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The Infamous ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ And Its History in The Poker Game

Before he became a lawman, Wild Bill Hickok was one of the most skilled poker players of his era

In order to understand the concept of the “Dead Man’s Hand” we have to take a look at how the game of Poker is intertwined with the legends of the wild west.

Back in the 1800s, the poker game was as uniquely American as stagecoaches, cattle drives, saloons and ye ole six-shooters (Colt .45 ‘Peacekeepers’).  In fact, the game that is currently known as “Poker” started in the ‘anything goes’ city of New Orleans. At the time of its invention, in the 1820s, the game was played with a deck of only 20 cards, and there were a total of four hands that consisted of five cards each.  In those rip-roaring days, the nation had high-strung pioneers who were willing to bet their all on a game. It was perhaps natural that professional gamblers, cardsharps and the lawmen who kept peace would be attracted to poker.

Poker and the Legend of Wild Bill Hickok

In a world full of charlatans and empty boasts, Wild Bill was the real Macoy. He was a completely “pistols at ten paces” kind of gun fighter. While the frontier was a characteristically lawless place, the town of Abilene was one of the most freewheeling. A had a reputation for running out of marshals who had a rather alarming tendency of getting killed on the job. The gambling dens and saloons were full of cheats and other men, who made a living through their skills with the cards… and the gun. In fact, there were many poker games where participants ended up in “Boot Hill” (a Western cemetery). In a high stakes game of poker, losing was not an option, especially when all of your money, and sometimes your life, was on the line.

Wild Bill took up residence in this town as a lawman. The position of town marshal had literally been the death of many who came before him. But then Wild Bill had killed an even wilder full-grown cinnamon bear in ‘hand to paw’ combat when he was barely in his teens.

Poker Debt Payed

He was also the undisputed inventor of the ‘lone gunmen squaring it off in the town square’ concept, which is one of the most iconic memories of the wild west. It happened over a poker game. Davis Tutt and his friends could not stand Bill winning hand after hand, and they started goading him over old Poker debts. He paid them, but Tutt still continued to humiliate him and even took his prized gold watch from him, even after he had paid up. Though Bill had a receipt that he owed Tutt only $25, Tutt insisted it was $35. Later on, the amount increased to $45 and Tutt took to parading around town with Bill’s watch hanging from his pocket.

Eventually Bill could not endure it anymore and he squared off against Tutt at 50 yards in the Springfield Missouri town Square. Tutt missed, Bill did not. Tutt announced, “I am killed” and collapsed in the square. Bill was able to square his Poker debt and made history.

Bill’s Gambling Career

Before he became a lawman, Bill was one of the most skilled poker players of his era. Indeed, his love for the game remained with him throughout his eventful life.  As a professional poker player, he was singularly adept at semi-bluffs and bluffs and knew how to counter bluff as well. However, his fellow poker players had always treated him with absolute respect. Even if he was on a poker winning spree and raking the poker pot, his fellow poker players never dared to accuse him of cheating.

The Dead Man’s Hand

Perhaps it was only fitting that he met his demise while playing the game he loved so much. It had always been his habit to sit with his back to the wall when playing a poker game so that he would be able to observe anyone approaching him.

His reckless courage had made him many enemies and he feared being ‘bushwhacked’ (shot from behind). This was not paranoia— just common sense. The one time he failed to take this precaution, it proved to be his undoing.

While playing a poker game at the mining town of Deadwood Dakota Territory, he met Jack McCall. Jack was no match for Bill’s superior poker skills. He lost heavily but refused to quit even after Bill repeatedly urged him to do so. Ultimately, Bill cleaned him out and even offered him money for some breakfast. McCall refused and staggered out of the saloon. The next day August 2, 1876, Bill was not able to find his customary place overlooking the door. He told the person sitting there to move, but to no avail.

For the first (and last) time in his life, he sat with his back to the door, during a game of poker. He was  holding 2 eights and 2 aces in his hand when it happened. Jack, feeling humiliated after losing, walked into the saloon yelled, “Take that… Damn you,” and shot Bill in the head from behind from point blank range. Bill died instantly, clutching the hand that became known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. To this day, no one knows what the last card held.  But 2 eights and 2 aces in a game of poker have become associated with the death of the Wild West’s most well-known character, “Wild Bill Hickok.”


If you like to play poker online, you can easily sign up for a Suicide Jacks account… if you happen to draw the Dead Man’s Hand… you’ll certainly do better than old Wild Bill.

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