Dealing A Dead Draw – The Story Behind The Dead Man’s Hand

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Dealing a Dead Draw – The story behind the dead man’s hand

“Horror” is a relative term. Different things can become scary to different kinds of people; and for poker players, the term could be akin to getting a great hand while on the great televised stage of a World Series of Poker tournament, only to be trumped out of left field by an opponent who bagged that 1:2,500,000 chance of getting a royal flush. While scenarios like this are few and far between, there are such horror stories that get reported from time to time, mainly because they were lived through by some very recognizable people. There’s NBA living legend Charles Barkley, for instance. A Betfair article reports that the Round Mound of Rebound lost a total of $10 million in gambling, including one session that cost him 2.5 million. That’s a scary thing to happen to anyone right there.

These kinds of stories aside though, this isn’t to say that the game of poker is without a genuine horror-tinged myth to its name. Many players (and even those who just have a penchant for unusual trivia) know about the legend of the Dead Man’s Hand; but for those not in the know, the legend traces its roots back to the days of the Wild West.

On August 1, 1876, lawman, gunfighter, and folk hero James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon playing a few rounds of poker. As the players at his table dropped out of the game one by one (Hickok included), others quickly took the vacant places. One of these was buffalo hunter John “Crooked Nose Jack” McCall, who quickly found himself at the mercy of more experienced card sharks, and was soon broke. Hickok then offered McCall some money to buy some breakfast, and advised him to stay away from the game for the time being; at least until he could get himself back up on his feet again. McCall reportedly took the money, but nevertheless still felt rather insulted.

The next day, Hickok was at the saloon again playing poker; only this time, he wasn’t able to see his game through. McCall entered carrying a .45 caliber and promptly shot the lawman at the back of the head.
And the last hand that Hickok was holding? A two-pair of eights and aces: the so-called dead man’s hand.

This legend has permeated poker culture deeply enough that people will always refer to the hand as “the dead man’s” everytime it comes up in games. This doesn’t mean that the hand is bound to fail the player, though. If anything, a two-pair that carries aces has more than a 50% chance of winning any given round. Still, the hand does bring with it that giddy feeling of brushing with Death; a feeling not entirely unfamiliar to players constantly putting high stakes on the line.

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