Deciding if the Dead Man’s Hand in Poker is Bad Luck or Not

By J.W. Paine in Poker
| July 22, 2022 12:30 pm PDT
Dead Man's Hand in Poker, Skull, Gun on top of poker cards

One of the first stories you learn as a poker player is that of the Dead Man’s Hand—the cards Wild Bill Hickok allegedly held when he was shot dead poker table in a Deadwood saloon in 1876.

The tale is always told with an ominous air, like that apocryphal tale of a deadly car crash that always ends with “…and dude—the radio in the car was still playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’!”

What is the Dead Man’s Hand? And how’d it get that poker hand nickname? More importantly, is it truly unlucky?

Let’s look at the history. And if some of the facts are disputed, let’s go with the advice from that beloved western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Legend of the Hand Holding of Dead Man’s Hand

Wild Bill

The youngest boy among six children born to William Alonzo Hickok and his wife, Polly Butler, James Butler Hickok spent his early years on the family farm near Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois. James was a red-headed youth of 15 when his father, not only a farmer but a committed abolitionist, passed away.

The latter part of the 19th century was a turbulent time in the U.S., with tectonic shifts in society, economics, and politics occurring everywhere. Add to that the mad rush to seek fortune in the Western frontier, and you have a cauldron that was bound to create both heroes and villains.

In 1855, mistakenly believing he had killed his foe in a fistfight when the two fell into a canal, the 18-year-old Hickok fled Illinois for St. Louis. He soon found himself in the Kansas Territory, where he joined the Jayhawkers, a vigilante abolitionist group fighting to ensure Kansas—which was then working toward statehood—would be a free state rather than a slave state.

Legend has it that Hickok won a sharpshooting contest when he first joined the Jayhawkers, and while that may be apocryphal, his notoriety as an excellent shot is well-documented.

“Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw. His skill in the use of a rifle and pistol was unerring.” General George Armstrong Custer about Hickok

Why “Wild Bill”?

How James Butler Hickok got the nickname, Wild Bill is as disputed as the poker hand he alleged to have been holding at the time of his death. Some accounts allege the “Bill” came from his younger days when his long nose and protruding lips earned him the nickname “duck bill.”

Others point out that he used his father’s name in various enterprises during the Civil War.

It should be noted that before 1869, newspaper accounts of Hickok’s exploits regularly referred to him as William.

What Is the Dead Man’s Hand?

The short answer: The notorious dead man’s hand in poker is the aces and eights Wild Bill Hickok was playing when he was shot from behind and killed in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

The longer answer requires some backstory.

Wild Bill Hickok was a man of turbulent times—someone able to switch easily and efficiently into various roles. One of those was a poker player. It turns out he was as naturally expert at poker as he was at sharpshooting.

And yet, in the mid-1870s, with the Civil War over, much of the turbulence was in the past, and neither sharpshooting nor poker was paying particularly well. Hickok decided it was time for yet another shift in roles.

He decided to try his luck as a miner.

In pursuit of that goal, Hickok found himself in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. He’d left his wife of a few months, Agnes Lake, behind in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

You might be surprised to discover that those days on the American frontier were quite similar to our modern day—at least as far as gambling and poker are concerned.

Faro card game

Throughout the States and the territories, every edifice—from a tent to the more permanent wood and brick structures housing saloons—was home to at least a single poker table.

The larger buildings, of course, boasted multiple tables dealing everything from poker to faro, and many of these even featured roulette wheels and wheels of fortune.

Sure, you can find all that easily these days with a mouse and a list of the best online casinos, but imagine that level of convenience in a world with no electricity, where the fastest mail took weeks and even months to reach its destination.

Getting back to Wild Bill: His mining ambitions didn’t last long in Deadwood. He quickly became disabused of striking it rich and returned to a more reliable—and less physically taxing—skillset, playing poker.

And that’s what he was doing on August 2, 1876: Sitting at a poker table in Nuttal & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon, his back to the door (which he usually wouldn’t take, preferring to keep an eye on the door).

He was playing poker with Carl Mann (one of the saloon’s owners), the 17-year-old Charles Rich (who had taken Hickock’s usual seat), and riverboat Captain William Massey (a riverboat captain).

It was Rich’s turn to deal, and the hand was getting underway when shortly after 4 pm, John “Crooked Nose” McCall entered the saloon, walked up behind Hickok, and shot him point-blank in the head with a .45 revolver, killing Hickok instantly.

Ellis T. Peirce, an army acquaintance of Hickok’s and—due to a two-year course in medicine—Deadwood’s resident medical expert— enshrined the Dead Man’s Hand in historical legend.

Since it was “Doc” Peirce’s thankless job to serve as Hickok’s undertaker, he was the first non-witness on the scene after the shooting. He would later testify in court that the cards in Hickok’s hand were the ace and eight of spades and the ace and eight of clubs.

According to legend, the young Charlie Rich never played poker again. He had incidentally been the one filling Hickok’s favorite seat at the table. He had refused to surrender it to Wild Bill, which accounts for Hickok’s less strategic positioning at the table.

Rich died in 1929 and was interred with an elaborate tombstone depicting the so-called Dead Man’s Hand he dealt (AA88, with a jack of diamonds kicker), along with the epitaph below.

Charlie Henry Rich tombstone

Here lies
Charlie Henry Rich
who dealt
“Aces and Eights”
to WILD BILL HICKOK
in the Blackhills of
Deadwood South Dakota
in No. 10 Saloon on
August 2, 1876

What Happened to McCall?

