The Origin Story Of Poker’s Spookiest Hand

By Christine
July 20, 2022
Dead Man's Hand Wild Bill Hickok
Dead Man's Hand Wild Bill Hickok

If you’ve been playing poker for a while, we’re guessing you’ve come across a few interesting nicknames for certain hands. But perhaps one of the most prominent and ominous sounding of these nicknames is the Dead Man’s Hand.

Curious where the name came from? Then read on and find out if you should really be freaked out the next time it crops up on the felt.

The Dead Mans Hand also comes up a lot in popular culture today with games, tattoos and books inspired by the hand.

What is the Dead Man’s Hand?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Dead Man’s Hand is made up of sixes. Or perhaps that it would be a very weak hand with nothing much to play for, so you’re dead in the water when it comes up. Neither is the case.

In fact, the Dead Man’s Hand as we know it today is:

  • Ace of Spades
  • Ace of Clubs
  • Eight of Spades
  • Eight of Clubs
  • And an undefined fifth card

That hand of Aces and Eights has been the Dead Man’s Hand since 1926. However, in the preceding decades, there have been a few other iterations of this hand. In 1886, it was described as a full house made up of two 10s and three Jacks. Then in a 1903 text, the author described it as Jacks and Sevens. Just a few years later, it became Jacks and Eights.

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What happened in 1876 to cement the Dead Man’s Hand in history?

Long story short, Wild Bill Hickok died.

But that’s not a very good spooky poker story, so let’s begin from the very start.

Wild Bill Hickok was born James Butler Hickok in 1837. He was the fourth of six children and grew up on a farm in Illinois. However, his adult life started in chaos when he went on the run at 18 after a brawl turned deadly.

After that, he had an extremely colorful life. At different times, he turned his hand to acting, drove a stagecoach and was a spy for a time. Most incredibly, despite kicking off his adult life on the run, he even became a lawman himself.

But in August, 1876 it all came to an end in Deadwood, Dakota. Wild Bill went into Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon to play some poker. A very drunk Jack McCall joined him and ended up losing badly to Bill. Hickok took pity on McCall and gave him some cash to buy himself some food. And even though McCall took that money, he was still absolutely livid.

The next day, McCall went back to the Saloon to find Bill playing poker again. He drew his gun and shot poor Wild Bill in the head. And that was the end of that.

According to contemporary accounts, the famous final hand was an 8 and Ace of Clubs and an 8 and Ace of Spades. People sometimes say that the final card of the hand was a Queen of Clubs but there’s a lot of doubt surrounding that claim.

And what happened to McCall? He was tried, convicted and executed for his crimes.

The Dead Man’s Hand pops up a lot in an array of different spaces. For example, Bob Dylan and Motorhead both talk about it in some of their most popular songs (Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Williée and Ace of Spades, respectively). In literature, it has been referenced in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Batman.

It’s also turned up in games, such as Doomtown. But perhaps most surprisingly, it forms part of the insignia of several USA police departments, including the Las Vegas Metropolitan Homicide Division and the Los Angeles CRASH Squad.

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