The Dead Man’s Hand is one of the most iconic hands in all of poker. The hand itself has become a part of pop culture and it tells you everything you want to know about what it is, how it came into existence and its history with cards and the Old West.
Story Dead Man’s Hand
The story behind this hand starts millions of years ago when giant creatures roamed the Earth. We call them dinosaurs and they were pretty awesome although some people say they died out by trying to play poker with humans. Exactly what happened we don’t know but we do know that playing cards were invented before poker which proves that these two games probably didn’t exist at the same time?
The Poker Player’s Companion states that “the official birthday of modern poker is 1829”. That means that poker was around before cards were invented which further means that whoever invented cards didn’t invent the game itself.
The earliest recorded European reference to dead man’s hand in poker comes from a book called “Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suède” written in 1715 by Voltaire. It describes how French soldiers played a card game during their occupation of an Austrian town back in 1698. They probably called it Poque which is similar to Poch or Pochen which are German for ‘to knock’ because players had to knock on the table when they wanted to claim all the pot’s contents prior to showing their hand.
Long story short, people have been playing games that involved cards long before they were actually cards. So once cards became popular, poker was inevitable.
Once the game began to spread across the globe it became an incredibly popular pastime in some parts of the world while it remained largely unknown elsewhere. It took until around 1865 for poker to become the most popular card game in America after which its popularity rapidly increased even more throughout North America and Europe. Once every corner on earth had heard about this new game people started creating their own versions including dozens like Cincinnati lowball, klob, Armenian razzle, and others that never managed to establish themselves outside of their local regions.
There was even a version called dead man’s hand that seemed to be quite popular at least among Western settlers who quickly adopted many customs from Native Americans. The term “Dead Man’s Hand” is said to have derived from the Massacre at Glorieta Pass which took place in New Mexico back in 1862. The attacking Confederate forces met with Union troops led by Colonel John Pritchard who was stationed there keeping an eye out for Comanche and Kiowa warriors rather than expecting combat. This was not just a regular battle though; it was one that would determine the fate of the entire southwest area.
In what has been described as the most important battle ever fought on New Mexican soil, Confederate general Henry Hagan completely routed federal troops forcing them to withdraw from their base carrying heavy casualties while failing to destroy any major supply trains or wagons. They fled towards Fort Union which was then under the command of Colonel Edward Canby.
When Pritchard and his retreating troops arrived at Fort Union they met with Colonel Canby who was unaware of what had taken place during the battle, so he ordered his officers to set up a defense which is when Pritchard gathered all of his men around him and burned them to death by setting fire to their wagons.
He did this because he didn’t want the Confederate forces to capture any survivors and use them as hostages against federal troops at Santa Fe. So instead of being captured alive, Pritchard ordered everyone out of the wagon circle – except for two young Lieutenants – named Samuel Lock ridge and John Wynn. They were supposed to fight their way out and warn Canby but they were both shot down. According to legend, they died holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes which are where the term “holding dead man’s hand” comes from.
In poker terms, a dead man’s hand refers to two pairs of Aces and Eights, suitable for a straight flush which makes it a pretty good hand in any poker game. However, most people assume that this hand was given its name because it was the last one Wild Bill Hickok ever held when he got shot in the back by an unknown assailant while playing cards at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood on August 2nd, 1876.
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