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Dead Man's Hand

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"He shot poor Willie through the head, which was a tragic fate
When Willie’s cards fell on the floor, they were aces backed with eights"
Bob Dylan, "Rambling Gambling Willie"

A Dead Man's Hand, also known as "aces and eights", is a poker hand containing two black aces and two black eights. It was supposedly the hand drawn by Wild Bill Hickok before Hickok was shot dead in the middle of a poker game, although this is unsubstantiated. (No one knows what his fifth card was. There are various conflicting claims as to what it was, with the earliest accounts claiming it to be a queen, either of hearts or of clubs, and some believe he discarded it to draw another, but was shot before he could make the new draw.) This hand is now considered unlucky, despite being better than over 95% of five-card hands. It is the lowest/weakest hand in poker to have a name.

In modern fiction, this particular hand is often used as a type of Portent of Doom, often signifying that the character who drew it is soon to die. Frequently in a Gambling Brawl.

Particularly likely to be found in The Western. For cards that are literally deadly, see Death Dealer.

Subtrope of Portent of Doom and Playing Card Motifs. No relation to Dead-Hand Shot.

If you're looking for the book in the Wild Cards series, it's here. Not to be confused with the Old West tabletop RPG, Aces and Eights: Shattered Frontiers.


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    Comic Books 
  • In the prologue of Batman RIP, Batman speaks to The Joker in Arkham Asylum. The Joker taunts Batman with his upcoming destruction while dealing out a dead man's hand. This doubles as a Stealth Pun; the eighth letter of the alphabet is H; the manner the Joker dealt the cards spelled out "HAHA".
  • In one Justice Society of America comic, the villain Sportsmaster deals a dead man's hand, which he proceeds to throw at the heroes (the cards being razor-edged).
  • In the appropriately-named Spider-Man one-shot comic-book Spider-Man: Dead Man's Hand, a coroner turns himself into the third - and most powerful - version of Carrion, and unleashes a disease on New York using a virus that turns people into zombie-like creatures under his control. The only clue is his gloating of "aces and eights" right after turning himself into Carrion. (After Spidey consults the High Evolutionary, who was a mentor to Miles Warren, who created the original Carrion, it turns out that the virus alters the first and eighth gene of the human genome, which is important in finding the cure for it.)

    Films — Animated 
  • DC Showcase – Constantine: The House of Mystery. John Constantine is in an illusion where he's playing poker with his friends and gets the hand. The aces and eights morph into black magic symbols and his friends into demons who set about inflicting The Many Deaths of You on him.
    Demon: You know what to do with a bad hand, John? GET RID OF IT! (draws sword and cuts off John's hand)

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Along Came a Spider, aces and eights is referenced as the winning hand that gave ownership of a Turkish hand-made shotgun to the father of Agent Flannigan and later in the feature was the clue that revealed her involvement with the kidnapping plot.
  • In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, one player is dealt a hand but refuses to play it and walks away from the table. Buster Scruggs takes his seat, and the other players insist he plays the departed player's hand. Buster peaks, sure enough, the Dead Man's hand. Buster tries to politely decline until the next hand of the game, but another player, Surly Joe, insists that since Buster seen them, he must play them, going so far as to draw his gun. Buster stomps the plank of the table, the causing the far end to hit Joe's hand and discharge the gun into his own face, three times. Afterwards Surly Joe's brother tries to avenge Joe, but the brother doesn't fare any better. And just after that, Buster finally runs into a gunman who's better than he is and is killed. So that's three deaths within about 10 minutes of getting the Dead Man's Hand.
  • The opening scene of Dick Tracy shows several gangsters are playing poker in a warehouse, and one of them mentions "aces and eights" several times — right before Big Boy's goons bust in and gun them all down.
  • In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the eponymous character Liberty draws this hand right before being shot.
  • In Stagecoach, Luke holds this hand. He is shortly thereafter gunned down by the Ringo Kid.

