Dead Man’s Hand in Poker: The History and Cultural Significance

Two Aces and two Eights, also known as the Dead Man’s Hand, is a combination of cards that is considered to be one of the most iconic hands in poker. But what is the Dead Man’s Hand in poker exactly, and how come it’s so popular?

The story traces its roots all the way back to the Wild West. It involves an adequately named hero, the famed Wild Bill Hickock, features a brutal murder, and ends with a mystery. What more can you ask for from a tale like this?

Our article goes over the history of the Dead Man’s Hand in poker, breaks down its cultural significance, and tells you all about it!

Without further ado, let’s jump straight into the action!

What Is the Dead Man’s Hand in Poker?

In most versions of the story, the Dead Man’s Hand in poker refers to the combination of two Aces and Eights and an unknown bullet hole card, which were held by the Wild West hero, Wild Bill Hickock, at the time of his murder.

More precisely, it is said that Wild Bill held the Ace of spades, the Ace of clubs, as well as an Eight of spades and an Eight of clubs.

When it comes to the ever-popular Texas Hold’em poker, a player who is dealt an Ace and an Eight at the beginning of the game has the Dead Man’s Hand. Even though this combination isn’t worth much in modern variations of poker, it is considered quite strong in the Five Card Stud game.

How to Play the Dead Man’s Hand

dead man's hand poker

How you play the Dead Man’s Hand depends on the type of poker you’re playing. As it’s the most popular poker variation, we’ll take Texas Hold‘em, for example.

Your best bet when it comes to this hand in Hold‘em would be to play defensively, as the Ace and Eight aren’t a strong combination. That’s why we suggest you fold immediately if:

  • There’s a chance your opponent has a stronger combination,
  • Your opponent went all-in on a bluff when you received your cards, or
  • You didn’t get at least three of a kind, and the Flop cards are released.

Catching Bluffers With the Dead Man’s Hand

Whether you’re a seasoned poker veteran or a newcomer, you can easily use the Dead Man’s Hand in poker to catch bluffers and win a considerable pot of chips.

To do this, you need to wait for the Flop cards to be revealed and then read your opponents. Most people like to bluff with low-number pairs (e.g., 6s, 7s, 9s, etc.) and especially Aces.

If you get two pairs, three of a kind, or even a full house, feel free to call your opponents’ raises and re-raises, as it will be safe to assume they’re bluffing.

How Much Is the Dead Man’s Hand Combination Worth in Poker?

In most modern variations of poker, the Dead Man’s Hand combination isn’t worth much and doesn’t influence your chances of winning

Even though you can get a three of a kind, or a full house, as some of the strongest combinations with this hand, you still need to get quite lucky. This is why people don’t consider the Dead Man’s Hand in poker worth much.

During the times when the Five Card Stud game was popular, this hand was incredibly strong, meaning that before he died, Wild Bill held onto his cards, thinking he’d win the pot.

Who was Wild Bill Hickock? The Story of the Dead Man’s Hand

dead man's hand poker

When you think of the Wild West, one of the first scenes that pops into your mind is probably a smoke-filled, dimly lit card room in a saloon, in which a couple of cowboys are playing poker. This is exactly the scene from which the story of the Dead Man’s Hand originates.

The main character of the story is Wild Bill Hickock, a man born in Illinois in 1837 — a lawman, gunslinger, and gambler by profession. The date was August 2, 1876, and the location was Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood. The hero of the story spent the majority of his life gunning down and arresting outlaws, but on this day, he was playing a game of Five Card Stud.

It’s said that he was on a winning streak when another gambler called Jack McCall slipped into the room and moved behind Wild Bill, so he couldn’t be seen. He aimed at the back of Bill’s head, pulled the trigger, and shot him dead on the spot. 

The reasoning behind the murder is still unknown, but what is known is that Wild Bill was found lying on the floor, holding two black Eights and two Aces, an incredibly strong hand in the game he was playing at the time of his death.

Since that day, this hand remains one of the most famous combinations in poker, and the story has turned into a classic folk tale of the Wild West.

