What is the Dead Man’s Hand in Poker?

By Alex Smith Aug 3, 2022

The deadman’s hand is one of the most iconic hands in poker. While some players have slightly different definitions of the dead man’s hand, most people regard it as a hand containing two Aces and two Eights – equalling two pairs. However, while the hand may look quite simple, there is much more to meet the eye.

The dead man’s hand has a LONG history – and its roots can be traced back to the Old Wild West. According to legend, the dead man’s hand gets its name from a famous poker game that involved a man called “Wild Bill” Hickok. He was playing a poker game and ended up being shot dead.

To this day, the hand remains legendary within poker circles. On this page, we will look at the detailed history behind the dead man’s hand. We will also look at how to play the hand and how you can catch other players with the hand at the poker table.

Wild Bill Hickok; The History of the Dead Man’s Hand

The dead man’s hand dates back to the Old West saloons. Wild Bill was born in 1837 in Illinois. While he was a prolific gambler, Wild Bill was also a lawman. He spent much of his career fighting against criminals and outlaws. He was the “bandit catcher,” for a better term. However, his salary as a lawman didn’t pay the bills, so he played a lot of poker to supplement his salary. His poker winnings more than paid for his lifestyle!

Towards the end of this life, Hickok moved to Deadwood, in South Dakota. Back then, the region wasn’t a state – and there were many problems. For example, many residents were suffering from glaucoma and various other illnesses. Hickok planned to settle in a nearby mining town and play poker full-time to earn a living.

However, his dream was short-lived. On the 2nd of August 1876, Hickok played in a five-card stud poker game. This was played at Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon. This was an iconic poker room at the time; the room was said to be filled with cigar smoke, and players often left the saloon blind drunk from drinking too much whiskey.

During the game, a man called Jack Mccall entered the game. Wild Bill Hickock was unfamiliar with Jack Mccall. Jack Mccall entered the saloon, made his way to the bar, and stood behind Hickok where he couldn’t be seen. Out of nowhere, he took a pistol out of his holster, lined the barrel up with Hickock’s head, and pulled the trigger.

The James Butler Hickok saga began; Hickok died instantly, at the age of just 37. When he died, Wild Bill was alleged to be holding a two-pair hand; two aces and two eights. This is where the dead man’s hand came from, and it’s become an iconic legend in the poker world. Hickok’s hand is still famous today – and black eights and aces are one of the most famous hands at the poker table.

While there is some debate about the specifics of Hickok’s hand, the legend has become cemented in poker history. The black aces and eights will likely forever be known as the dead man’s hand – and Wild Bill Hickok has gone down in legend!

It’s worth noting that a jury acquitted McCall of shooting Wild Bill Hickok. However, the jury was found to be biased, and the federal government managed to secure a retrial. He was then found guilty and executed on the 1st March 1877.

Wild Bill Hickok and the dead man’s hand have become synonymous in popular culture with poker. The background of the entire story has attracted a loyal fan base over the years. Many of these fans are very interested in Wild Bill Hickok, who had done a LOT during his life. Indeed, a General from the US Army once said:

“Whether on foot or horseback, he was one of the perfect types of physical manhood I saw. His skill in the use of a rifle and pistol was unerring.”

Wild Bill Hickok was also a very handsome man. He had several female admirers, and he’s said to have been a bit of a playboy. The dead man’s hand has also become quite a popular part of American pop culture – and throughout the last 150 years, many pulp novels, magazines, TV shows, and songs have included references to the famous poker table that Wild Bill played at, as well as the dead man’s hand.

For example, Avon Periodicals used to publish Hickok-themed comic books during the 1950s. These comics followed the life of Wild Bill, turning him into somewhat of a mythical character.

In Hollywood, Wild Bill has been played by some of the most well-known actors of the era. This includes Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, Gary Cooper, Ray Rogers, and Robert Culp.

One of the most recent portrayals of Wild Bill – and the dead man’s hand – was broadcast on HBO’s top-rated Deadwood TV series. The show won several awards and ran between 2004 and 2006. It tells the story of an Old West settlement as it turned from being a mining camp to a small town.

