Two Aces and two Eights. It’s a hand most poker players have come to know simply as the Dead Man’s Hand. It’s a decent starting hand that may win you a pot in a cash game or tournament.

Even more than a century after the events that inspired that famous hand, Dead Man’s Hand is still probably the best-known poker hand – with quite a story. The man behind this historic hand didn’t have the chance to rake a pot for his win.

Famed lawman,“Wild Bill” Hickok, was shot dead at a poker table with two Aces and two Eights. Since then, the hand has been branded “Dead Man’s Hand”, and the lawman remains a legend in American Old West and gambling lore.

The Story Behind the Hand

Old school Wild West saloon with gunslingers playing poker

Born in Illinois in 1837, Hickok was a lawman, gambler, gunslinger, folklore hero, and actor. While he spent much of his life shooting it out with criminals and arresting outlaws, he also spent a large amount of his time subsidising his income with poker winnings.

Later in life, Hickok moved to Deadwood, located in the Black Hills of the Dakota territory. The region wasn’t a state, and the lawman was suffering from glaucoma and other ailments. He planned on settling in the mining town to play poker and earn his living.

On August 2, 1876, Hickok was in a Five Card Stud game at Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon. Card rooms at that were what one might expect from the Old West. There was probably plenty of cigar smoke in the air and plenty of whiskey being drunk. As the cards made their way around the table and chips tossed into the pot, a gambler named Jack McCall slipped into the saloon.

McCall made his way to the bar and moved behind Bill where he couldn’t be seen. As players bet and tossed their chips in the pot, McCall raised his pistol, steadied his aim just out of sight of the game, and fired right in the back of Bill’s head.

The lawman was killed instantly at only age 39. He was allegedly holding two black Aces and two black 8s – an excellent hand in this traditional form of poker. While Hickok usually sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on others in the room, only a seat with his back to the room had been available. Whether Hickok held that hand has been debated for years, but the tale remains as does the hand’s name.

No one is quite sure why McCall committed the murderous deed, but theories abound. Those ranged from a perceived personal slight when Hickok told McCall days earlier to quit playing until he could pay his gambling debts to the allegation Hickok shot and killed his brother.

The hand has become synonymous with poker and an iconic tale of the Old West. A jury of miners acquitted McCall, but later put on trial again by the federal government and found guilty of murder. He was hung on March 1, 1877.

Dead Man’s Hand and Wild Bill in Pop Culture

Wild Bill Hickok was much more than just a gunfighter. He was a gambler and poker player, and that background combined with his role as a lawman has attracted many fans through the years. Early in his life, Hickok was a hunter, trapper, spy, soldier, military scout, and sharpshooter.

General George Custer once said of Hickok: “Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw. His skill in the use of a rifle and pistol was unerring.”

Quite a man’s man, Hickok was remembered as tall and handsome,admired by quite a few women. Wild Bill as a character, whether real or fictional, has been a significant part of American pop culture for decades – including Dead Man’s Hand.

Throughout the late-19th Century and early-20th Century, pulp novels and magazines offered tales of real-life western heroes and outlaws like Hickok, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Jesse James. Wild Bill stood out as a former Marshall and Sheriff who also could dominate a poker table.

Avon Periodicals published Hickok comic books throughout the ‘50s, featuring his exploits throughout the west. As an example, issue No. 12 featured the lawman battling a band of outlaws on the cover. The comic trumpets the battle by telling readers: “Don’t miss the flaming hot tale of hot lead.”

Separating truth from fiction isn’t easy. Numerous other stories and tales followed Hickok’s death in 1876 – including radio, television, and the silver screen. Guy Madison played Bill in the TV series “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” for seven years in the 1950s, and a radio series from 1951–54. Josh Brolin played the hero in the television series “The Young Riders” from 1989-92.

On the movies, Hickok has been played by Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Robert Culp, Charles Bronson, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliot, and more. Moe Howard even played a version of the hero named “Wild Bill Hiccup” in a 1937 episode of The Three Stooges.

Deadwood and Dead Man’s Hand

One of the most recent portrayals of Wild Bill and his death holding that famous hand came in the popular HBO series Deadwood. The award-winning series ran three seasons from 2004-06 and tells the story of the settlement as it transitioned from mining camp to a small town to officially becoming part of the U.S. territory and later part of South Dakota.

The series, set in the 1870s, gave viewers a real-life look into the Old West and this unique town located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Deadwood captured a place where a gold boom sparked industry, ruthlessness, plenty of drunkenness, and even murder. That also included plenty of miners with newfound money in their pockets and looking for a place to gamble and play cards. The saloons in town offered those opportunities – perfect for a skilled player like Wild Bill Hickok.

What made the series unique is how it weaved real-life characters like Hickok (played by Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane into the story. That includes gambling and poker as a regular backdrop. The inaugural season included a fictionalised history of Hickok, from his move into town as a well-regarded gunslinger and lawman to his life as a poker player.

McCall’s murder of Wild Bill at the poker table is a crucial plotline in the series’ first season – offering a bit of Wild West poker history to a modern audience. In May 2019 HBO released a Deadwood film to tie up some loose ends from the series.

How to Play Dead Man’s Hand

In the game Hickok was playing back in 1876, Five Card Stud, a pair of Aces and a pair of Eights was certainly a premium hand. Dealt like Seven Card Stud, but with only five cards, the game offered some excellent returns for such a hand.

Being dealt two big pairs out of only five cards was undboubtedly a nice turn of luck and Hickok probably had his eyes set on a nice pot – especially if they split with one Ace and one Eight in the hole. With his opponents not seeing a pair among his upcards, Hickok had a much better chance of keeping other players in the game.

In a game of Texas Hold’em, Ace-Eight may only be a marginal hand and how to play it will vary depending on the player. A player in late position might make a call or even raise if there are no callers in front of him. Other players might send it to the muck, especially if players behind have large chips stacks.

If there is a raise in front, most players will probably fold A-8 depending on their reads of these players. Playing this hand after the flop can also be tricky. If the board completely misses, with a flop like K-10-2, a player will be left to bluff or check.

Ultimately it might be wise to let it go with an opponent’s bet on this board. But even if an Ace hits the table on the flop, a player is in a bit of limbo. It doesn’t take much to get outkicked because of that weak 8 you’re holding. A reraise will have a player stuck in limbo about whether to make a call.

Late in a tournament or at a short-handed table, A-8 may become more valuable. A short stack may decide it’s worth the risk to move all in. Also, a player with a nice stack at a short-handed table may press the action by raising with a similar hand to hopefully take the blinds and antes.

Landing both an Ace and Eight on the board, giving a player the Dead Man’s Hand, can often bring a nice pot.

***

Dead Man’s Hand is probably the most iconic hand in poker. It harkens back to the game’s roots in the American West and a real legendary lawman who probably spent more of his time at the poker table than in the sheriff’s office.

Hickok was inducted posthumously into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979, the year of its inception. He remains an icon of American history. Ace-Eight can be a tempting hand but beware!

Hopefully, your fate ends up much better than Wild Bill’s.

About the Author
By
Sean Chaffin is a poker writer who appears in numerous websites and publications. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast
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