And what happened to the assassin, Crooked Nose McCall? Well, he was not well-thought-of in Deadwood even before the incident, with miners typically describing him as a drunk and not a little stupid.

But despite his initial attempt to flee the scene on a stolen horse, a hastily convened (and entirely nonlegal) “miner’s court” was convened. And quickly acquitted McCall of the murder.

That’s right. It seems McCall had a story of how Hickok had killed McCall’s brother while Hickok was doing the lawman thing in Abilene, Kansas, a few years earlier. That was enough for the miners of Deadwood to decide Hickok needed killin’, so they let McCall go free.

But justice wasn’t through with McCall. Within a month, he was arrested by a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Laramie, Wyoming, who had heard him bragging about killing Wild Bill. McCall was charged with murder and taken to Yankton, South Dakota, to stand trial.

McCall was found guilty of that charge on December 6, and at 10:15 am on March 1, 1877, John McCall was hanged from the neck until dead in Yankton. He was buried with the noose still around his neck.

You know It’s Inevitable—Playing With a Dead Man’s Hand

It’s bound to happen; whether you play poker in dusty old saloons or at the best online poker sites, you with AA88. And frankly, the dead man’s hand in poker can be a good hand and a bad one—all depending on the game being played and, of course, what your opponents are holding.

Is the dead man’s hand dead man’s hand in poker bad luck? Like many unknowable’s, that depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

Texas Hold’em

Depending on where the hand presents itself—both pairs made to your pocket cards vice both one or both of the pair made among the community cards—the dead man’s hand could be anything from a nothing burger to the nutz.

Omaha

Two pair is rarely a winning hand in Omaha, so pair up up two of your four-hole cards on the flop won’t bring tears of joy to your eyes. Getting all four dealt you for your pocket cards is better, but you’re still looking at a boat draw for any serious claim on the pot.

Five Card Draw

This is an excellent hand to draw to and even stands a good chance of raking the pot standing pat.

Five Card Stud

If those are your four-up cards, then sure, you’ll almost certainly win the pot, but in a five-card stud, any pair on the table is intimidating—which means you’re unlikely to get any callers, whatever bet you make on that fifth card.

Incidentally, one of the reasons five-card stud is most often the game considered to be that final game Wild Bill Hickok played is the notorious “fifth card” that nobody seems to be able to agree on. Sure, the hole card most often noted is the queen of diamonds, but others have been named.

The Other Dead Man’s Hand

Wild West men playing poker

Oh, so you thought aces and eights were the only dead man’s hand out there? Au contraire! There are at least two other so-called dead man’s hands out there.

The earliest reference to any poker hand is that of a dead man was in 1886 when a North Dakota newspaper said that the five-card draw hand of three jacks and two tens ( a whole house of jacks over tens, in other words) was so named—and named so because of a deadly fight at a poker table that took place in Illinois some 30 years before Hickok’s ill-fated final game.

A couple of decades later, a book on superstitions and folklore claimed, “Jacks and sevens are called the ‘dead  man’s hand.’ In a poker game, it is very unlucky to hold them and win the pot.”

Four years later—in 1907—a British author agreed that a dead man’s hand was two pair—but insisted that it was a pair of jacks and a pair of eights. Alas, the author did not note whether the bad luck was attributable to simply drawing the hand or winning with it.

Is the Dead Man’s Hand Truly Unlucky?

So, is Dead Man’s Hand bad luck? After all that, is the hand truly unlucky?

Well, luck is something we all know little of, despite our own experience with both the good and bad versions, as well as our observations of the uncanny good luck some people have and the equally uncanny bad luck others are victims of.

We only know about it because it is unpredictable and unreliable.

Luck is capricious; it favors whomever it wishes for, however briefly it chooses. Trying to divine what and who it will favor at the moment is a fool’s errand.

But as the man says, if a rabbit’s foot makes you feel lucky, then carry a rabbit’s foot. And the converse is true, as well: If you think a dead man’s hand in poker(whichever combination of cards you think to deserve that appellation) is bad luck, then it is. Fold it now and wait for the next hand.

Frankly, it’s hardly a barnburner of a hand, regardless of the game in which it is encountered, so folding it is always worthy of consideration.

The Kicker

Saloon poker table

So, what about that hidden card—the kicker- for those aces and eights?

If aces and eights were the only cards Wild Bill Hickok had been dealt, then he was playing a five-card draw and had yet to begin to play the hand because the deal had not finished (or he had yet to look at the final card dealt).

If that was the case, the bad luck took effect even before the hand was formally in progress. If there was one, the pot comprised nothing but the players’ antes since wagering doesn’t typically begin in poker until the first round of cards is dealt to all players.

On the other hand (heh), if the aces and eights represented only four of the five cards Hickok had been dealt, then it’s very likely the game he was playing was a five-card stud, where each player receives a single down card, and then four cards face up. Wagering takes place after the dealing of each of the face-up cards.

The pot, in that case, could have been quite large.

Interestingly, it seemed the amount of the pot on the table that day in 1876 was even more unknown than the kicker card.

Ultimately, the only hand you can be certain of is your own. Of course, its relative luckiness depends on the game, the players, and whether there’s a guy with a .45 pointed at the back of your head.

Playing Dead Man’s Hand

While legends and superstitions are fun to read about and even consider in those idle moments between games, they are not so useful when actually playing poker.

You’ll get the dead man’s hand if you play poker long enough and naturally think about the implications. And whether you believe in the bad luck it brings or not, you’ll almost certainly survive the experience.

If you like living on the edge (or want to put paid to a hoary old superstition), you can find multiple occurrences of the dead man’s hand in poker at even the best mobile poker rooms.

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