What Is the Dead Man’s Hand in Poker?

min read
Hands holding playing cards over a green poker table.
BetMGM Apr 18, 2024, 3:14 AM

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 poker hand 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 memorable story behind it 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. Take a look at the origin story of this nickname, and learn 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 Poker Hand was born in the Wild West on August 1, 1876. As the dead man’s hand story goes, one 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 on the day that was to be his last.

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 man named 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 hand he held was A♣ A♠ 8♣ 8♠ 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, even though 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 J♦ as the fifth card. Other historical displays in Deadwood show 9♦. The Stardust Casino in Las Vegas shows 5♦. Others claim that the fifth card was a Q♥, 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 that’s known for sure is that the dead man was holding two black aces and two black 8s.

References of Aces and 8s in Popular Culture

The dead man’s hand, that infamous combo of aces and 8s, isn’t just a footnote in history. It’s made its mark in movies, video games, and more, popping up in some pretty unexpected places in modern popular culture.

It’s referenced in old Western movies like “Stagecoach” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” both of which were directed by John Ford. In “Stagecoach,” John Wayne holds the hand. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the hand is held by the titular character.

In 1939, Randolph Scott played Wyatt Earp, who is dealt the dead man’s hand in “Frontier Marshal.” Then, in 1941’s “Badlands of Dakota,” Wild Bill Hickok himself, played by Richard Dix, finds himself holding the fateful cards.

Jumping forward to the 2001 film “Along Came a Spider,” aces and 8s are used as a winning hand in a pivotal poker scene.

Wild Bill Hickok’s tragic fate at the poker table has also been referenced in the television series “Deadwood,” an HBO series set in the Old West in the 1870s. It weaves the real-life tales of Wild Bill Hickok (played by Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane into the show. The series didn’t skimp on the poker and gambling either. It paints a vivid picture of Hickok’s life as a poker player, culminating in his dramatic poker table murder by Jack McCall. In 2019, HBO even released a film to tie up a few loose ends from the series.

The dead man’s hand has also been referenced in other areas of pop culture.

Video Games

Games like “Fallout: New Vegas” feature quests involving the collection of cards that form the famous dead man’s hand. 

Literature

George R.R. Martin, renowned author of “Game of Thrones,” titled one of his fantasy books after the dead man’s hand. 

Music

The music artist and DJ Kshmr produced a song titled “Dead Man’s Hand” in 2015. 

The Alcohol Industry

Several companies have used this poker hand and its story as inspiration for their products. You can find Dead Man’s Hand whiskey and rum in bottle stores, and the name has also been associated with Belgian and American beers. 

Motorcycle Clubs

There is even a motorcycle club named “Dead Man’s Hand” in the U.S., demonstrating how the hand’s legacy extends to various aspects of society.

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 far 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 8s, meaning that one of each will do for your hand to technically qualify as a dead man’s hand. So what do you do if you’re dealt it?

How To Play the Dead Man’s Hand

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.

Keep Your Hand in With Online Poker at BetMGM

Today, you don’t have to risk your life or your wallet to get a place at the poker table. Simply register at BetMGM to access top-rated online poker rooms for seven-card stud, Omaha, and Texas hold’em poker games to suit your skills and budget. Daily, weekly and monthly tournaments are all part of the fun. For even more recreational gambling opportunities, why not visit the online casino? A broad range of online slots, blackjack, roulette, and baccarat (including a wide variety of live dealer options) is sure to keep you entertained.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are casino experts with a wealth of knowledge of the online casino industry at all levels. Their coverage includes company news, game reviews, how-to instructional articles, strategy guides, and editorials showcasing BetMGM’s superior product and game library.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are casino experts with a wealth of knowledge of the online casino industry at all levels. Their coverage includes company news, game reviews, how-to instructional articles, strategy guides, and editorials showcasing BetMGM’s superior product and game library.