The “dead man’s hand” is poker slang for a two pair of black aces and black eights. It’s thought to be unlucky because it was supposedly the hand that “Wild Bill” Hickok, the hero gunslinger of the Wild West, was holding when he was killed in a Deadwood saloon.

Dead man's hand in poker

The Story of “Wild Bill” Hickok

We’ve all heard of “Wild Bill”. As a notorious soldier, sheriff, outlaw and gunslinger, the accounts you’ll find of his life are numerous, and everything has contributed towards him becoming one of the icons of the American West.

Old “Wild Bill” liked to gamble, and he particularly enjoyed a game of poker. Unfortunately for him, the game was to prove his downfall.

His demise came while playing against Jack McCall in a saloon in Deadwood. McCall allegedly took offense to remarks made by Hickok and shot him in the back of the head from point blank range. Hickok had spent years dodging bullets, but this was one he was unable to avoid.

When he was shot, Hickok was in the middle of a hand, and he allegedly held a two pair of black aces and black eights. The final card is unknown.

However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the association between the hand and “Wild Bill” was floated.

Nowadays the slang term of dead man’s hand is used in casinos throughout the world and is forever associated with “Wild Bill”.

If you want to learn more about the Wild West folk hero, check out the below video on the life of Wild Bill Hickok:

The Value of a Dead Man’s Hand

While the hand holds much mystique for poker players, the reality is that it’s not an overly impressive one.

The two pair might be enough to win some games, but it’s easily beatable, with losses often particularly large when an opponent hits a higher second pair or kicker.

If you’re going to play this hand, be sure to do so with caution – not because it’s considered unlucky by many, but simply because it’s the kind of hand that can do significant damage to your bankroll if not handled well.

As another Western hero once said: You’ve gotta know when to fold ‘em…

Aces and Eights in Popular Culture

Since dead man’s hand has entered into the common vernacular of poker players, it’s been used widely in Western culture.

The hand has been referenced in a huge number of movies, including the classic John Wayne flick Stagecoach, and the critically acclaimed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which McMurphy is said to have a Dead Man’s Hand tattoo.

It’s also been used on TV, including as the title of an episode of Batman Beyond, first aired in 1999.

Various musicians have incorporated the famous hand into their titles and lyrics, although it’s often only poker players who understand the reference.

Lemmy blasts out the phrase in Motorhead’s classic Ace of Spades, while it’s also been used by acts as varied as Bob Dylan and Uncle Kracker.

Video games have been sure to get in on the action too. A couple of the more famous games making use of the dead man’s hand include Need for Speed: Carbon and Hearthstone.

The hand has also found its way into another area of casinos, as Aces & Eights is the name of one of the most successful variations of video poker. In this game, specific hands featuring aces or eights are given a boosted payout.

Overall, it’s clear to see that the legend of the dead man’s hand is now ingrained into common culture, but despite the songs, movies and more, it will always be most famous for the fateful night in 1876, when it was the last hand “Wild Bill” ever saw…