The history of the dead man’s hand


Here’s an interesting story about the famous Dead Man’s Hand poker hand. In the native language of the story, the name is “Dead man’s hand”.

The story begins in the far wild west, on the second of August 1867 in South Dakota in the small town of Deadwood. At that time the game was played according to the rules of Draw Poker with five cards. Imagine a saloon from a western, in one of these establishments, William Hickok was a regular customer – a big poker fan and an excellent shooter, he wore a wide-brimmed hat, long hair and a luxurious mustache.

This colorful guy also had his own sign – he never sat down at the poker table with his back to the entrance because he was afraid that he might be attacked from behind and he would not be ready to repel the attack.

One day, arriving at the gambling establishment, Mr Hickock found his seat occupied and made the fateful decision to sit at the poker table with his back to the front door.

The sign worked, after a few hours of playing, Jack McCall, now known to many, appeared in the doorway. He fired two shots into the back of our character’s head with a forty-five calibre revolver. The most interesting thing is that the reason for this wild murder in the Wild West remained unknown, although, as you understand, it has already acquired all sorts of versions and conjectures.

William Hickok’s life is over, and the story of the Dead Man’s Hand combo has begun. So the deceased was holding the following five cards – the ace of clubs, the ace of spades, the eight of clubs, the eight of spades and … there is no exact information about the kicker (fifth card), but most historians and biographers are inclined to believe that it was a jack of diamonds.

And since then, after the unfinished game of William, or how else they pronounce this name – Bill, the combination of their eights and aces of black suit has its historical name “Dead man’s hand” in literal translation into Russian – the hand of a dead man.

Even the cinema did not stay away from such a legend, and in many Western-style films, such a set of cards appears as a very bad sign or a sign of imminent death.

A few years after the murder in a Deadwood saloon, another very similar attack was committed – at the time of the draw, another poker lover was killed with a firearm. So the second version of the “Dead Man’s Hand” appeared – a Full House of two tens and three jacks. But it did not become as popular as its predecessor.

Note that in modern Texas Hold’em, according to the rules of which the player is given only two pocket cards – the starting hand, the dead man’s hand is called the starting hand containing an ace and an eight, and sometimes it is strengthened to those same two pairs from Bill’s hand.

But do not confuse the “Dead Man’s Hand” combination with the “Dead Hand” – in English, “Dead Hand” is a set of cards that does not leave the participant a chance to win, for example, in Texas Hold’em – this is a common four of a kind nines on the board with a deuce kicker and pocket deuces. After all, for sure someone at the table will have a kicker over a deuce.

But you should not take the black eights and aces that fell out to you as bad cards. The name of the combination does not spoil reputation in any way. Those who play Texas Holdem know that two pair aces and eights is a very good option for a successful game, and in Omaha poker it goes all-in without even waiting for the flop.

Well, we found out what kind of story is hidden behind the intriguing name of the poker combination “Dead Man’s Hand”, we don’t think that if same Bill had finished playing that game and sitting with his back to the wall would not have died at the hands of a crazy cowboy, then hardly anyone knew today of its existence.

Other versions

There are other ideas about the appearance of the term. Popular versions:

  • Full house – a triple of jacks and a pair of tens: in the Wild West there was a similar case that occurred in a saloon. This legend has not gained such popularity as the death of Bill Hickok.
  • Set of Fours: In 1858, Englishman Robert Fallon went to San Francisco. He visited Bella Union to play poker. As a result of one of the distributions, he took the pot in the amount of $600. Opponents accused Robert of cheating and shot him.
  • Nine of Diamonds: In England, another Dead Man’s Hand combination. The term is used when, during the first hand, one of the participants receives a nine of diamonds. The suit visually resembles the family crest of William III. His secretary, John Dalrymple, carried out the Glencoe massacre in 1962. The massacre resulted in the complete extermination of the powerful Macdonald clan.

Which cards make up the combination?

In the nineteenth century, poker players played 5-card draw. When Bill was shot, he had 2 pairs – aces and eights. Kicker remained unknown. The combination consisted only of black suits – clubs and spades.
All versions contain only one common detail – Wild Bill had a kicker of diamonds.

How to play it right

In Texas Hold’em, the term “Dead Man’s Hand” is used to refer to negative cards. This has nothing to do with the legends of Bill’s murder. The point is that it is very difficult to win with such starters.
High rollers have the courage to make big bets in tournaments even with a weak hand. Theory is different from practice. You can also win with trash if you play such cards correctly. It is necessary to evaluate the profitability of the hand, choosing suitable situations for entering the bidding.

Useful tips for drawing negative cards:

  • Aggressively enter the bidding from a blind position.
  • Exploit the passivity of opponents.
  • Avoid playing a multi-bet.
  • Correctly assess the opponent’s range.
  • Aggression works against tight opponents.

At long cash tables it is better to immediately fold the negative hand.

How many Dead Man’s Hands are in the game and what are differences

There are many legends. The term is used to refer to the hands of poker players killed during the hands. All such stories took place in the 19th century.
The only similarity of all the legends is the association of the combo kicker with the diamond suit.

Beginner’s mistakes


Beginners confuse the story of William Hickok’s hand with the term “dead hand” used in live poker. It denotes a violation of the opening rules by one of the participants. You can’t hide cards under the tables. At showdown, both pockets must be shown at the same time. It is not allowed to open them one by one.
Beginner players often confuse terms, do not know the seniority of combinations, do not analyse the composition of the board, and ignore the importance of the kicker. Beginners tend to have a loose style of play. They enter the bidding without considering their real hand strength and their opponent’s range.


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Kristaps is an expert in the field of online casinos. Since the age of 20, he has been interested in casino games; poker and blackjack are his favorites. Thanks to his studies and work experience, he has found himself a gambling critic and analyst. He likes to share his own authentic experience with the audience, so his articles are very informative. Kristaps' lifelong dream is to participate in a poker tournament in Las Vegas.



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