The show is set in the 1870s, and many critics praised it because it reportedly showed the Old West in a very realistic light. Wild Bill’s murder at the poker table – while holding black eights and black aces – was a core part of the show’s story. In May 2019, HBO even released a film called Deadwood. This was designed to tie up some loose ends from the series, and it achieved moderate levels of success on the big screen.

How Should You Play the Dead Man’s Hand?

The dead man’s hand in Texas Hold’em – a two-pair composed of eights and a pair of black aces – isn’t hugely strong. The best way to play it depends mainly on the other players at the table and the type of game you are playing. For example, if you are in a late position at the table, you may choose to make a call or even put in a raise if there aren’t any callers in front of you so far. Some players, however, will instantly throw their hand into the muck. The likelihood of this increases if the players behind them sit on large chip stacks.

Most professional poker players believe you should throw the dead man’s hand if facing races in front of you. You see, playing the dead man’s hand after the flop can prove to be quite tricky. For example, if the board misses completely, your only real option is to bluff your opponents off their hands.

The other major problem is that even if an Ace hits on the flop, there is a perfect chance another player holding an ace will be able to out-kicker you. This makes it a tricky hand to play, and most players only ever play the hand when they know they’re going to try and bluff the other players at the table of the hand.

However, when playing in tournaments – especially in the late stages – the value of the hand increases exponentially. For example, if you play at a short-handed table, A-8 can become a mighty hand. This is especially true when you are playing against a short-stack player.

The Summary of the Dead Man’s Hand: More Than Wild West Folklore?

The dead man’s hand is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and iconic hands in poker. It dates back to when poker was still played in smokey, whiskey-filled poker rooms in saloons.

Interestingly, Hickok was inducted posthumously into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979 – the year that it was first created. To this day, he remains an icon of American history!


What is the dead man’s hand?

The dead man’s hand is two pairs; black aces and black eights. This is said to be the hand that Wild Bill was killed with during a poker game back in 1876. Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head before he had a chance to see his fifth card – or so the legend says.

Why is the dead man’s hand so famous?

Poker, as we know it today, was derived from the days of the Old Wild West. As a result, much of the poker terminology today dates back to these times – and, of course, any legend of superstition that formed back then has also made its way into modern-day poker.

The reason why the dead man’s hand is so popular – whether it’s a poker player at the table or a dead man’s hand tattoo you see on a famous hand while playing poker – the hand of aces and eights has become synonymous with poker. The American West, back in the era when Wild Bill was killed instantly, has made its way into everything from board games to songs by Bob Dylan. Of course, this was all before the state was formed; back then, it was simply known as Dakota territory.

Is there any proof that Hickok held the dead man’s hand?

Unfortunately, eyewitness accounts are the only proof we have that Wild Bill held aces and eights while playing in Mann’s saloon. However, quite a few people in the saloon agreed that he held aces and eights, so even though Hickok’s death hindered official accounts, many eyewitnesses agree that’s the hand he held.

Why did McCall shoot Wild Bill at point-blank range?

Interestingly, nobody knows why McCall has Hickok’s blood on his hands. His crack shot ended up killing Wild Bill while holding aces and eights, but nobody knows why. There are, however, many theories.

One of these theories is that Wild Bill told McCall to stop playing poker until he would repay his outstanding debts. There is a chance that McCall took badly to this advice. Another theory is that McCall owed Wild Bill money, which is why he shot him while playing cards.

Are aces and eights a good hand?

Generally speaking, a two-pair of aces and eights is a relatively weak hand. Aces and eights in a cash game is a feeble hand. This is because there are very few situations where you can gain significant advantages over players. The only time this is a strong hand is during the latter stages of a poker tournament.

What type of poker did they play back then?

When the dead man’s hand was cemented into history, they were playing five-card stud poker. Contrary to popular belief, they were not playing Texas Hold’em.

Do I win prizes if I have the dead man’s hand at poker games today?

At some land-based casinos, you do win prizes, yes. However, this generally only happens when you win with the hand – and it also needs to make it to a showdown, usually.

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