Dead man’s hand in poker

Over the years, the poker combination known as the dead man’s hand has been name-checked in numerous songs, films, and TV shows. As hands go, it’s probably one of the most famous, if not the most famous, in poker. Most regular players are aware of the combination and will spot it as soon as it’s dealt. So, if you are ever in a game and this hand shows up, you can expect at least one other person to pass a comment or point it out. 

The hand itself consists of five cards, these are two black aces, along with two black eights, and a final hole card that remains unknown to this day. It has been speculated that the final mystery card was either the five, the nine, or the jack of diamonds. If you know anything about poker, you’ll have noticed straight away that the dead man’s hand is relatively good, but not a sure-fire winner, even for more experienced players. However, as in any game of poker, from Five card stud to Five card draw, and Texas hold ’em, a lot depends on how the game unfolds.  

So why is this particular hand widely referred to as a dead man’s hand? Well, according to one of the many stories associated with the American Wild West, the gunslinger, hunter, and actor, Wild Bill Hickok was fatally shot while he was holding this hand. Today, the hand has an almost legendary status, though some poker players feel that getting the two pairs is an unlucky sign because Wild Bill was murdered just after they had been dealt to him. Other gamblers simply see the hand as a classic part of poker history. Either way, the hand is, and will probably continue to be, one of the most significant pairs you can be dealt in poker. 

So why has the hand remained famous for so long, even though Wild Bill died back in 1876? Well, it’s about more than the hand and a man being killed as he tried to have a quiet game of poker. Wild Bill Hickok is an iconic player in American history, his adventures as a frontiersman and a soldier, as well as his later work in law enforcement, fired the public imagination. He was celebrated in his lifetime, but after his death, a series of comic books, TV shows, and films ensured his status as a hero of the Wild West was secure. This led to his final hours and his death at the poker table becoming the subject of much speculation.

Dead man’s hand and Wild Bill Hickok

Born in 1837, James Butler Hickok worked as a bodyguard, a Union soldier, and a scout during the American Civil War. By the end of the war, he’d earned the nickname Wild Bill, and soon got a reputation for gunfighting, gambling, and even bear fighting! He was also known for his fairness and was employed as a US Marshal to bring order to lawless towns. Despite his rugged image, reports from the time describe Hickok as a tall, good-looking, and sharply dressed man who was always ready to help the underdog. Along with his skills as a professional gambler, his appearance and heroic past combined to make Wild Bill a great folklore hero. 

On the day of his death, August 2, 1876, Wild Bill was staying in the town of Deadwood in Dakota. He decided to visit the town’s Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in the evening to play a couple of games of poker. He met up with Carl Mann, Charles Rich, and William Massey, at a table. The variant they had chosen to play was five card draw, but before the poker game began, Wild Bill asked if he could take Charles Rich’s seat because it faced the saloon entrance. As he had a checkered past that included periods of gun-slinging and law enforcement, Bill likely preferred to know who was walking into the room and felt safer that way. However, Rich did not want to move and after repeating his request and once again being denied, Wild Bill risked sitting with his back to the salon entrance. 

Unfortunately, his vigilance soon proved to be justified. Within a couple of hands, a man known to Wild Bill, Jack ‘Crooked Nose’ McCall, walked into the saloon. With his back turned to the door, Bill could not have seen McCall stride over to the bar and order a drink. However, he would have certainly heard him shout “Damn you! Take that!”, before firing a single shot. The bullet hit Wild Bill and killed him instantly. As the old gunfighter fell to the floor, the other players noticed that he was holding the ace of clubs, the ace of spades, the eight of clubs, and the eight of spades, along with one other card. This combination is what we now call the dead man’s hand. 

The reason Jack McCall chose to end Wild Bill’s life in this very public and brutal way seemed clear from the start. Bill was a great poker player and during the previous day, he had taken McCall for everything he was worth in a game. That morning, after meeting the now penniless man, Bill took pity and gave his unlucky opponent enough money for breakfast. According to reports at the time, it was this act of kindness that sealed Wild Bill’s fate, because although he took the money, the younger man’s pride was wounded, and he hatched a plan to kill Bill. McCall was soon arrested and tried for murder. As part of this process, he claimed that the real reason he had planned the killing was revenge, because Wild Bill had shot McCall’s brother. We may never know which version of events is true, but McCall was found guilty of the crime. 

