Saturday, 9 June 2012

The most famous poker hand?

Aces and eights

American cards of c.1870 as used in the Wild West, these are
by Samuel Hart of New York. Note the typically fancy Ace of
Spades and that there are no numbers on the cards.
 On August 2nd 1876 in Deadwood's Saloon No 10 Dakota Territory, a drifter by the name of Jack McCall drew an old colt .45 and walked up behind James Butler Hickok who was seated at a card table engaged in a hand of poker. A shot rang out and Hickok slumped on the table, dead . 'Wild Bill Hickok' the legendary gunfighter had drawn his last hand, and what was in that poker hand has become as much of a legend as the exploits of the man himself. There is no first hand evidence as to what the cards really were, but it was not long before the famous 'aces and eights' combination was recorded as the fatal hand.

An alternative version of the hand
 A pair of aces and a pair of eights is not a particularly high hand in poker and while this may well have been Hickok's hand there is more of a mystery as to what the fifth card, or kicker, may have been. One legend has the Queen of Clubs as shown above, while the Adams Museum in Deadwood proposes the hand shown on the right with different Aces and Eights and the Queen of Hearts as the kicker. Other people say other cards and one version is that Hickok had discarded and not yet drawn the fifth card. Who knows? That's the stuff of legend. The term Dead Man's Hand usually also refers to this particular two-pair combination.

Poker is the most widely played card game. Its origins can be traced back to the early 19th century in various embryonic forms. Documentary evidence from memoirs and other non-fictional writing show that it was being played in the early 1830s. It seems that it was first played with a 20 card deck, not using the 2-9 inclusive, and later developed into a 52 card game to give more variety for betting hands and for more people to play at the same time. But of course poker is not really a card game at all - it is a psychological game, the cards are almost incidental to the play. Not however when cards are shown face up because then the calculation of odds can come more into play with the pyschology. There are literally dozens of poker variations but they are all nerve-jangling games full of excitement, adrenalin and sweaty palms, alternatively a sharp mind, cool brow and clever strategy.

A last point about the cards shown, you may notice that the two queens have the suit mark on different sides of the card. I'll write a blog in the future to explain why some of the courts were redrawn and 'turned' with all suit marks on the left of the head like the Queen of Hearts above, it's linked with the introduction of corner numbers (indices) and keeping the hand closely squeezed to prevent other players seeing or guessing your cards.

The cards shown are from my own collection and the pictures are copyright. A wide range of playing cards
 can be found for purchase on my website

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