Poker has a rich history, and the modern game has become a major media spectacle. Looking back on that history, several big hands have become a bit more famous than others.
Most memorable hands at least one or all four of the aspects below –
- Bright lights
- TV cameras
- Critical moments
- Big bucks on the line
Several hands stand out in poker’s illustrious past, whether they’ve won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) or involved in an Old West shootout.
Here’s a look at some of the most famous poker hands associated with intriguing players and characters.
1 – Dead Man’s Hand
This hand dates back to the Old West and famed lawman, gunslinger, and poker player Wild Bill Hickok. On Aug. 2, 1876, Hickok was in a Five Card Stud game at Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon in the U.S. Dakota Territory.
As he played, a gambler named Jack McCall entered the saloon and made his way to the bar. It’s believed he had a grudge against Hickok and moved behind him, firing his pistol right behind Hickok’s head.
At only age 39, the Old West legend died instantly with chips and cards scattering across the bloody table. Wild Bill held two black Aces and two black Eights at the time of his demise, an excellent hand in Five Card Stud.
Since that event, Aces and Eights have forever become known as Dead Man’s Hand.
Hand: Aces and Eights
Highlights: Murder of Old West gambler and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok
Player highlight: The infamous hand remains a huge part of poker lore more than 140 years later.
2 – The Doyle Brunson
The Godfather of Poker remains one of the biggest names in poker. He was playing some of the highest stakes cash games well into his 80s.
The Texas poker legend has done it all –
- Old school road gambler
- 10 WSOP titles
- Millions of dollars in winnings
- Even once was the face of an online poker company.
In 2004, Brunson even became the oldest player to ever win a World Poker Tour title at age 71. This record still stands as of 2021. At the WSOP, Brunson was one of the original players in the first event.
In 1976 and 1977, Brunson took down the biggest tournament of all – the $10,000 WSOP Main Event. Amazingly, his back-to-back performances ended with the same winning hands – the 10♠ 2♠ followed a year later by the 10♠ 2♥.
Since then, the 10-2 has come to be known as the Doyle Brunson.
- Hand: 10-2
- Highlights: 1976 and 1977 World Series of Poker Main Event
- Player highlight: A Texas legend and one of the biggest names in poker.
3 – The Johnny Chan Trap
If 9-9 is the Phil Hellmuth (see more on that below), then the J♣9♣ should undoubtedly be the Johnny Chan. The two-time, back-to-back WSOP Main Event champion is preserved in poker history for this hand.
Any poker player who has seen the film Rounders has witnessed it play out on screen. Chan’s brilliant play inspires Mike McDermott to become a better player and head to play in the WSOP.
Chan was heads-up with Erik Seidel for the 1988 Main Event title.
The two players saw a flop of Q♣8♦10♥, giving the Orient Express the nut straight and Seidel top pair with Q♣7♥.
- Seidel checked, and Chan bet, only to be raised by Seidel.
- Chan tanked a bit, all the while holding the nuts.
- He eventually simply called, and both players checked the 2♠ on the turn.
“Erik Seidel cannot win this hand, and yet he doesn’t know it,” the ESPN commentator announces. “Chan is trying to sucker him in by taking his time.”
With a 6♦ landing on the river, Seidel moved all-in – making for an easy call by Chan.
He took down his second-straight Main Event title.
Highlights: 1988 WSOP Main Event
Player highlight: Completes back-to-back WSOP Main Event championships
4 – Moneymaker’s KO
PokerGO terms this matchup as the “hand that changed poker history.” Chris Moneymaker and Phil Ivey battled at the final table of the 2003 WSOP Main Event.
- Moneymaker picked up A♥Q♦.
- He raised the action only for Ivey to call with 9♠9♥.
- The flop brought Q♥6♠Q♠ – a massive flop for Moneymaker, who made a sizable bet.
Ivey called, and fireworks ensued when the 9♣ hit the board on the turn.
Ivey now had a full house. But Moneymaker believed he was in great shape with three-of-a-kind.