  • The novel The Armageddon Rag by George R. R. Martin focuses on the fictional 1960s rock band Nazgûl. One of its songs, "Prelude to Madness", contains the chorus
    "Queens beat aces every time, yeah!
    Dead man's hand, dead man's hand!
And Charlie is the joker in the deck!"
  • The J.T. Edson short story "Deadwood August 2nd 1876" in J.T.'s Hundredth is a fictionalised account of the killing of Wild Bill Hickcok. In it, he has just discarded his fifth card and is reaching for another when he is shot.
  • In the novelization of the movie Dick Tracy, the opening scene with the gangsters playing poker is expanded. One of them draws this hand, and folds immediately after showing a bout of fear. The rest call him a fool, saying he could have won with that hand. (One of them saying, "This ain't Deadwood and you ain't Wild Bill Hickok.") Unfortunately, a few minutes later, Flattop and the other mobsters storm in with guns blazing, as they did in the movie.
  • Alluded to in the title of Final Destination: Dead Man's Hand.
  • The fifth book of the Kitty Norville series is named this. Considering the title character is nearly killed by Ax-Crazy bounty hunters, then sacrificed to a dark chaotic Babylonian Cult, the Portent of Doom aspect is apt. It also references the Big Bad of the overall series who first appears in that book, a vampire (a "dead man") whose hand is behind everything.
  • In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, anarchistic Irishman R.P. McMurphy has a tattoo of a poker hand containing "spades and eights", foreshadowing his eventual death.
  • Dead Man's Hand is the name of the seventh book of the Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin. Aces are the murderer's literal calling card.
  • Dead Man's Hand is also the title of a Weird West anthology edited by John Joseph Adams.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an early episode of Criminal Minds, Hotch plays poker with a death-row inmate. When Hotch draws aces and eights, the inmate points out that it should have been his hand.
  • Daredevil (2015). Done as a Visual Pun in "New York's Finest". An outlaw biker gang charges out of their Bad Guy Bar to take on Frank Castle as the jutebox plays Motörhead's "Ace of Spades". Just before the lyric "...the dead man's hand again" we Smash Cut to Karen Page examining a photo of one of the Punisher's victims from a manila folder, but all we see is the corpse's hand.
  • Surprisingly averted in Deadwood, which featured Wild Bill as a character and dramatizes his murder at the hands of Jack McCall, but does not show what cards he was holding, possibly because there is little solid evidence that Hickok really was holding such a hand.
  • Midsomer Murders: In "Blood of the Saddle", the third Victim of the Week in a string wild west themed murders is found slung over the saddle of his horse with a dead man's hand planted in his fist.
  • Seal Team: The episode "Paradise Lost" has the team playing poker during some down time, after everyone else folds Clay wins with aces and eights, and the three of hearts as the fifth card. Sonny immediately name drops it, and calls it "bad juju". At the end of the episode, a bomb goes off outside the bar the team is in with Clay himself being badly injured by the second bomb.
  • The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", has the titlular character playing poker with Agent Scully and holding a full house of aces and eights with the ace of hearts as the fifth card. As one might suspect from the episode name, he dies. Clyde is a seer who can tell when someone is going to die, hence the Portent of Doom.

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • The Tarot deck is the parent of the deck of cards used for gambling. The numbered suit cards have a one-for-one correspondence with each other and the gambler's cards may be substituted for those of the Tarot. The tarot equivalent of the Dead Man's Hand would be the Eight of Wands (swiftness) the eight of Swords (serious misfortune) the Ace of Swords (can connotate sudden unexpected violent force) and the Ace of Wands (a swift new direction your life is going to take). Or: you are about to receive a very sudden and unexpected violent blow with something either heavy and sharp, or heavy and blunt. Take your pick.

  • The Bring Me the Horizon song "Alligator Blood" contains a reference to it.
  • Brutal DLX also references this in their lyrics:
    "I dreamed I was the dealer of a dead man's hand..."
  • "Dead Man's Hand" is the name of the latest album released by metal band Dezperadoz. Of course it's a Western Metal act, so that's a great name to go with the theme
  • "Rambling, Gambling Willie" by Bob Dylan contains a direct reference to this hand, as well.
  • The song "Aces & Eights" from the Lita Ford album Stiletto has the lyrics:
    "The dead man's hand holds aces and eights"
  • Michael McDermott has written a song titled "Aces and Eights". The song says that life can make you feel like:
    "Looking over my shoulder, holding aces and eights."
  • The Motörhead song Ace Of Spades refers to this hand:
    "Pushin' up the ante, I know you got to see me
    Read 'em and weep, the dead man's hand again"
  • Reckless Kelly's song "Nobody Haunts Me Like You" also makes reference:
    " a shot in the back holding aces and eights..."
  • In the song "Fire Lake" by Bob Seger:
    "who's gonna play those eights and aces?"
  • The Uncle Kracker song "Aces and Eights" is named for the Dead Man's hand.
  • In the song "Little Wille the Gambler" by Townes Van Zandt:
    "Willie's cards fell on the floor they were aces backed with eights"

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The Acolyte Protection Agency (APA), who were usually shown playing cards backstage, would occasionally have the aces & eights on their tights.
  • The biker gang that invaded TNA as in the summer/fall 2012 used the dead man's hand as their calling card and went by the name of Aces And Eights.

