Part of the fun of playing poker is the colorful slang that surrounds the game. Take the nicknames for the various starting hands in Texas Hold’em. Pocket Rockets (ace–ace), Elvis Presley (king–king), Calamity Jane (queen–queen) and the notorious Big Slick (ace–king) are just a few.
Most of these nicknames are based on what the cards look like, such as fish hooks (jack–jack) or snowman (pocket 8s). Others are based on word association, like Armani Jeans for ace–jack. But the nickname with the most powerful aura has to be ace–8. The Dead Man’s Hand, as this combination is known, takes its name from one of the most legendary incidents in poker history. We take a look at the origin story and follow up with some tips on how to play the Dead Man’s Hand in online poker.
Why is it called a Dead Man’s Hand?
The legend of the Dead Man’s Hand was born in the Wild West on August 1, 1876. On that fateful day, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok walked into Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Wild Bill was famous throughout the Wild West as a wagon master, soldier, scout, lawman, gunfighter, showman and actor. But it was with his gambling hat on that he entered the saloon that day, which was to be his last on Earth.
Wild Bill joined Charles Rich, William Massey, and Carl Mann at a table for a game of poker (specifically, Five Card Draw.) Wild Bill asked Charles Rich if he could take his seat because he didn’t want to sit with his back facing the entrance. Rich refused twice, so – for the first time ever – Wild Bill grudgingly sat down without being able to see people coming in and out of the door.
This proved to be a fatal error. After playing a few hands, a certain Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall came into the saloon. After ordering a drink, he walked over to the poker table and drew his revolver. “Damn you! Take that!” he shouted and blasted once at the back of Wild Bill’s head. The slug went straight through his skull and hit Massey in the wrist. Wild Bill slumped lifeless to the floor. The cards he was holding were the ace of clubs, ace of spades, 8 of clubs, 8 of spades and an unknown kicker: The Dead Man’s Hand.
Why did McCall kill Wild Bill Hickok? The previous day, after McCall lost all his money in the poker game, Wild Bill gave him money for breakfast. This hurt the young man’s pride, although he took the money. McCall later said that the murder was revenge for Wild Bill killing his brother. In any event, McCall was hanged by the neck until dead on March 1, 1877.
What is the fifth card in a Dead Man’s Hand?
Exactly what the fifth card in Hickok’s hand was may never be known. If you go to Deadwood today, you can see a display in the Lucky Nugget Gambling Hall (situated where Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon used to be) showing Wild Bill holding the jack of diamonds as the fifth card. Other historical displays in Deadwood show the 9 of diamonds. The Stardust Casino in Las Vegas shows the 5 of diamonds. Others claim that the fifth card was a queen of hearts, stained with a drop of the dead man’s blood. Still, other accounts deny that Wild Bill was holding a fifth card at all. According to this account, he’d discarded it and was in the process of drawing a new one when the shooting interrupted his draw. (Chances are he was going for a full house. Wouldn’t you?) The only thing we can know for sure is that the dead man was holding two black aces and two black 8s.
Is the Dead Man’s Hand a good hand?
Poker has evolved considerably since those far-off Deadwood days. Five Card Draw has given way to much more strategic variants, especially Texas Hold’em. Given the nature of Texas Hold’em, you can’t be dealt a combination of four aces and eights, meaning that one of each will do for your hand to technically qualify as a Dead Man’s. So what do you do if you’re dealt it?
The fact is that ace–8 is a poor hand and should be folded most of the time. The reason is that any other player with an ace and a stronger kicker is likely to come along. The risk is that you’ll end up paying them off all the way to the river. It may be worth staying in the pot if you have flush or straight draw potential. If you don’t hit the draw, it’s best to fold.
That said, if you do hit the flop and find yourself holding two black aces and two black 8s, you have options. You already have two pair, and you could potentially draw a full house.
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