Moneymaker again led out with a good-sized bet, and Ivey thought a while before announcing all-in.
Moneymaker quickly called and looked to be on the way to losing a huge pot.
But an A♠ fell on the river – giving Moneymaker an even bigger full house. He pumped his fist in celebration while Ivey sat in shock.
He hit the exit door in 10th place and, the rest is poker history.
Moneymaker's win that year helped spark the poker boom and the surge in online poker internationally. The man with the perfect poker surname was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2019 and remains one of the biggest names in the game.
- Hand: Ace-Queen
- Highlights: Historic 2003 WSOP Main Event triumph
- Player highlight: Moneymaker helps kickstart the poker boom with the unlikely elimination of one of the best players in the game. He shows that poker amateurs can compete with some of the best at times.
5 – Phil Hellmuth – Pocket Nines
While he may have 15 WSOP titles now, Phil Hellmuth was the poker young gun in 1989. And he faced off with another poker legend heads-up for the WSOP Main Event title. Johnny Chan looked poised to win an unprecedented third straight Main Event.
- Hellmuth had only one WSOP cash at the time but went on to top Chan. Phill became the youngest player to win a Main Event (at that time) at age 24.
The Poker Brat brought home the title with Pocket Nines as his final hand. The Hellmuth poker hand led to plenty of accolades and kick-started a massive poker career.
He now is the leader in WSOP bracelets, cashes, holds several other series records. Hellmuth remains one of the most recognised names in poker.
- Hand: Pocket Nines
- Highlights: Won the 1989 WSOP Main Event
- Player highlight: That first bracelet would be followed by 14 more and an illustrious poker career.
6 – Aces Take Down Aces
Who could forget this unbelievable cooler from the 2014 WSOP Big One for One Drop? The event featured a $1 million buy-in and a prize pool of more than $37 million.
- Businessman Cary Katz started the action by raising with A♠A♥
- He was raised by Connor Drinan, who also had Aces – A♦A♣.
- Drinan three-bet and Katz then four-bet the action.
“Save your money, kid. You can’t win every pot,” Katz said. Durian announced all-in, and of course, Katz instantly called.
This was when things became extremely unlucky for Drinan.
- The dealer fanned out a flop of 2♦K♥5♥ followed by the 4♥ on the turn.
This sad tale came to an end with a 2♥ on the river – sending Drinan to the rail in one of the unlikely ways imaginable.
Katz hit his Ace-high flush to take the pot. It was the ultimate cooler in one of the biggest tournaments in poker.
- Hand: Pocket Aces
- Highlights: 2014 WSOP Big One for One Drop
- Player highlight: Cary Katz’s Aces topped Connor Drinan’s pocket Aces.
7 – Cooler City Quads
The 2017 WSOP saw Vanessa Selbst at the ESPN feature table on Day 1 of the Main Event.
- She raised the action with pocket Aces.
- Her A♠A♦ made three-of-a-kind on a board A♣7♣5♣.
Gail Baumann also caught a set with 7♥7♦ and looked to be in a precarious situation. Selbst put in a raise, and Bauman called with her second set.
- The 7♠ on the turn changed things in a major way, however.
Selbst now had a full house, and Baumann had quads. After another Selbst bet, Baumann simply called.
A meaningless 4♦ fell on the river. Selbst put in a decent bet, and her opponent made a raise big enough that would put her all-in.
- “This may be a quick Main Event for me,” Selbst said. “I don’t know if I’m good enough to fold this.”
Selbst suspected she might be beaten but ultimately couldn’t get away from her hand.
This loss was quite a brutal bad beat.
- Hand: Full House bested by Quads
- Highlights: 2017 WSOP Main Event
- Player highlight: Baumann went on to finish 102nd for $49,101.
Poker has produced some incredible moments through the years. Some famous poker hands have stood the test of time.
With the game’s popularity still at a high level, there should be plenty more big hands in the coming years and decades.