Poker is a card game that is loved for a whole host of reasons, with one of the chief ones being the huge variation of hands that can be played during a deal. The fact that people can bluff their way to a win makes things even more exciting, given that the people with the best hands don’t necessarily win every time that they should.
Another reason behind poker’s popularity is the mythology that has grown around it during the years. The majority of people who have played it for a while have a story or two to tell, but the best stories are the ones that are so famous that they became associated with a hand indefinitely. Here’s a look at some of those stories.
Dead Man’s Hand
Is this the most famous of all poker hands with an associated story? It might well be, with the tale linked to it dating back to the nineteenth century. Made up of the black aces as well as the black eights, those two cards as well as an unknown fifth card were reportedly in the hand of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok when he was shot dead on the second of August in 1876.
There is no modern contemporaneous source that says that those were the cards held by James Butler Hickok, better known as ‘Wild Bill’, but the Western historian, Carl W. Breihan, wrote a book in which he claims that Neil Christy picked the cards up from the floor and gave them to his son who later showed to them to Breihan.
The cards that Christy picked up were apparently the ace of diamonds, the ace of clubs, the two black eights and the queen of hearts. Yet that has changed in the years since to be the two black eights and two black aces with the fifth card known. That hand appears to be the one that Ellis T. ‘Doc’ Pierce said he was holding in Frank J. Wilstach’s biography Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers.
What we do know is that Hickok was a gunfighter and lawman who was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall when playing cards in the Deadwood venue called Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon. It entered into the folklore of poker during the twentieth century, particularly after the publication of Wilstach’s biography of the man.
In terms of contemporary uses, few are as noteworthy as the fact that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police’s Homicide department use it in their insignia. Given the city’s association with the world of gambling and his own life as a lawman, perhaps that’s something ‘Wild Bill’ himself would have been happy to see.
If the Dead Man’s Hand isn’t the most famous hand in poker then it’s only because the Doyle Brunson runs it close. By the time 1976 came around the World Series of Poker was relatively well established, having taken place for the previous six years. Certainly it was well-known enough to have a decent audience watching the Main Event.
That audience tuned in to watch Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson go heads-up against Jesse Alto. Alto had raised with ace-jack unsuited, which Brunson called thanks to his ten-two of spades that he must have fancied getting a flush with. The flop saw ace-jack-ten emerge, giving Alto two pair and Brunson the single pair of tens.
Brunson was brave, though, and went all-in in response to Alto’s raise that was the size of the pot. Alto called him and was favourite to win before the turn. The turn gave Brunson a two, seeing him join Alto on two pair even if it wasn’t as strong. That didn’t matter, however, thanks to the fact that the river produced a ten to hand him the full house and make him the WSOP champion.
Given the unlikely nature of his win that alone might well have proven to be interesting enough to see the hand named in his honour. Yet it was to prove to be just the beginning of the story when the ten-two handed him that 1976 win and the $220,000 in prize money attached to it. Brunson made the final again in 1977.
This time it was Bones Berland that he found himself going heads-up against in the Main Event where a ten-eight-five flop was checked through by both players. The turn produced a two that let Brunson to bet before Berland raised him all-in and Brunson decided to call. Berland had eight-five and Brunson once more sat there with ten-two.
Just before the river was revealed Berland was sat holding two pair and Brunson the same, though his was inferior. Once again it was the river he had to thank for his win, producing an other ten and giving him a full house, just like the year before. This time it was $340,000 that he took away in winnings, as well as cementing his name in poker folklore.
There aren’t many poker hands that get their nickname thanks to a television show, but that’s the case here. In the 1950s and 1960s, James Garner starred as Bret Maverick, a poker-playing cardsharp who got into all sorts of trouble in the American Old West. That alone wasn’t enough to have it associated with a poker hand, however.
The association came about thanks to the show’s theme song, which was written by David Buttolph and Paul Francis Webster who wrote the music and lyrics respectively. One of the lyrics said:
Natchez to New Orleans, livin’ on Jacks and Queens, Maverick is a legend of the west.
