poker's dead man's hand

Poker’s dead man’s hand is legendary. It’s effects stretch far beyond just the felt. It pops up in the most unlikely places, from police insignia to songs.

Even if you’ve never played a hand of poker in your life, we’re guessing you’ve heard about the dead man’s hand. And even if you haven’t, this tale is going to fascinate you. And maybe freak you out just a little.

It’s got a long history, stretching back long before Las Vegas as we know it existed and even before Texas Hold’em was first played.

This story begins with the death of a legend. But before we tell you more about that, we’re going to tell you about the man himself: Wild Bill Hickok.

The life of Wild Bill Hickok

Born to as a farmer’s son in northern Illinois, James Butler Hickok came into this world on 27 May 1837. His father died when he was a teen. Around the same time, he started causing trouble.

When he was 18 he got into a fight, mistakenly convinced himself he’d killed his opponent and fled in order to dodge the murder charges he believed were going to be leveled against him.

Always on the hunt for opportunity, HIckok lived an extremely colourful life. Among his achievements were becoming elected as a constable and later sheriff in Kansas, serving as part of the Union Army in the Civil War and performing as an actor in Buffalo Bill Cody’s troop.

But his life was dangerous too. He was bedridden for four months after a bear attack, he was charged (and later acquitted) of murder and later killed a man over a gambling debt in the first ever quick draw duel.

Reports of his love life are patchy, but its said that Calamity Jane was briefly married to Hickok before he met Agnes Thatcher Lake, a circus owner who was his wife at the time of his death.

Poker’s dead man’s hand and the death of Wild Bill Hickok

With a life like that, it’s not hard to believe that Hickok came to a gruesome end. And as you might’ve guessed, his life ended around a poker table.

Hickok was playing poker in a saloon in Dakota in 1876 when a drunk man took a seat at the table. As we all know, playing drunk is never a good idea and Jack McCall proceeded to lose a big chunk of change to WIld Bill.

Eventually, Hickok told the man to quit for the day and sober up, giving him some cash for a meal. McCall did leave, but he was absolutely fuming.

When McCall returned the next day, he shot Hickok point blank in the back of the head, shouting, “Damn you! Take that!”.

Hickok was holding an ace and eight of spades, an ace and eight of clubs and an unknown fifth card when he died. This became known as the dead man’s hand.

Surprising places we see the dead man’s hand today

Of course, if you play poker online at somewhere like bet365 (bet365 bonus code here for new players), you might come across this spooky hand.

But in the wider world, the poker dead man’s hand has a surprising habit of popping up. Here are just a few places you can find it:

  • Song: Bob Dylan’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Williée
  • Song: Motorhead’s Ace of Spades
  • Book: Ken Kasey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Comic: Batman Beyond
  • Board game: Doomtown
  • Police insignia: Las Vegas Metropolitan Homicide Division
  • Police insignia: Los Angeles CRASH Squad

Fancy some more intriguing tales about poker? Check out these poker films and poker books