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What is the Dead Man’s Hand?

  • The dean man's hand belonged to Wild Bill Hickok
  • Don't buy breakfast for a loser
  • It's used in popular culture
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So what is the Dead Man’s Hand? Well, it’s probably the most famous hand in a game of cards. The name certainly has a colorful story behind it. And yes, sorry to say, it does feature a dead man!

Introduction: What is the Dead Man’s Hand?

It’s a tale from the myths and legends of the American Old West. Or the Wild West if you prefer. Wild Bill Hickok is a folk hero of those times and the hand of cards was actually his.

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Wild Bill Hickok

Born on May 27th 1837, as James Butler Hickok, he earned the nickname “Wild Bill” as he worked his way across the great American frontier. In his time he had many “professions”, including, drover, soldier, Indian scout, wagon master, a gambler, actor and showman. (Today you’d certainly find him in the Vegas Crest Casino). He fought for the Union Army in the Civil War and later became a Lawman and Marshall in Kansas and Nebraska. He was prone to exaggeration and often fabricated tales of daring-do to boost his reputation. And with them, his fame certainly grew. During his life he certainly was involved in a number of shootouts, though the number of men he claimed to of killed was vastly over-stated.

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Lawman and gambler James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

Last Gamble

In 1876, while playing cards in the Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon, in Deadwood, in today’s South Dekota, Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the head, dying instantly. His killer was a local drunkard, Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall, who had lost badly the previous day. On that occasion, after McCall had lost all his monies, Wild Bill had offered to buy him breakfast. He advised him not to play again until he could afford to cover his losses. Unfortunately, McCall was insulted. Today he would of been better off playing with this online list of gambling sites in the US. When he entered the salon the next day, he became enraged at seeing Hickok playing poker. Now Hickok normally sat with his back to the wall as he was paranoid about being killed. But on that fateful day, the opposite player had declined to swap seats.

What is the Dead Man’s Hand? : The Cards

Coming up behind the lawman, McCall drew his Colt .45 revolver. With a shout of “Damn you! Take that!” he fired one shot into the back of Hickok’s head. According to the old tales, Wild Bill Hickok toppled forwards from his seat without letting go of his cards. He was playing five-card stud, so four of his cards were on show. A man called Neil Christy picked up the cards from the floor, and claimed they were the aces and eights of black. The fifth card remains a mystery, with some people saying it was the Queen of Hearts, while others think it was be the Jack of Diamonds. The hand of cards Wild Bill was holding at the time of his death, became known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”.

Two Aces and Two Eights

Today it can be any two pairs, aces and eights. Have a look at these online gambling sites in the US to find your dead man’s hand. In another story it’s said the cards were retrieved from the saloon floor, by a man who then passed the cards onto his son. It’s the son who passed on the nature of the hand to a writer. A bit long winded, but hey, that’s how myths and tales come about.

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The Dead Man’s Hand

Truth vs Legend

The real point of interest here is whether the Dead Man’s Hand can be reasonably linked to the death of Wild Bill Hickok. It should be pointed out the the association between aces and eights, probably started more than four decades before the Deadwood incident. Many claims were based on interviews with local residents. But Hickok’s most famous biographer, Joseph Rosa says that there was no clear evidence to connect the two. It transpires that the term “Dead Man’s Hand” had been around long before Hickok met his timely demise. In a newspaper article from 1886, the term was applied to a totally different story. This involved a judge who dropped dead at the sight of his opponents winning hand. This “Dead Man’s Hand” happened to be, three Queens and two tens. In 1926, Wild Bill’s biography was published and from then, his hand of cards grew in fame.

The Dead Man’s Hand In Popular Culture

This hand of cards had many many appearances in popular culture. For example, in the movie “Along Came a Spider” (2001), aces and eights are the winning hand. The title character is playing poker with Agent Scully and is holding a full house of aces and eights in The X-Files episode entitled “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a movie by the Coen Brothers, features the hand in its first vignette. The Bob Dylan song “Rambling, Gambling Willie”, The Ha Ha Tonka song “Dead Man’s Hand”, the Bring Me the Horizon song “Alligator Blood”, the Motörhead song “Ace of Spades” and the Uncle Kracker song “Aces and Eights” and  all refer to the famous  poker hand. See if you can get a dead man’s hand at the Vegas Crest Casino.

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