Aces and Eights: the story behind this iconic poker hand

aces and eights poker hand
Posted on: August 05, 2023 07:00 PDT

The poker hand of aces and eights is one of the most iconic hands in the game's history. This two-pair hand of aces and eights is now commonly known as the ‘Dead Man’s hand’ of poker, due mainly to the legend of Old West folklore.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the term ‘Dead Man’s hand’ was linked to a man named Wild Bill Hickok, a man described as the ‘Prince of Pistoleers’ by 20th-century author Frank Wilstach.

Introducing Wild Bill Hickok

Bill Hickok was known as a lawman in the Old West. Born in Illinois in 1837, Hickok was a notorious gambler and gunslinger, spending much of his life cracking down on outlaws. He was a prominent poker player and supplemented his lifestyle with his poker winnings.

As Hickok sought to wind down in life, he relocated to the Black Hills in Dakota, a small mining town called Deadwood. He was a regular visitor to the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in the town, as he sought to use his skills at five-card stud poker to take money off locals.

August 2, 1876, was a fateful day for Hickok at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon, one which has gone down forever in poker folklore.

Setting the scene at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood

Deadwood, South Dakota

On August 2, 1876, Hickok sat in the poker room of Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon for a game of five-card stud. It must be said that the poker rooms of the late 19th century bore no resemblance to those we see today. It will have been loud, smoky and intimidating.

In such an atmospheric poker environment, it’s no surprise Hickok didn’t spot fellow gambler, Jack McCall, walking into the saloon and head on over to the poker room – pistol in hand. McCall promptly stood behind Hickok, aimed his pistol and shot the 39-year-old dead.

Legend has it that Hickok was midway through a hand and was preparing to bet with a two-pair of aces and eights, by no means an overly strong poker hand.

There are several stories and theories as to why McCall shot Hickok dead. Some say Hickok had previously shot dead McCall’s brother as a lawman. Others have said McCall took offence to Hickok telling him to stop playing poker until he could repay his gambling debts. Either way, McCall was found guilty of murder and hung on March 1, 1877.

It's said that Hickok was something of a heartthrob in 19th-century Old West terms. General George Custer was noted to have described Hickok as “the most perfect type of physical manhood” either “on foot or on horseback”.

Examples of Wild Bill Hickok in popular culture

There have been several portrayals of the man, the myth and the legend of Wild Bill Hickok. The HBO TV show Deadwood, which ran between 2004-06, was inspired by Deadwood’s evolution from a mining camp to a thriving town off the back of the gold rush. Real-world characters like Hickok and even Calamity Jane were written into the plot of the original series, featuring his murder by McCall.

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin titled one of his successful fantasy books ‘Dead Man’s Hand’, while there’s also a popular motorcycle club called ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ in the United States.

Other poker hands made famous by incidents

It’s true that poker has a rich history and plenty of engaging stories to tell. Let’s look at some of the other memorable poker hands which have shot to notoriety based on incidents at the poker tables.

The Doyle Brunson hand – 10-2 suited

The late, great Doyle Brunson has his own poker hand named after him. It’s little surprise when you consider ‘Texas Dolly’ has been there, done it and received multiple poker t-shirts in his career, including ten World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets and millions of bucks in live poker winnings.

Brunson’s biggest success saw him take back-to-back WSOP Main Event titles in 1976 and 1977. Ironically both titles were won with the hand of 10-2 of spades.

In the 1976 Main Event final table, Brunson was heads up against Jesse Alto. Brunson went all-in with 10-2 and was dominated by Alto’s two-pair of aces and jacks on the flop. However, Brunson got lucky and found runner-runner deuces to clinch a full house. In 1977, Brunson had top pair with 10-2 on the flop and the deuce hit again on the turn to give him an unexpected two pair. He called when opponent Gary Berland shoved on the turn to become two-time world champion.

The ‘Poker Boom’ hand – A-Q offsuit

In 2003, the world of poker changed forever after the WSOP Main Event. Amateur poker player Chris Moneymaker landed the Main Event bracelet to demonstrate the possibilities in the world of poker. Moneymaker, who qualified for the tournament via online satellite at PokerStars, landed the biggest prize in poker after knocking out poker royalty in the shape of Phil Ivey.

Moneymaker’s knockout hand for Ivey was A-Q offsuit. Moneymaker raised the action and Ivey – holding pocket nines – snap-called. The flop came Q-6-Q, giving Moneymaker trips. Things got worse for Ivey when a nine landed on the turn. Ivey had a full house, and Moneymaker was adamant he still had the best hand.

Moneymaker called Ivey’s all-in bet and spiked an ace on the river to land a better full house than Ivey’s to knock out Phil and move closer to the bracelet.

The Johnny Chan sucker hand – J-9 suited

It’s also worth mentioning the Johnny Chan ‘trap’ hand, which not only happened in real life but shot to prominence in the poker-themed movie Rounders. In the 1988 WSOP Main Event, Chan was heads up with Erik Seidel for the bracelet. Chan was holding J-9 of clubs, and the flop came Q-8-10 with one club.

With Chan holding the nut straight and Seidel sitting on top pair, the hand quickly escalated. Seidel check-raised, and Chan called after tanking, convincing Seidel he was in complete control of the hand.

Seidel moved all in with the blank river card, and Chan quickly called to take down the pot and join Brunson in winning back-to-back Main Event titles.

Photos from Unsplash