What Is a Dead Man’s Hand in Poker

Last Updated on August 14, 2023 Author:Adrian Sterne

Dead Man's Hand in pokerOne of the most popular card games in the world, poker has always inspired intrigue, even among non-players.

One of the many poker terms that have become part of everyday language and popular culture is “dead man’s hand”.

This notorious poker hand is a two pair consisting of black aces and black eights, although there have been different versions of it over the years.

The dead man’s hand derives its name from the story of a 19th-century gambler who was killed while reportedly holding these cards in his hand.

History of the Dead Man’s Hand

The first accounts of the dead man’s hand in poker date back to 1886, when it was thought to consist of a pair of tens and three jacks. Later accounts describe it as a hand of sevens and jacks or eights and jacks. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the current description of eights and aces became widely accepted.

In the roaring twenties, Frank J. Wilstach, a newspaper editor and writer from Indiana, wrote a biography called “Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers“, which reportedly contains the story of the infamous poker hand.

Wild Bill HickokThe book depicts the life and death of Wild Bill Hickok (pictured), a lawman and gambler from Illinois.

He was murdered in 1876 during a game of poker, holding a two pair of black eights and aces with an unknown hole card.Hickok was a prominent figure in 19th-century America.

He was born in 1837 and rose to fame as a lawman and actor who frequented local saloon poker games. Although born in Illinois, when he got older, he moved to Deadwood, a frontier town that would later become part of the state of South Dakota.

According to the story, Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall joined a poker table with Hickok. During the game, McCall lost all of his money. Hickok gave him some and told him he should play only if his budget was substantial enough. Allegedly, the proposition and the advice offended and enraged McCall.

He was so angry that he returned to the same saloon the next day, intending to kill Hickok. Hickok customarily sat with his back turned to the wall as he wanted a clear view of the room. However, that night, the unlucky lawman sat with his back turned towards the room. McCall came behind him and fired a shot at his head.

Hickok fell dead holding a pair of black eights and a pair of black aces in his hand. McCall was then tried and sentenced to death by hanging in 1877.

Although the exact cards and the motive for murder have been disputed, the legend remains.

The Hand in Everyday Life and Popular Culture

The dead man’s hand wouldn’t have significance today if Wild Bill Hickok weren’t such a notable figure. What was remarkable about him was that, even though he was a gambler, he was also a lawman and gunslinger.

Throughout his short life, Hickok was also a trapper, soldier, hunter, and spy and is said to have been quite a handsome man. Therefore, his remarkable life and, perhaps even more so, the circumstances of his death remain influential today.

Over the years, the dead man’s hand has found its way into many areas of everyday life and popular culture. One of the most powerful testaments to its significance is the fact that the Las Vegas Metro Police Department’s Homicide Division uses the two pairs of eights and aces as its emblem.

The hand has also been used in popular culture. For instance, American novelist Ken Kesey mentions it in his classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. He describes his character McMurphy as having the cards tattooed on one of his shoulders. The meaning of the tattoo remains open to interpretation.

James Patterson also references the dead man’s hand in his book “Along Came a Spider“. One of the characters uses the hand as a password for her computer and recounts her father winning his gun with these cards.

In the 1939 movie “Stagecoach“, director John Ford uses it to hint at the death of a character called Luke Plummer. The character’s life ends similarly to Wild Bill’s — he is shot dead by the Ringo Kid after holding two pairs of black aces and eights in a game of poker.


Many popular TV shows have also used the dead man’s hand. One of the main characters in Criminal Minds, special agent Aaron Hotchner plays poker against an inmate sentenced to death. At the end of the game, Hotch says that he has the dead man’s hand, to the inmate’s delight. However, the agent unveils another ace at the last moment, winning the game with a full house and making the inmate reveal the location of his victim.

You can find other pop culture references to the dead man’s hand in video games like Hearthstone, Fallout: New Vegas, Wing Commander IV, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Need for Speed: Carbon.

Is the Dead Man’s Hand a Strong Hand in Poker?

Being a two-pair, the Dead Man’s Hand is stronger than a high card or a pair, but it can’t beat most other hands, especially not a straight or a royal flush.

With that in mind, we can conclude that staying in the game with a dead man’s hand can be pretty risky. The move you want to make largely depends on how other players behave during the game. It might be best to fold if the community cards go wrong and the players before you raise.

However, if there is an ace among the community cards, you will be able to make a full house. Still, it can be risky to stay in the game even with this hand since a stronger pair could trump your weak 8s.

How to Play a Dead Man’s Hand

A Dead Man’s hand may sound cool, but it’s actually as valuable as almost any other two-pair hand. In fact, if you have a pair of aces and any other pair stronger than two eights, you’ll have a better hand than the Dead Man’s.

Therefore, you should play this hand like any other double pair and remember there are seven better hand combinations than the one you’re holding.

In the end, community cards are the ones that play the leading role for players with a Dead Man’s hand. You can ultimately make a full house, hopefully with three eights, and perhaps even win if other players don’t happen to be more fortunate.

Is the Fifth Card Important in a Dead Man’s Hand?

Various stories about Wild Bill Hickok’s poker hand mention a different fifth card that accompanied two black aces and two black eights.

According to resources available today, the Queen of Hearts is the most common answer to this question. Still, no one has been able to confirm this information with the utmost certainty. In different versions of the legend, the fifth card is said to have been the five, nine, or jack of diamonds.

Be that as it may, the fifth card may be significant in real-time play, but it has no importance in the story itself. As long as there are black aces and eights, you can say that you hold a Dead Man’s hand.

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