What is a Dead Man’s Hand in Poker?

Poker.org Staff
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Published: April 12, 2022 3:06 PM EDT

Dead Man’s Hand is a popular nickname for the five-card hand of aces and eights, specifically the ace-eight of spades and the ace-eight of clubs. It’s named the Dead Man’s Hand in honor of Wild Bill Hickok, who was famously killed after a poker game. In the game, his final winning hand was two pair, aces and eights.

The nickname carries over to this specific two-pair in any poker game being played. Let’s learn more about the dead man’s hand. 

Wild Bill Hickok and the story of the dead man’s hand

The origin of the Dead Man’s hand dates back to 1876 in a story straight out of the Wild West. Legend has it that “Wild Bill” Hickok was playing a game of either five-card stud or five-card draw. Hickok’s hand was aces and eights, with the ace of spades and the ace of clubs, and the same suits for the eights.

After the hand, John McCall, another gambler Hickok had won money from recently, shot Hickok in the back of the head. Ever since, the hand has been synonymous with Hickok’s death. The altercation took place at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota Territory.

Who was Wild Bill Hickok?

James Butler Hickok was a folk hero of the American Old West known for his life on the frontier as a soldier, showman, actor, and in this case, a gunfighter known for his gambling. He certainly made a name for himself in the area as a loud talker, and one who didn’t mind getting into a pistol shootout here and there.

Deadly game

The man who shot Hickok in the back was Jack McCall, who was more infamously known as “Crooked Nose” or “Broken Nose Jack.” According to legend, Hickok had taken quite a lot of money from McCall the night before. When McCall came into the saloon the next day, he was already drunk.

Hickok, who normally sat in the corner of the saloon so no one could get behind him while playing at the poker table, was sitting in a different seat, and McCall snuck up behind him and shot him in the head, right after he had won another pot with the now infamous dead man’s hand — aces and eights. 

What is the fifth card in a dead man’s hand?

It isn’t known for sure what the fifth card was in Wild Bill Hickok’s poker hand, but the most popular answer is that it was the Queen of Hearts. However, the fifth card is different in a variety of artworks and hands that memorialize the hand.

Sometimes the fifth card in a dead man’s hand is the five of diamonds, while other times it’s either the nine or jack of diamonds. The most important aspect of the dead man’s hand is that there are two black aces and two black eights in it. The hand is never shown with another ace or eight, as that would make it a full house.

Given how popular Wild Bill Hickok and the dead man’s hand are in Western culture, it makes sense that the hand is referenced in a number of notable Western films. Specifically, director John Ford featured the dead man’s hand in Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Wayne holds the hand in Stagecoach, while the title character is the victim in Liberty Valance.

Wyatt Earp, played by Randolph Scott, is the unlucky one in In Frontier Marshal, released in 1939. Two years later, in the 1941 Western Badlands of Dakota, none other than Wild Bill Hickok himself (Richard Dix) — holds the dead man’s hand after being shot in the back.

Modern film and video game dead man’s hand references

More recently, the 2001 film Along Came a Spider used aces and eights as the winning hand in a poker scene. In the movie, a family shotgun changes hands as a result of the dead man’s hand. Later, the shotgun plays a key role in solving a kidnapping at the movie’s heart. 

Dead man’s hand has also been featured in video games such as the Fallout: New Vegas expansion Dead Money. In the game, the player can collect cards that make up the famous dead man’s hand from the ruins of the Sierra Madre casino to complete a task. 

Is the dead man’s hand a good hand?

It has often been said that the average winning hand in a full ring No-Limit Hold’em Game is two pair. Given that the dead man’s hand has a pair of aces as part of the two pair, it’s considered one of the strongest possible two pair combinations. Therefore, the dead man’s hand is, in theory, an above-average hand at showdown.

The dead man’s hand can also be a deceptively strong hand, especially against an opponent who has an ace as well, but with a stronger kicker that isn’t on the board. An example would be a hand where you hold Ace-Eight, your opponent has Ace-King, and the flop comes A-8-4. In this case, you stand to win a lot of money from your opponent, who will figure their Ace-King is surely the best hand more often than not. 

Conclusion

The dead man’s hand is one of the most famous poker hands, and if any of the poker players at your table dabble in poker history, they may to the hand if it appears during play. More often than not, the dead man’s hand is good enough to win the pot, whether the game is 5-card draw, 5-card stud, or No-Limit Texas Hold’em.

The legend of Wild Bill Hickok has passed the test of time, and the legendary player is one of the most memorable figures in both western history and gambling history.

Featured image source: Flickr by Maria Eklind  used under CC license