The History of the Dead Man's Hand
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (1837-1876)
Despite the suggestive title, dead man's hand is an idiom and does not refer to the stiff and lifeless hand of a dead man. Dead man's hand refers to the poker hand that James Butler Hickok, aka Wild Bill Hickok, was holding when he was shot dead from behind on the 2nd of August in the year of 1876. The location was saloon no. 10 in one of the wildest cities in the old wild west; namely Deadwood in South Dakota.
It is established that it was a game of five-card-draw poker but the exact hand that Wild Bill Hickok was holding remains elusive for there are no citations of the hand that are contemporary with his murder. Things are further complicated by the fact that dead man's hand was an established poker idiom associated with a number of different hands well before Hickok was murdered. Apparantly a considerable number of people met their maker when playing poker in the old wild west. What we can learn from this is that alcohol, gambling, knives and guns are a bad mix.
Dead Man's HandThe earliest known reference to a dead man's poker hand is from 1886 and it is there described as three jacks and a pair of tens. It was, however, not a reference to Wild Bill Hickok's hand. Although the evidence is lacking, it is generally "accepted" that Hickok's hand was ace of spades, ace of clubs, eight of spades and eight of clubs. There are many claims as to what the fifth card was and there is even reason to believe that it had been discarded and that Bill was drawing his final card when he was shot dead. Whether the fifth card was queen of diamonds, jack of diamonds, five of diamonds, nine of diamonds or queen of clubs, all of which have been suggested in various contexts, it is likely that Hickok was already holding the winning hand and that the fifth card would not have changed anything.
Whether the hand in question is cursed and a foreboding of death remains unknown, just like the actual cards of the hand. But this is only fitting for when you are gambling you are dealing with the unknown; you have the devil breathing at your neck and the abyss in front of you and the future is beyond your control. Any hand you receive could be a dead man's hand. Bear this in mind the next time you inspect the poker hand you have been dealt.
Now don't go all superstitious over the whole thing. We are just speaking figuratively. To increase your chances of surviving in poker, don't stake all your poker money at once and don't play against criminals. That way the dead man's hand will remain a fable.