The legend about the infamous dead man’s hand originated in the late 19th century and it features Wild Bill Hickock as its main tragic hero. James Butler Hickock, who was much better known to his friends and enemies as Wild Bill, was somewhat of a star of his time. A gunfighter, soldier, spy, and even an actor, Wild Bill was also known to try his luck at cards, especially poker.
Playing the Hand He Was Dealt – Aces and Eights
Bill Hickock has seen it all during his time, at least if we’re to believe the accounts originating from that period. He was apparently a brave guy who didn’t run when faced with a challenge and earned the respect of his peers for it. Now, he wasn’t the model citizen by today’s standards, that’s for sure, but it was a mighty different time in the US in the mid-1800s.
Among his many exploits, Hickock was known as an experienced gambler, especially in the game of poker. Back in the day, Texas Hold’em wasn’t the most popular game. Instead, people used to play games like 5 Card Draw and 5 Card Stud, among other things.
For Wild Bill, one particular game of 5 Card Stud would turn out to be fatal. On August 2, 1876, Hickock walked into Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota, and joined a game that was already in progress. According to the accounts of the time, he was a very careful person and he always wanted a seat facing a door so he could see who was coming in and walking out. But, on this particular occasion, the only seat left was the one facing away from the entrance.
Bill was apparently too eager to play so he threw caution to the wind and put his money on the table. Just seconds before his untimely demise, he was dealt a two pair hand, Aces and Eights, and was probably too involved with the game to notice a man walking behind him, gun in his hand.
The man, Jack McCall, wasted little time doing what he set out to do. He approached Wild Bill from behind and put a bullet straight through his head, killing him on the spot. The dead man’s hand was still laid out on the table but it was one pot that wasn’t heading Hickock’s way.
The Story Behind Wild Bill’s Death
The story often focuses on the cards Hickock was holding at the time of his death. Although it is generally believed it was, indeed, two pair, Aces and Eights, we aren’t that certain about exact suits. According to the earliest reports, one of the aces was actually an Ace of Diamonds, but in the aftermath, it turned into an Ace of Spades, making the dead man’s hand two black aces and two black eights.
But what made Jack McCall do what he did, especially in such a coldblooded manner? There are different explanations for this but what seems to be a generally accepted version of the story is that McCall played in a game with Hickock the evening before. Things weren’t going particularly well for McCall, so Wild Bill suggested he got up until he was able to cover his debts and even paid for breakfast for the unlucky gambler who was apparently completely skinned.
McCall did as Hickock suggested but he apparently didn’t take it too well and was insulted. So, the next day, he came back to settle the score and seeing Wild Bill turned away from the door probably looked like a great opportunity to take out the guy who most people were afraid to confront face to face.
Is There More to Dead Man’s Hand Story?
After it was all said and done, McCall was arrested and put to trial but he was up against a jury that was quickly put together and it wasn’t quite the legal setup you’d expect in a murder case. In his defense, McCall claimed Bill actually killed his brother before so his act was actually revenge and had nothing to do with these other circumstances.
The story may have been true as Hickock has ramped up quite a body count working as a lawman in different areas. Whatever the truth, McCall was originally acquitted and got to walk away. However, he was later arrested once again and put to proper trial, which ended up in a death penalty conviction.
Of course, it is hard to know what happened exactly and why McCall killed Wild Bill. Either way, Wild Bill was gone but the legend of him and the dead man’s hand survived.
Dead Man’s Hand References in Pop Culture
The story of Wild Bill and his many adventures has constantly changed over the years, with various writers and storytellers adding bits and pieces, so accounts we have today contain a whole lot of fiction. The same probably goes for Hickock’s last minutes and his final hand.
The dead man’s hand was first referenced in writing in 1926 and was further popularized by an American historian Carl Breihan. According to the original story, the cards that were dealt to Hickock on that fatal day were picked up by one Neil Christy who later passed them on to his son. Breihan reached out Christy’s son and was told the exact hand was actually the Ace of Clubs, Ace of Diamonds, two black eights, and a Queen of Hearts. The queen actually had a small drop of Wild Bill’s blood on it.
