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Poker: Dead Man's Hand

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In poker, Dead Man's Hand refers to the hand that legendary lawman and gambler Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot to death during a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota, USA on 2 August, 1876. (He had been shot in the back of the head1 by Jack McCall, who claimed to be avenging the death of his brother2.) Most sources agree that four of the cards that made up the hand were a pair of black bullets, or aces, and a pair of black eights.

However, the identity of the fifth card has been widely debated. AJ Johnson had discovered a jumble of cards scattered over the floor while cleaning the poker table after Hickok's body was removed. He noticed that five of them were more bunched together than the rest, forming a hand; recognising their possible historical importance, Johnson stuffed them in his pocket. Unfortunately, these cards were later stolen from him at a drinking party, and so all evidence of the Dead Man's Hand was lost.

Over the years there has been speculation about what the fifth card was. Listed below are the possible cards:

  • Jack of Diamonds - A witness to the shooting claimed that this was the fifth card, according to the transcripts of McCall's trial.
  • Five of Diamonds - The actual card from Hickok's hand is supposedly on display in Deadwood. It was previously displayed at the Stardust in Las Vegas.
  • Nine of Diamonds - This is the card supposedly reported in firsthand accounts, and was used in a re-creation of Hickok's final game in Deadwood.
  • Queen of Clubs - This card is on display at Ripley's Believe it or Not.
  • Queen of Hearts - In The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok, Loren D Estleman identified the last card as the Queen of Hearts. He furthermore claimed that the card was marred by a spot of blood3.
  • Queen of Spades - According to The Real West, a documentary broadcast on the History Channel in Los Angeles in the spring of 1998.
  • King of Spades - This card first made an appearance in the 1936 movie The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok.
  • The Deuce of Spades - According to Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope.

(Of course, given enough time, it is possible that every single card on the deck will be subject to speculation as the elusive fifth card!)

Unfortunately, the truth about the final card may never be revealed - the town of Deadwood, along with most of its records, burnt to the ground in 1879.

Does it really matter what makes up the fifth card in the Dead Man's Hand? The poker experts say no; just having the two pairs of black aces and eights gives you a Dead Man's Hand - the worst hand you can get in a poker game that has its own name. In fact, if Cecil Adams is right and the fifth card was the Deuce of Spades, then it would have been surprising that Wild Bill didn't try to kill himself.

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1Hickok had always insisted on sitting with his back towards a wall - a sensible move for a lawman - but in this fateful card game he had accepted a chair whose back faced the door.2It was believed that McCall had lost $110 to Hickok in a card game the day before; however, there are records of one Lew McCall being shot to death by a lawman, although it is not known if the lawman was Hickok.3And claimed that the Ace of Diamonds had a heel mark on it.

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