And what about the fifth card? If the other players at Wild Bill’s table had enough foresight to note down his first four cards, why did they never identify the last one? Once again, accounts vary as to the exact truth of the matter. If you ever have the chance to visit the town of Deadwood today, you can go to the Lucky Nugget Gambling Hall, on the site of the old Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon, where Wild Bill is depicted with a jack of diamonds as his fifth card. In some of the town’s other displays, he is holding a five of diamonds or a nine of diamonds. 

There are even rumors that the fifth card was the queen of hearts, a long-lost card that was stained with Bill’s blood as he fell to the floor! According to some players, there never was a fifth card, which explains why there is still an air of mystery surrounding the full hand. They suggest that an experienced player like Wild Bill would see the two pairs, then immediately discard whatever the fifth card was and draw a new one. So, McCall appeared just as Bill was hoping to land the full house.

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How to play a dead man’s hand

In today’s game, the dead man’s hand is not especially sought after. If we consider what’s the dead man’s hand in terms of rankings, it’s a two-pair with aces as high cards. Many players find two pairs are an average hand in games like Texas hold ’em, but as Bill’s hand contained aces, it was a better outcome. Therefore, it’s fair to assume that a player of Wild Bill’s caliber could have made something of what he was dealt. 

In some situations, the problem with this hand is that it can appear stronger than it is and that may prove unfortunate. This is especially true if an opponent has a royalty pair, along with another ace, and one is still in the pack. Should they get that ace, they will hold two high pairs, compared to the one high pair (the aces) in the dead man’s hand. However, it’s worth remembering that almost any combination can be a winning poker hand, as so much of the game is based on bluff and bluff-catching. 

Back in 1876, the game that Hickok was playing was quite different to Texas hold ’em. At that time five- card stud was the game of choice for players in the Wild West and going by those rules, the returns for his hand could be highly profitable. Although his two pairs could be beaten by four-of-a-kind, three-of-a-kind, or a straight flush, these turn up rarely because they are a difficult hand to build. Hickok would probably have felt lucky to get two pairs in five cards off the bat and was probably looking forward to cleaning up, especially if he could split them with an extra ace or an eight. Moreover, Hickok would have known he stood a chance of keeping the other players engaged because they did not have the chance to see a pair in his up cards. 

If you’re faced with a dead man’s hand, you are more likely to be playing a more modern version of the game that uses different house rules. In Texas hold ’em, for example, there are various ways that the hand can be managed, depending on your style as a player. Should you find yourself in a late position, you can raise if you do not have any callers in front of you, or you might prefer to make a call. If you raise, it might encourage your opponents to fold, especially if they are behind and are looking at a sizable stack of chips. 

When a raise happens in front of you, you’ll need to decide what to do based on how you read the players. However, most people would fold with an ace/eight pair. After the flop, knowing how to play a dead man’s hand can also be a challenge. When the board misses and the flop holds no value for you, it’s a case of bluffing or checking. Many will opt to simply match the bet of another player on a worthless board. Even if an ace is part of the flop, you still don’t have a guaranteed win because the eight-pair is weak. Any reraise will leave you unsure of whether to call or not. 

If you are playing with less than six people or it’s getting late in the game, aces and eights could become more useful. That’s because the other players might choose to take a risk by going all-in or try to raise the stakes significantly, especially if they have a large stack on the table. As this often encourages others to fold, if you’ve managed to hold your nerve, you may bring home an impressive pot.  

Impact on poker strategy

So, what’s the dead man’s hand strategy and how can it be played to maximize your chances? This might not be the ideal combination, but there are ways to get a better result if you’re dealt Bill’s last hand. For a start, it makes sense to begin the play assertively and try to accumulate as many chips as you can at an early stage in the game. If you project an air of confidence, you could convince the other players you have something valuable up your sleeve and may be more likely to scoop the pot during the final card reveal.

The dead man’s hand is not the easiest to play if you are facing a large table of opponents. You will probably have more luck with this combination on a table of six or fewer people. Should you find yourself facing a single other player, be sure to lead the betting and be the one making the decisions, as this makes you appear stronger. Finally, as with any poker game, whatever your hand, watch the way your opponents play and observe their betting patterns closely. What you learn can be helpful when considering the type of hand they have and what they may be planning.

Author: Tanya Fields

Campaign Acquisition Manager Length with RC: 1 year, 9 months Favorite Casino Game: Starburst Background in iGaming: Opened the iGaming Department at Hard Rock Atlantic City in 2018 in both Customer Service, and then CRM, prior to moving over to RC in January 2021 Location: Based in NJ at the RC HQ Content: Occasionally, but only as it pertains to RC