Soon the name ‘Maverick’ was associated with hole cards of jacks and queens of any makeup. The same hand is sometimes also referred to as Oedipus, thanks to the Greek tragedy in which Oedipus kills his father before marrying his own mother, with the jack in this instance replacing the king.
In 2002, Robert Varkonyi was a complete unknown, having entered into the World Series of Poker tournament as an amateur who worked in finance. He ended up on a table with Phil Helmuth, whose nickname, The Poker Brat, tells you plenty about his personality. He was a well-respected player at the time, though, so his defeat to Varkonyi was a shock.
Varkonyi defeated him with queen-ten before going on to win the tournament overall and take home $2 million, as well as the bracelet. It was the year before the major poker boom, so he missed out on the fame and fortune associated with a WSOP win. He didn’t even get much media attention when Helmuth kept his promise to shave his head if Varkonyi won the tournament.
He may have gone back to his Brooklyn home and carried on with his job in finance, but his name is still associated with poker when those that know the game well refer to a queen-ten combo as the Robert Varkonyi. Add that to his $2 million windfall and you can imagine that he’ll forever be grateful that he decided to enter the World Series of Poker all those years ago.
There are reportedly two reasons why the combination of a queen and a seven as hole cards are known in some quarters as the computer hand. Some claim that it’s because computer analysis of poker hands revealed that being dealt the queen-seven combo gives you a fifty-fifty chance of being ahead or behind any other two cards in the deal.
However, others are of the belief that the nickname comes from IBM computer’s Q7 Sage, which was the largest computer ever built when it was released. Regardless of the reasoning, it’s not a bad hand to be dealt if you’re sitting around a poker table. If you can pair it with the ice-cold analysis of the situation that a computer would boast then you’ll be well-placed to win.
Daniel Negreanu is a well-known poker player and a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, having added six World Series of Poker bracelets and two World Poker Tour titles to his list of achievements over the years. By 2019, he had earned the title of being the third-highest live poker tournament winner of all time behind Justin Bonomo and Bryn Kenney.
Part of the reason he was able to rack up more than $42 million in prize money was the fact that he always felt confident when he was dealt hold cards of ten and seven as long as they were suited. He has won numerous times with exactly that hand, hence the association between him and those two cards, as well as his love of being dealt them.
Exxon Valdez / Big Slick
These nicknames are amongst those given to the combination of an ace and a king, with the big difference here being that they specifically need to be either clubs or spades to take on either of these titles. It comes from the fact that the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled nearly eleven million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound.
Oil, of course, is black and thick, hence its association with the big slick. The accident happened on the twenty-fourth of March in 1989 and the link to the powerful poker hand came along not long after. In the world of strange coincidences, the tanker was made up of twenty-one crew members, with ace and king adding together to make the same number.
If you’re a fan of films, music and poker then it shouldn’t be too hard to work out which two cards you’ll need to be dealt in order to have the Dolly Parton. One of the stars of the film 9 to 5 alongside Lilly Tomlin and Jane Fonda, the western singer also sang the theme tune from it and has forever been associated with hole cards of nine and five since.
It’s sometimes called a Working Man’s Hand because of the link between working nine to five and putting in a good shift at work, but for most people it will only ever be the Dolly Parton. It’s one of many such hands that are associated with people because of movies or TV shows, such as a two and four being known as the Jack Bauer because of 24.
The reality is that there are countless poker hands associated with people or things for all sorts of reasons. Some of them are less politically correct than others, such as a paring of a jack and a five being known as the Jackson Five, but then becoming the Jackson Five Motown if both cards are made up of clubs and spades.
Eight and four as a hand is known as Big Brother because of the George Orwell novel 1984, whilst a three and an ace is known as Baskin Robins because the ice cream company reportedly had thirty-one flavours. A pair of twos is known as a Desmond thanks to the Archbishop of South Africa being called Desmond Tutu.
If you’re playing poker or watching it being played and you hear a commentator or fellow poker player refer to a hand by a certain nickname that you’ve never heard before, it’s worth asking what they mean if you can. The stories they’ll come out with will almost certainly be a delight to hear and learn about.