The Dead Man’s Hand: What it Symbolizes and What it Really Means

There are plenty of different terms and names to learn when it comes to poker. Each version of the game has its own phrases and different features that you need to be familiar with if you want to play. Winning card combinations known as pairs, two pairs, straights, flushes and so on, are just the beginning. 

Slang terms or nicknames for poker hands are incredibly popular with frequent players. It is part of the poker world, and it’s fun. Four kings are known as the four horsemen, any club flush is a golf bag, and a king and queen are called a marriage. It’s easy to see where these names come from, and you might see them from time to time in poker chat online.

One hand that has a bit more mystery to its name is the dead man’s hand in poker. Here we’ll explain where the term comes from, what it means, and how it is used. 

Dead Man’s Hand Poker History

The dead man’s hand dates back to the 1800s, and a gunslinger whose reputation still persists to this day. The story dates back to a poker game being played at the Number Ten Saloon in South Dakota.

Dead Man’s Hand Warrior

At the center of the story is Wild Bill, also known as James Butler Hickok. He was playing in that famous poker game when, reportedly, someone came in and shot him dead. In his hand at the time were four specific cards that went on to become known as the dead man’s hand.

What we do know is that Wild Bill was shot on August 2nd, 1876 but the rest of the story has been passed down over the years making it hard to prove exactly what happened on that day. However, the legend of the dead man’s hand has been important in poker ever since. The hand consisted of the Ace of Spades the Ace of Clubs, the Eight of Spades and the Eight of Clubs. 

Superstition and Gameplay

Any hand with two aces and two eights can be referred to by poker players as a dead man’s hand. The original hand is said to have been held in a Five Card Stud game, so a true dead man’s hand consists of five cards, two black aces, and two black eights, and the kicker doesn’t matter. 

Since Wild Bill is believed to have died holding this hand, the dead man’s hand now has negative associations. Superstitious players or those new to the game may associate the dead man’s hand with bad omens, bad luck, or that you can’t win with a dead man’s hand. However, this isn’t the case; the dead man’s hand is quite good and can come out a winner.

Dead Man’s Hand in Popular Culture

The legend of the dead man’s hand is prominent in popular culture, you can see it show up in games tattoos and TV shows. Here are some examples of where you might see the dead man’s hand.

Dead Man’s Hand Tattoo

The dead man’s hand is a popular tattoo. It makes a stunning visual and has dark connotations, which is perhaps why it is often chosen for tattoos. Some tattoo parlors have even named themselves dead man’s hand. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest the main character R.P McMurphy is said to have a tattoo, ‘a poker hand fanned out across his muscles – aces & eights’ otherwise known as the dead man’s hand.

Dead Man’s Hand Hearthstone

The dead man’s hand has also been used in gaming. One particular game that uses the dead man’s hand is Hearthstone. The dead man’s hand is the name of a card used by the warrior in the game. It comes from the Knights of the Frozen Throne card pack which can be bought or crafted. The card is a spell that shuffles a copy of your hand into your deck. 

Although the card is of lower value, it has gained popularity as a dead man’s hand warrior strategy, building your deck around the dead man’s hand. Unlike in poker, in Hearthstone, the card gives you an unlimited deck, meaning you can play out your opponent by waiting for them to get deck fatigue. When they can no longer draw a new card, they take continuous amounts of damage as a result. 

Dead Man’s Hand on TV 

The dead man’s hand can also be seen on TV; it was built into the storyline of the TV show Deadwood, a fictional story built around the legendary Wild Bill Hickock.