A Complete History of the Dead Man’s Hand – A Legendary Poker Tale

The Dead Man’s Hand is the nickname commonly given to a specific two-pair holding, aces and eights. To be more specific, the Dead Man’s Hand in poker is either AdAc8s8cQh or sub out the Ad for the As to make it black aces and black eights with the queen of hearts. Whether the Ad or As is involved depends on which story you hear. In today’s game, the Dead Man’s Hand is used for any combination of Aces and Eights, regardless of kicker.

Everyone loves a hand with a nickname, the suited trucker (T4), big slick (AK), or jiggities (JJ) are all common nicknames for starting hands in Texas Hold’em, but there are few made hands with a nickname. The Dead Man’s Hand stands out among poker players. But why are aces and eights the dead man’s hand?

dead man's hand

The origin of this nickname comes from the wild west, specifically the Dakota Territory in 1876, and involved notable Wild West figure James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and the relatively unknown Jack McCall. First, let’s introduce Wild Bill Hickok.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

James Butler Hickok was born on May 27th, 1837 in Homer, Illinois. His father died when James was only 15 years old, so he had to help take care of his five brothers and sisters. He was known to be an excellent marksman with a pistol at an early age. At the age of 18, he got in a fight with a local boy and they both fell into a river. Both assumed they had killed the other, so they both left town to flee prosecution for murder. Hickok didn’t kill the other guy, but hit the open road anyway, believing he was a fugitive.

Hickok was initially nicknamed “Duck Bill” Hickok by another outlaw, but didn’t like the name as it was poking fun at his nose and lips. So Bill re-named himself “Wild Bill” and grew a mustache to cover his protruding lips. In 1861, Wild Bill was tried for the murder of David McCanles along with two other individuals, Horace Wellman and J.W. Brink. The three were found not guilty, as they acted in self-defense.

During the Civil War, Hickok served the Union Army as a teamster and then a wagon master. He was discharged in 1862 for unknown reasons. After serving in the war, Wild Bill made his way to Springfield where he lived as a gambler. Some time later he had a disagreement with Davis Tutt and killed him in a quick draw duel. Hickok was acquitted in this case due to a “fair fight” clause in the law.

Hickok later spent time as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Kansas, and later as a Marshal in Hays and Abilene, Kansas. He left Hays for Abeline after killing men while acting as sheriff and then losing his re-election bid. Hickock then left Abilene after a shootout that went wrong. He killed the man he intended, saloon owner Phil Coe, but also accidentally killed one of his deputies. Hickock was relieved of his duty two months later and never again entered a gunfight.

Wild Bill spent some time as an actor, although he hated it so much that he once shot out a spotlight for focusing on him. In 1876 Bill joined the gold rush, heading to the Dakota Territory to make his fortune mining for gold. While there he continued to gamble at saloons, making as much money as he could on the poker table. While he was a sharp card player, here he would meet his demise, and give the Dead Man’s Hand its name.

The Fateful Card Game

On August 1st, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok entered Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. After playing poker for a while, someone busted and a seat opened up. A young and drunk man named Jack McCall took a seat in the game and promptly lost all of his money. Bill gave the young man some money so he could buy breakfast. This angered McCall, who felt insulted by the gesture but begrudgingly accepted the money.

The next day, August 2nd, Wild Bill returned to the saloon to play cards again. The game he joined was either five-card-stud or five-card-draw, the two prevailing games at the time. He joined a table with Charles Rich, William Massey, and Carl Mann. Charles Rich was seated so his back was to the wall. Hickok asked for the seat, as he never sat with his back to the door. After being refused several times, Bill finally took a seat with his back to the door. This would be his fatal mistake. After playing for a short time, Jack McCall walked into the saloon. He ordered a drink and made his way over to the table. McCall then drew his pistol and fired one shot into the back of Hickok’s head. The bullet went through his head and hit Massey in the wrist. Wild Bill’s lifeless body fell to the floor.