The Five Card Stud Game

The game that was played at the table at which Wild Bill was shot is called the Five Card Stud. It’s one of the earliest forms of stud poker games and originates all the way back from the American Civil War. 

The game is dealt similarly to Seven Card Stud, except only five cards are used. Five Card Stud offers solid returns, especially for strong hands that contain two big pairs, such as the Dead Man’s Hand.

The Dead Man’s Hand in Pop Culture

The Dead Man’s Hand is one of the most referenced hands in pop culture, and it can be seen in:

  • Deadwood (2004-2006): The award-winning HBO TV series Deadwood tells a fictionalized history of Wild Bill Hickock in one of its episodes. It follows his move into the mining town in the Black Hills of South Dakota and even depicts his murder, which is one of the key plot lines of the series.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The most influential counterculture book of the 60s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, written by Ken Kasey, features a protagonist with a tattooed Dead Man’s Hand combination on his shoulder. The book was later adapted to the big screen by Milos Forman, and the tattooed character was played by none other than Jack Nicholson.
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): In one of the latest films by the great Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the titular character refuses to make an error and plays the Dead Man’s Hand.
  • “Rambling, Gambling Willie”: Even the father of American folk music, Bob Dylan, knew about the Dead Man’s Hand and referenced it in his 1961 song titled “Rambling, Gambling Willie.” In it, he tells the story of a gambler named Will who gets shot at the back of his head after a lengthy winning streak.

Key Takeaways

At the end of the day, regardless of its strength in modern poker games, the Dead Man’s Hand remains one of the most iconic card hands ever, and its story will never go out of fashion.

To sum this article up:

  • The Dead Man’s Hand poker set consists of two Aces and two Eights.
  • This combination was found in Wild Bill Hickock’s hands after he was shot while playing a game of Five Card Stud.
  • The best way to use the Dead Man’s Hand in poker is to play defensively.
  • This combination of cards is not worth much, but it can be used to catch bluffers.
  • Wild Bill Hickock was a former soldier, a lawman, and the most iconic American hero of the Wild West.
  • Hickock’s story lives on through numerous movies, books, comics, songs, and TV shows.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Dead Man’s Hand

Want to learn more about the Dead Man’s Hand combination? If so, our FAQ section answers some of the most commonly asked questions, such as:

#1. What is a dead hand in poker?

While the Dead Man’s Hand refers to a hand consisting of two Aces and two Eights, a hand is also considered “dead” in poker in cases where a player folds or breaks the rules. For example, if one of the players doesn’t act in a timely manner, their hand will be declared dead and they’ll have to wait for the next turn.

#2. Why do they call it the Dead Man’s Hand?

The Dead Man’s Hand got its name after the murder of Wild Bill Hickock in 1876. Namely, he was shot in the back of his head by Jack McCall while he was playing a game of Five Card Stud. He dropped dead on the spot and was found holding two Aces, two Eights, and a hole card, a combination of cards now known as the Dead Man’s Hand.

#3. Why was Wild Bill Hickock shot?

To this day, it hasn’t been discovered why Wild Bill Hickock was shot. A commonly accepted theory supporting the reasoning is that Bill told Jack McCall to quit gambling until he repaid his debts. Another one is that the shooting was done in revenge because Hickock murdered Jack’s brother.

#4. What is the fifth card in the Dead Man’s Hand combination?

The fifth card in the Dead Man’s Hand combination was never discovered, but it’s speculated that it was the Queen of Hearts. However, numerous artworks depict the famous hand with other fifth cards, such as the Jack of Diamonds or a Nine.

#5. How has the Dead Man’s Hand story stood through history?

Due to the mystery that surrounds it, the Dead Man’s Hand is one of the most famous stories of the Wild West. It has stood the test of time unlike any other story, and it’s still being referenced in books, comics, movies, TV shows, and songs.

Gordon Dyke

Poker Expert

Gordon Dyke has served as our poker expert since 2017. Gordon has been playing poker professionally and recreationally for nearly two decades.