    Tabletop Games 
  • KenzerCo.'s Western roleplaying game Aces and Eights: Shattered Frontiers takes its name from the dead man's hand.
  • Deadlands:
    • If you cast Soul Blast and draw a Dead Man's Hand, it becomes an automatic One-Hit Kill. Unlike the one mentioned in the trope description, it requires the Jack of Diamonds.
    • The Deadlands Collectible Card Game Doomtown uses poker hands to decide who wins shootouts. The Dead Man's Hand (again requiring the Jack of Diamonds) outranks all other hands (unless countered with That's Two Pair!).
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In the Dungeon magazine #2 adventure "The Keep at Koralgesh", the Player Characters can find a room where four ghosts are playing a card game. When the ghosts see the PCs, they put down their cards and leave. Each of the ghosts' hands has aces and eights.
  • Hoyle's Rules of Dragon Poker takes the hand's bad luck to its (il)logical conclusion and kicks any player who uses it out of the game.
  • In the wild west supplement to the Munchkin card game, Dead Man's Hand is a curse card that forces you to discard your whole hand.
  • Traveller. Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society magazine #14 adventure "Aces & Eights". A set of playing cards (two aces, two eights and the joker), will, when put in an X-ray machine, create a map to the location of a 20 million credit treasure. The money was the payroll of the 1188th "Aces and Eights" Lift Infantry Brigade. The man with the cards is killed by the bad guys and the cards stolen, and the PCs must retrieve them.

    Video Games 
  • In The Curse of Monkey Island, if the player has Guybrush keep losing against King André and then looking at the losing hands, one of the random comments Guybrush will make is "Aces and eights... that can't be good." This being a LucasArts game, Guybrush of course doesn't die... though he does fake his death at one point.
  • In the Fallout: New Vegas expansion "Dead Money", the player can get an achievement for getting the dead man's hand from the deadly, abandoned casino Sierra Madre.
  • Fate/Grand Order: Archer Calamity Jane has a Noble Phantasm called Space Dead Man's Hand. It simulates Wild Bill Hickok's death by having Jane fire a homing bullet that strikes the opponent in the back of the head. At impact, a dead man's hand appears in midair. She's not particularly proud of the fact that her special ability is to recreate her husband's death.
  • PAYDAY 2 has a track called "Dead Man's Hand", fittingly, it's the theme to the Golden Grin Casino heist.
  • Pirate101: This is the hand that Captain Blood almost lost with in his Poker game with death. (He fled the scene before playing his cards.)
  • The Walking Dead (Telltale): Season 3's first episode has a character draw aces and eights in a friendly poker game, winning the pot. Sure enough, she gets shot by raiders early in episode 2.
  • Happens twice in the Wing Commander series. In Wing Commander II, Spirit gets dealt the hand and later kamikazes a Kilrathi-controlled space station. In Wing Commander IV, Vagabond gets the killer hand, and dies later in a mission that goes badly wrong. Bonus points for it being one of the few times the card shark had lost... and to Maniac, no less.

    Western Animaton 
  • In one episode of The Real Ghostbusters, the team was investigating a haunting in Tombstone, Arizona, which turned out to be none other than the Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday. In one scene, Peter played cards with the four of them, and all four of the ghosts had this hand. After Peter ended up with four aces, Wyatt decided that someone obviously had to be cheating, given that it added up to twelve aces. Naturally, that's when Peter decided to make a run for it.

    Real Life 
  • The evidence for Hickok holding such a hand is scant. The first documentary evidence comes in a letter written by a witness fifty years after the fact, and said letter doesn't specify the suits of the aces-and-eights pairs. Additionally, the phrase "dead man's hand" was attached to several different card combinations in the years after Hickok's murder. See Straight Dope column here.
  • Historical displays in Deadwood, SD, depict the fifth card as the nine of diamonds. Which is also considered unlucky, under the name of "the Curse of Scotland."
  • The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Section use the dead man's hand as their insignia.
  • In the "Texas Hold 'Em" derivative of poker, a Dead Man's Hand is a single ace and eight of any color or suit, which is a fairly strong starting hand as well, and it comes without the negative connotation of bad luck.