Dead Man’s Hand – Poker’s Taboo Black Aces & Eights

Written by: Webster Lupton , Casino, Gambling, and Sports Journalist
4 minute read
Dead Mans Poker Hand

Legend has it that on a hot, dusty day in August of 1876, some men gathered to play cards at a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Most likely, they were in the middle of a five-card draw poker game, and It’s not clear what the stakes were. As it turned out, it didn’t matter because what happened next would end the game and begin the legend, lore, and superstition of Dead Man’s Hand in poker.

What is the Dead Man’s Hand in Poker?

Dead Mans Hand Poker

Before they settled the game, notorious lawman and gunfighter “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot in the head, killed by a vengeful, drunken young man named Jack McCall.

Hickok’s hand was said to have a random card, a pair of aces, and a pair of eights. And so, that specific set of cards with aces and eights became known as the Dead Man’s Hand.” 

Variants Throughout History

If you like playing poker, you may be familiar with black aces and eights having the Dead Man’s Hand reputation. However, any aces and eights often get the moniker.

There are references to a Dead Man’s Hand from as early as 1886. Some of them depict different card combinations that have nothing to do with Hickok. Hands containing jacks and sevens, jacks and eights, and even a full house of jacks and 10s have been dubbed variants over the years.

How Black Aces & Eights Became a “Dead Man’s Hand”

Wild Bill Hickock Poker Dead Man's Hand
Wild Bill Hickock

The story goes that 24-year-old McCall had lost all of his money to Hickok the day before playing cards in that same Deadwood saloon. He returned to the bar, slipped up behind Hickok, shouted obscenities, and shot him dead.

After his notoriety made him a target, Hickok usually sat with his back to a wall to guard against such an ambush. However, that day, another player refused to give up his seat, which just added to the notion of Hickok’s lousy luck.

The legend became popularized after Frank Wilstach’s 1926 book, “Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers.” Wilstach wrote that Hickok held a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights when he was killed. Other historians have described different combinations of aces and eights.

Is A Dead Man’s Hand a Good Poker Hand?

Simply put, the Dead Man’s Hand is a two-pair, which beats a pair and can be beaten by three of a kind or better. But if you aren’t superstitious, this is pretty good in a five-card draw game, mainly if you draw it after the initial deal.

It is not as good a hand in Hold ’em Poker because of community cards. Only aces as hole cards would keep many players in the game past the flop. Some people don’t stay in a game with aces and eights just because of the legend

References in Pop Culture

Death of a Decade Album by Ha Ha Tonka
Death of a Decade album by Ha Ha Tonka

The legend of the Dead Man’s Hand has carried over into more modern culture in songs, movies, literature, and even gaming. There is even a popular online video poker game called Aces and Eights.

This infamous hand is the title of a Motorhead song and is referred to in other gambling-themed tunes, including:

  • Rambling, Gambling Willie by Bob Dylan
  • I Am The Storm by Blue Oyster Cult
  • Aces & Eights by Michael McDermott
  • Dead Man’s Hand by Ha Ha Tonka
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Movie Poster

Naturally, the image comes up in several classic Western movies. American film director, John Ford, made a few movies that showed the notorious aces and eights hand. Two of the most famous films were “Stagecoach” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

Other notable films where Dead Man’s Hand is depicted include:

  • Frontier Marshal
  • The Badlands of Dakota
  • Winchester ’73
  • Along Came a Spider

Look Out For Aces and Eights at the Poker Table

Many poker players have superstitions, and Dead Man’s Hand is probably at the top of the list of hexes. But aces and eights form a two-pair hand worth considering. Since many people play online poker, the A-A in the hole is the best deal you can get, and 8-8 hole cards are worth a light raise, no matter what the flop is.

As with any poker game, weigh your hand strength against the betting and your opponents’ tendencies. Hey, if you have to, cross your screen to ward off the curse! 

Webster Lupton

Webster Lupton Casino, Gambling, and Sports Journalist

Webster Lupton is a journalist and expert sports and casino writer with over 30 years of experience. He is a seasoned researcher and a published author that enjoys the outdoors and birdwatching.

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