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Since You Asked: Hickock held a losing hand

It takes five cards to make a poker hand. Wild Bill Hickock was killed in Deadwood, S.D., holding a poker hand famously known as "Aces and Eights." That is only four cards. Does anyone know exactly what his five cards were? According to my calculations, there are 1,584 possible combinations of cards that would make "Aces and Eights." Can you tell me exactly what five cards he was holding when he was shot?

— J.G. Johnson, Jacksonville

To be honest, J.G., we can't really be sure if anyone knows what five cards he was holding. Quite the legend in real life, Hickock also was the source of a lot of legendary pulp fiction during and after his death. Regardless, "aces and eights" is the more pedestrian name for the hand he was allegedly holding — a pair of aces and a pair of eights — which in five-card poker isn't too shabby. It became known as the "Dead Man's Hand."

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickock was killed by Jack McCall while playing cards at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon in the wild and woolly miners camp of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, on Aug. 2, 1876. Hickock, a somewhat (rightfully) paranoid man who had more than a few enemies and a hundred times as many friends, wasn't able to sit in his usual position that afforded him a view of both saloon doors. He was shot in the back of the head.

Reports that we could find claim the fifth card either hadn't been dealt or it was a jack, and we couldn't find any source that claimed what the suits of the cards were. The alleged fifth card being a jack seems a bit too perfect since his killer was named "Jack," but who knows. Suffice to say Hickock lost the hand.

Why did McCall kill him? Supposedly because Hickock insulted him by offering breakfast money on the night McCall lost his bankroll. McCall claimed in his first trial (held within hours of the killing) that he was avenging Hickock's killing of his brother in Kansas, which the first jury deemed a fair reason to kill Hickock. This being lawless "indian territory," McCall was a free man.

Turns out McCall never had a brother, and after enough bragging he was re-arrested, retried and hanged in Wyoming on March 1, 1877. So much for double jeopardy — this was the Wild West!

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com.