The Dead Mans Hand


When it comes to playing poker, there’s so many different ways of achieving success. Professionals and amateurs alike will know — poker is one of those games that requires a lot of strategy and skill; and of course, a good sense of knowledge when it comes to the hand that you’re dealt.

There are so many different hands that you’re likely to get when playing poker, many of which can have a big impact when it comes to playing the game. One of these is the Dead Man’s Hand; one that has a longstanding heritage in the game, with an interesting backstory.

Got a Dead Man’s Hand? Here’s everything you need to know about it.

A card hand made in history

The Dead Mans Hand comes with its very own legend! The story goes that its nickname comes from the death of lawman and gambler James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock all the way back in 1876. Based in Deadwood, South Dakota, local drunkard Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall ended up joining a poker table with Hickok — and losing absolutely everything to him.

Feeling sorry for him, Hickock gave McCall some money for food and supplies and gave him some advice: don’t play again until you can afford to cover the losses that sometimes come from the game. Unfortunately, McCall took this gesture the wrong way. Instead of feeling grateful he ended up being insulted by it. When McCall entered the saloon the following day, he saw Hicock playing poker and became enraged. An experienced lawman, Hickock was known to sit with his back to the wall so that no one could surprise him from behind; unfortunately, another player wouldn’t change seats with him. McCall was able to approach Hickock from behind and shouting “Damn you! Take that!” shot Hickock in the back of the head with a Colt .45 revolver, resulting in an instant death. As a result of his actions, McCall was executed by the state seven months later.

The hand Hickock had at the time of his death? Black aces and eights. Which form the basis of what we know today as the Dead Man’s Hand: two pair of black aces and black eights.

 Is it a worthwhile hand to have?

 With such a large (and legendary) backstory, you’d think that the Dead Man’s Hand would have a big impact when it comes to playing the game. Unfortunately, the Dead Man’s Hand isn’t a very high valued hand. The two pair of eights isn’t as worthwhile as a say, a straight, full house or royal flush.

But the history itself makes the Dead Man’s Hand an exciting one to have, anyway — even if it might not win you the the game!

Proliferation in pop culture

Interest in the Dead Man’s Hand has gone outside the poker world, and continuously makes in appearance as part of pop culture. Many artists have used the story as an image in their work as a sign of impending doom, imminent death or an unwanted surprise.

It’s also been referenced in numerous novels. In James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, one character tells the stor of how her father won his gun with a hand of aces and eights. Interestingly, she also uses the Dead Man’s Hand as her computer password. In the popular One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy is described as having a Dead Man’s Hand tattooed on his shoulder — which many fans have taken inspiration for when getting their own tattoos done.

Several films have used the theme. American film director John Ford used it multiple times as a way to foreshadow death. In the 1939 film Stagecoach starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne, the hand is held by Luke Plummer before he is shot by the Ringo Kid. In the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the protagonist draws the hand just before his death.

The Dead Man’s Hand has also featured in a variety of tv shows. In the hit series Criminal Minds, Hotch plays cards with a death row inmate hoping to get the location of another victim. While Hotch claims to have the Dead Man’s Hand, he reveals to the inmate another ace, turning his Dead Man’s Hand into a full house, beating his opponent and getting the information he needs.

Video games have played into this theme too. In the expansion for Fallout: New Vegas, players have the opportunity to collect cards that make up the Dead Man’s Hand to get an achievement. In Doomtown, a popular card game, the Dead Man’s hand is the highest possible hand. It also features in Need for Speed: Carbon, Hearthstone, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Wing Commander IV.

However, the most common occurrence of one of poker’s most famous hands has to be in Music.

References to the Dead Man’s Hand are included songs like: ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ by Ha Ha Tonka, ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead, ‘Rambling, Gambling Willie’ by bob Dylan, ‘Aces and Eights’ by Uncle Kraker, ‘Alligator Blood’ by Bring Me the Horizon, ‘I am the Storm’ by Blue Oyster Cult, ‘Aces & Eights’ by Michael McDermott, ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ by the  Moonshine Bandits and more

The legend continues

 The Dead Man’s Hand will continue to be a popular reference in television series, films and music it will remain a fascinating hand to be dealt in poker.


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