All You Need to Know About the Dead Man’s Hand

Like many hands in poker, the Dead Man’s Hand has a backstory of its own that’s worth learning about. With ties to the Old West, the Dead Man’s Hand has a rightful place both in poker history and Deadwood lore. We’ll explain exactly what is a Dead Man’s Hand and how the hand got its name.

What is a Dead Man’s Hand?

The Dead Man’s Hand in poker usually refers to two pair with two black aces and two black eights. We will get to the aces and eights meaning in the next section.

It’s worth mentioning that there are actually a few different hands throughout history that have been given the Dead Man’s Hand moniker.

aces & eights - the dead man's hand
Image: Semmick Photo

While aces and eights dates back to 1876, the hand itself wasn’t publicized and brought into the spotlight until 1926.

Prior to becoming a regular part of poker lingo, the 1903 version of the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World claims that “Jacks and sevens are called the ‘Dead Man’s Hand.’ In a poker game, it is very unlucky to hold them and win the pot.”

The 1907 version of Hoyle’s Games states that the Dead Man’s Hand is jacks and eights.

How the Dead Man’s Hand Got its Name

The Dead Man’s Hand, in its most popular form, dates back to the death of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok in 1876.

Wild Bill Hickok
Image: Deadwood Society

Hickok was a bit of a Swiss Army knife back in the days of the Wild West, known for being a soldier, scout, lawman, cattle rustler, gunslinger, gambler, showman, and actor, and duking it out with some of the most fearsome criminals of his era.

However, Hickok’s luck would come to an end at the age of 39 in Deadwood, present-day South Dakota.

As described in the 1926 biography Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers, he was killed by a local drunk and poor gambler, Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall.

As legend has it, after McCall lost everything he had at a poker table with Wild Bill, losing most of his money to Wild Bill himself, Hickok was gratuitous enough to offer McCall breakfast and told him not to play again until he could pay back the money he owed.

Instead of appreciating the gesture, McCall took great offense and came back stumbling drunk to the same saloon to see Hickok playing cards once again.

Normally, Wild Bill would always be sitting in the corner due to his paranoid fear of being killed but had his back turned to the door on this fateful day because another player refused to swap seats with him.

McCall snuck up behind him and, with his Colt .45 revolver, shot him in the back of the head after allegedly yelling, “Damn you! Take that!”

It’s widely claimed that Hickok was holding two black aces and two black eights at the time he was murdered. The fifth card of The Dead Man’s Hand is unknown, though it is often depicted in art form as a red card, most often as the jack of diamonds.

This is done presumably to offset the rest of the hand and possibly because the jack is directly between the ace and the eight, and the diamond is the next suit following spades and clubs.

Is the Dead Man’s Hand a Good Poker Hand?

If you have two pair, aces and eights, it’s generally going to be a pretty solid hand in Texas Hold’em, especially if the board is unpaired and there are no straight or flush possibilities.

To make the Dead Man’s Hand on an unpaired board, you’re going to have to start with A8 offsuit or A8 suited.

In a hypothetical example where you’re playing 30 big blinds, you can open-raise A8 suited from any position, while you’ll probably want to wait until the hijack or the cutoff to open A8 offsuit.

Regardless, if you make the Dead Man’s Hand off a 30 big blind stack, you’re going to win far more often than not.

Dead Man’s Hand in Popular Culture

There have been several references to the Dead Man’s Hand, mainly in art, film, and music. Many poker players have even had the Dead Man’s Hand tattooed on them.

In fact, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, author Ken Kesey states the protagonist Randle McMurphy had the Dead Man’s Hand tattooed on his shoulder.

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Image: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In music, there are several references to Wild Bill’s fateful hand. Here is a short list:

  • Dead Man’s Hand – Ha Ha Tonka.
  • Ace Of Spades – Motörhead.
  • Rambling, Gambling Willie – Bob Dylan.
  • Aces & Eights – Uncle Kracker.
  • Alligator Blood – Bring Me the Horizon.
  • I Am The Storm – Blue Oyster Cult.
  • Aces & Eights – Michael McDermott.
  • Dead Man’s Hand – Moonshine Bandits.

Many TV shows have had their fun using the Dead Man’s Hand as a solid reference.

In one of my personal favorite shows, The X-Files, Clyde Bruckman is playing poker with Agent Scully and is holding a full house aces over eights with the ace of hearts curiously being his fifth card. As the episode was titled “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, it’s little surprise that the character ends up dead.

Further references have been made in the hit shows Criminal Minds, Deadwood (shown below), Midsomer Murders, and Seal Team.

Several movies, especially old John Wayne films, made great use of the reference. Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Daredevil (2015) are just a few of the movies that make use of aces and eights.

There was even a 2023 movie named Dead Man’s Hand that stars Stephen Dorff, Jack Kilmer, and Cole Hauser, though online reviews seem extremely negative.

In video game culture, Fallout: New Vegas, Hearthstone, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Wing Commander IV and Need for Speed: Carbon have all made use of the Dead Man’s Hand.

There’s even an expandable card game called Doomtown where the highest possible hand is aces and eights with a jack of diamonds kicker.

Blaise Bourgeois
Poker and Gambling Expert

Blaise is an Expert Gambling Writer and a professional poker player in Brazil. He has played and traveled throughout Latin America for the last four-and-a-half years and recently won his first WSOP Circuit ring! He received his Master's in Sport Management and Sports Analytics from St. John's University. Blaise also holds a Mathematics and Computer Science degree from SUNY Purchase, where he still holds the school's Men's Soccer record for goals in a season. Blaise has worked for Catena Media, OddsSeeker, WSOP, PokerNews, and Poker.Org in various capacities. He has a passion for extensive research and aims to provide accurate…