Like with every other legend, it is hard to say what the real truth is but it is certainly one of the best gambling stories out there (albeit not a one with a happy ending), so it was referenced in many books and movies later on. For example, in a classic novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest, Randle Patrick McMurphy, the main protagonist of the story, has the dead man’s hand – aces and eights tattooed on his shoulder.
In James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, there is a story about how Jezzie Flannigan’s father won his gun holding Aces and Eights. The title of one of the novels based on the Final Destination film is also called The Dead Man’s Hand and the action takes place in Las Vegas.
Overall, this is one of those stories that continue to live on in the gambling circles and the pop culture alike. It isn’t a very pleasant story when you think of it, as it ends with someone’s brain splattered all over cards and chips, but that part is usually put aside. The focus is on that final hand, which may not have even been a winner for all we know.
Dead Man’s Hand in Texas Hold’em
Although Texas Hold’em is a completely different format, the popularity of this story has helped the dead man’s hand enter every variation of the game. That said, there is no clear consensus as to what constitutes a dead man’s hand in Hold’em. It really depends on how you want to look at it.
Generally speaking, it would be a hand where you’re dealt an Ace and an Eight and then manage to pair both of your cards by the river. Preferably, it should be all black cards to stay true to the legend. The problem is, people want to get the fabled dead man’s hand for the heck of it, not have to chase it all the way to the river.
So, it is a sort of a consensus that any starting hand containing a black Ace and a black Eight is a dead man’s hand. While it doesn’t fit the story exactly, it makes more sense since those are the cards you alone are dealt. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it when you add community cards to the mix.
Of course, 5 Card Stud is played without community cards, like the rest of stud games, so the cross doesn’t quite come as naturally. The good news is, it doesn’t have to. Since it is just a myth, an urban legend, or whatever you want to call it, there is no right or wrong as such.
Playing Aces and Eights
Although this is clearly not a strategy piece, it never hurts to throw in some ideas for consideration. If you just came here for the story, you can freely skip this part but it won’t hurt to keep on reading and find out just how strong the dead man’s hand is in Texas Hold’em.
If we accept the variation where it is a two pair hand, i.e. Aces and Eights, this will be a pretty good hand in general. Two pair hands, especially the ones that contain the best possible pair, tend to do very well. If you actually flop this hand and have a shot at filling up, it is a kind of hand that you can almost always comfortably play for all of your chips. There are exceptions, of course, but the dead man’s hand will likely bring you much more luck than it did to poor Bill.
In the second scenario, where it is a starting hand with an Ace and an Eight, we’re talking about a very mediocre holding. The off-suite variation is only good in later positions if you are first in and can kick things off with a raise. If you’re suited, the hand has a bit more playability as it has more potential to make a flush, which is a pretty good hand as we know it.
What I’m really trying to say here is – don’t get married to a hand just because it has a name. There is a bunch of hands that have a name, like the Brunson (Ten-Deuce), Dolly Parton (Nine-Five), etc. Most of them are really poor and playing them will cost you a lot of money in the long run. The dead man’s hand is actually quite decent in comparison but you should still be very picky as to when you want to commit a lot of your chips with Ace-Eight.
You will be better of simply grabbing preflop cheat sheets and always knowing what hands you should play!
Conclusion: The Dead Man’s Hand Legend Lives On
There are many legends in the world of poker and gambling but very few are as famous as the one about Wild Bill Hickock and his dead man’s hand. With all the exposure it got in the pop culture, media, and poker circles over the years, there are very few people who haven’t heard about it.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having some fun while playing and trying to rake in the pot with a named hand certainly has a special kind of appeal to it. That said, you should be very careful about picking your spots. You’re unlikely to meet the same destiny of Wild Bill overplaying Ace Eight but your bankroll might take a few bullets in the knees.