McCall fled the scene but was soon captured. He was tried by local miners and found not guilty, as he claimed the slaying was retribution for Hickok killing McCall’s brother. McCall then boasted about killing Wild Bill, but the law caught up to him. In Yankton, Dakota Territory, McCall was captured and tried again. Double jeopardy did not apply since Deadwood was an unorganized Native American territory. McCall was found guilty in this second trial and sentenced to death by hanging. On March 1, 1877, the 24-year-old McCall was hanged by the neck until death.

The death of Wild Bill Hickok is a classic old west tale. After the commotion in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10, Wild Bill’s cards were retrieved. It was said he held two pairs, aces and eights, with a queen kicker. There are, however, conflicting reports as to exactly which cards he held.

Bill Hickok’s Cards

One account of the story says Bill was holding AdAc8s8cQh, and some of his blood was on the queen. Another account gives him the ace of spades instead of the ace of diamonds. Today, the recognized version gives him the spade, so black aces, black eights, and the queen of hearts with an ominous bloodstain.

There are other variations of the story around the kicker. There are versions of the story which have the queen of hearts, the queen of diamonds, the jack of diamonds, or the nine of diamonds being the fifth card. One thing is certain, any story that mentions the Dead Man’s Hand reports that he held aces and eights.

Despite multiple stories about Bill’s hand, not every account of his death involves the cards. Plenty of books and newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s don’t mention his hand at all. Those that do have different recollections of who collected the hand. Some say the mortician retrieved the cards when preparing Bill’s body for burial. The widely accepted tale has the cards being scooped up by Neil Christie who passed them on to his son.

Dead Man’s Hand Nickname

While today everyone accepts the Dead Man’s Hand as aces and eights, this was not the first use of the nickname. The term was used throughout the 1800s and described different hands depending on the region in America.

Before the tale of Wild Bill Hickok, the Dead Man’s Hand was used to reference a variety of hands, including Js full of 10s, Js full of 9s, 8s full of As, three 9s, Qs and 8s, Js and 8s, Js and 7s, and 10s and 3s. So there were a wide variety of uses for the term “Dead Man’s Hand” both before and after the death of Wild Bill Hickok. Eventually, the other uses for the name disappeared, and it is now used solely for Hickok’s final hand.

For a long time there was a popular saying “aces and eights, dead man’s hand – can’t be beat.” This meant that having aces and eights was a good thing. It was used to describe something being the best. The fastest horse might be called “aces and eights at racing,” or if you looked good in a new suit you looked “aces and eights”.

Superstitious card players came to see the hand as an omen for death. After being popularized by the story of Wild Bill’s demise, many poker players and gamblers did not want to get dealt the deadly hand, as it meant death was upon them. No matter the connotation of the hand, it is famous throughout the poker world due to the tale of Wild Bill Hickok.

So… is it True?

The story of Wild Bill Hickok is larger than life. Beyond the tale of his death, there are some pretty unbelievable tales of the gunslinger. According to Bill himself, he once was attacked by a bear. He shot it twice and slit its throat, but not before it mauled him enough to put him on bed rest for a month. There are also stories of Bill slaying hundreds of men in duels and gunfights, yet there are only about ten confirmed killings that can be attributed to Hickok.

Like any story out of the wild west, the tale of Hickock’s death should be taken with a grain of salt. Hickock’s era was a time of larger-than-life outlaws, nomadic gamblers, and gunslingers who realized that a scary reputation is just as valuable as a sharp shot. Being considered a killer and a brawler might save you from having to prove it.

The story of Bill Hickock’s death is as close to confirmed as possible. Jack McCall did shoot him in the back of the head while playing poker, the bullet did travel through his head and into the wrist of William Massey, and Hickok was holding five cards at the time of his death. It is fair to say that he was holding aces and eights. The specific suits and the kicker can be debated, but there are enough confirmations that we can confidently call aces and eights the Dead Man’s Hand.



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Connor Whiteley poker author
Written By.

Connor Whiteley

Connor Whiteley is a financial services professional and freelance writer who spends as much time as possible on the felt. Previously, Connor was a dealer in various underground Los Angeles poker games, but left the city and those games to raise his daughter with his loving wife Jennifer. Connor is constantly staying up to date […]

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