In poker, the dead man’s hand is a two-pair hand, namely “aces and eights.” The origin of the name is the five-card-draw hand held by Wild Bill Hickok at the time of his murder, which is accepted to have included the aces and eights of both of the black suits (sometimes considered “bullets”).
There are various claims as to the identity of Hickok’s fifth card, and there is also some reason to believe that he had discarded one card, the draw was interrupted by the shooting, and he never got the fifth card due to him.
The Stardust in Las Vegas had a 5 of diamonds on display as the 5th card; in the HBO television series Deadwood, a 9 of diamonds is used; the modern town of Deadwood, South Dakota also uses the 9 of diamonds in displays; and Ripley’s Believe it or Not shows a queen of clubs.
The hand in popular culture
This ominous hand is sometimes used as a portent of death in songs, books and in movies that include
Stagecoach (where a doomed character held the ace of diamonds in place of one black ace, and the queen of hearts as fifth card)
The Plainsman (where Gary Cooper as Hickok held the king of spades as the fifth card)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (in Ken Kesey’s novel McMurphy has a dead man’s hands tattoo)
The collectible card game Doomtown defines a Dead Man’s Hand as having the Jack of Diamonds as the fifth card. In this game, it is considered to outrank any other poker hand, unless an opponent plays the card “That’s Two Pair!” to reduce its rank.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and
Along Came a Spider
A Party Poker ad shows a man playing poker against an opponent holding a dead man’s hand with a Five of Diamonds as the fifth card. The camera then pans out to show that the setting is a morgue and the player holding the dead man’s hand is a corpse
Dead Man’s Hand is the name of a first-person shooter for the XBox set in the Old West, which features train trips and shoot-outs on horseback.
Dead Man’s Hand Popular Rockabilly band which originated in Jacksonville, FL and later relocated to Los Angeles known for their blues-rich sound and driving rhythm. Their 1999 full length album, Days You Loved Me, won much acclaim amongst critics and roots music enthusiasts alike.
Bob Dylan’s 1962 song “Rambling Gambling Willie” shows the tradition in these lines:
- It was late one evenin’ during a poker game.
- A man lost all his money; he said Willie was to blame.
- He shot poor Willie through the head, which was a tragic fate.
- When Willie’s cards fell on the floor, they were aces backed with eights.
And, in the next verse:
- So all you rovin’ gamblers, wherever you might be,
- The moral of this story is very plain to see.
- Make your money while you can, before you have to stop,
- For when you pull that dead man’s hand, your gamblin’ days are up.
Bob Seger’s 1980 song “Fire Lake” make reference to the legend in these lines:
- Who wants to play those eights and aces
- Who wants a raise
- Who needs a stake
- Who wants to take that long shot gamble
- And head out to fire lake
Motörhead mentions the hand in their 1980 song Ace of Spades in the final verse:
- Pushing up the ante, I know you’ve got to see me,
- Read ’em and weep, the Dead Man’s Hand again,
- I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
- The only thing you see, you know it’s gonna be,
- The Ace Of Spades
Uncle Kracker has based an entire song on the hand, entitled Aces and Eights, where in the refrain, he repeats the lines:
- Aces and eights, aces and eights, aces and eights
- That’s a dead man’s hand
In Nelson DeMille’s novel The Charm School, the school in question is a Soviet prison camp for American military personnel missing in action forced to serve as role models for future spies, who live with them in a complete simulation of American everyday culture. The prisoners have secretly agreed among themselves on false customs they will teach in order to sabotage their students’ future missions, and DeMille reveals this fact to the reader by describing a poker game where a two-pair hand has just been declared, and a prisoner misleads a student by inappropriately describing it as the dead man’s hand.
Adapting to 7-card games
In five-card games, this category of hands can be succinctly defined as two aces, two eights, and one card of any remaining rank, regardless of suit. In seven-card games, a strict specification of aces and eights is more complicated: in permitting the existence of two pairs, a five-card hand as described also rules out any higher value. Among seven-card hands, as a contrasting example, any with two aces, two eights, and three cards with one other rank in common always provides both two pair and a full house, so a competent player would always set aside the eights and declare the full house; most players would probably thus not consider it a dead man’s hand, any more than they would so consider a full house with aces and eights.
Video: Dead Mans Hand