as a two-pair poker hand consisting of two black aces and two black eights, along with an unknown hole card.

Why is it called a dead man’s hand?

According to legend, Wild Bill Hickok was shot while holding the dead man’s hand, so it’s considered unlucky to hold the two pairs today.

What was the fifth card in the dead man’s hand?

In some situations, the fifth card in a dead man’s hand is the five of diamonds; in others, it might be either the nine or the jack of diamonds.

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