The Legend Of The Dead Man’s Hand In Poker

September 14, 2021

By Deepti Govind

You don’t need to be a poker player to have come across the phrase “Dead Man’s Hand.” References to it are scattered across popular culture says Casino.org. From books, like James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider; to movies and TV shows, as in one episode of Criminal Minds; to video games, as in an expansion to Fallout: Las Vegas; as a theme for some escape rooms; and, of course, in music. It’s such a popular phrase, with a fascinating tale behind it, that as a special homage, the folks at Vanishing Inc. Magic produced a limited edition Dead Man’s Deck targeted at collectors.

What lies behind this legend that has crossed over from the world of saloons into cinema halls, books, and music? Crucial to the telling of this is the tale of “Wild Bill” Hickok. It was his unfortunate and tragic death that led to this macabre legend, which, in turn, ended up securing an important spot in the annals of pop culture. In this piece, Biometrica’s third on the beloved all-American game, we take you back in history to understand the legend of Dead Man’s Hand.

The Origins Of The Dead Man’s Hand

Our story begins in the 1830s, when James Butler Hickok was born to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler Hickok. He’s said to have had four brothers and two sisters. His parents allegedly operated a station on the Underground Railroad, and helped smuggle slaves out of the South.

It was during the period his parents were helping people escape slavery that young Hickok first got a taste of hostile gunfire. His father is said to have been killed because of his stand on abolition when Hickok was only 14 years of age in 1852. He went to work three years later, at the age of 17, and would eventually be described using several terms, including a wagon master, soldier, scout, lawman, gunfighter, gambler, showman, and actor. In the 1850s, stagecoaches were often subject to the threats of bandits along the trail, and Hickok allegedly quickly put his excellent marksmanship to work.

Legend has it that Hickok grew tough enough to even fend off a bear attack, and actually killed the animal in his fight to escape. However, an account by former Broome County historian Gerald Smith, author of the book Sweeping Across America, simply states that Hickok was mauled by a mother bear that he had tried to shoot.

In the 1860s, he signed on with the army as a station master and scout. That’s where he is said to have taken on, or received, the nickname “Wild.” He had used the name William Haycock during some of his Civil War service, but settled his final name in the early 1860s, per the excerpt from Smith’s book.

Hickok is said to have been involved in a few skirmishes with others, including some due to gambling-related rivalries. He gradually began to spend more time at the gambling tables than performing other duties, including that of a sheriff at one point. An account by a young man who described Hickok’s gambling habit compared Wild Bill’s bearing to that of a “hunted tiger.” The account went on, forebodingly, to say Wild Bill would always sit in the corner of the room “to prevent an enemy from stealing up behind him.”

In early 1876, Hickok was diagnosed with glaucoma and ophthalmia. It affected his vision, and his health had been in decline, says Smith. It was later on in the same year, in early August, per Smith, that the fateful event occurred. Wild Bill was in Deadwood in Dakota Territory and is said to have entered Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon, where he sat down to play poker. A heavily inebriated man called Jack McCall also sat down to play and, as is perhaps logical, lost heavily. Wild Bill is said to have generously given McCall back enough money to buy something to eat, and advised him not to play again until he could cover his losses.

The next day, Hickok was again playing poker. Only this time, his preferred seat was taken before he reached the saloon. Some accounts say he reluctantly joined the game. Nevertheless, he’s said to have seated himself with his back to the door and the bar. Smith says he even tried to switch seats twice during the course of play. Sitting with his back exposed proved to be a fatal mistake in the story of Hickok. McCall, who was allegedly drinking heavily again at the bar in the same saloon, walked over to where Hickok was playing.

McCall is said to have pulled a double-action .45 pistol from under his coat, shouted “Damn you! Take that!” and pulled the trigger, shooting Hickok in the back of the head and killing him instantly. At that precise moment, Hickok is said to have been holding a two pair that has now come to be known as Dead Man’s Hand.

The Unlucky Hand

According to the earlier references of Dead Man’s Hand, in the late 1880s, it was described as a full house of three jacks and a pair of tens. But in 1903, the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World referred to it as a very unlucky hand of jacks and sevens. “In a poker game, it is very unlucky to hold them and win the pot,” the digitally archived version of the Encyclopedia says. But under other poker superstitions, it also adds that “when playing poker, should you hold a jack full on red sevens, it means death, and is called ‘a dead man’s hand.'”
Just a few years after that encyclopedia entry though, 17th century British author Edmond Hoyle, who wrote rule books for games to settle disputes, referenced it as jacks and eights. It was only in the 1920s that the definition changed to the two pair of black aces and black eights that it’s come to be associated with today. The cementing of that description, too, was largely thanks to a biography titled Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers, says the Casino.org article.

Regardless of whether or not today’s definition is historically accurate, it’s the one that people imply these days when they are talking about Dead Man’s Hand in a game of poker. However, it’s not all that terrible a hand in poker, nor is it a high valued hand. It’s just a hand that has a lot of psychological and historical value, so it can be intriguing to be dealt a Dead Man’s Hand in a game. Whether it proves unlucky or not — well that, we suppose, has got to do with the individual player’s skill and luck.

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