Gambling Legends: Wild Bill Hickok

Long before Chris “Jesus” Ferguson was tearing up the table in his 6’3″ frame, black hat, beard and lanky hair (and even longer before the same Ferguson was run out of town for his involvement with the disgraced Full Tilt Poker) another hirsute poker god was bestriding the United States like a gunslingin’ gamblin’ god.

Wild Bill Hickok Wild Bill Hickok, as portrayed by Keith Carradine in Deadwood (2004).

About as many myths and legends surround Wild Bill Hickok as they do the Wild West itself, but what we (pretty much) know to be true is that the gunslinger and Civil War hero died at one of his favourite poker tables holding what would become the infamous “Dead Man’s Hand”.

Wild Bill’s death cemented his place in the American history books, his hand in the poker manuals, and his life immortalised in numerous films and TV shows.

Born in 1837 in Troy Grove, Illinois, James Butler Hickok was a descendant of early pioneers to the United States. 200 years earlier, the English Hiccock family migrated from Shakespeare’s home city of Stratford-upon-Avon and set up home in the east of the country.

Still in his teens, Hickok moved to Kansas to work as a farmer but was later employed during the American Civil War as a spy for the Union Army.

A Legend is Born

Already known for his gunslinging skills, “Wild Bill”‘s fame would skyrocket around this time after he killed three men in Nebraska after an altercation over a land deal gone sour.

Helped in part by Harper Magazine’s editorial that ran about the incident (in which the magazine claimed Hickok had killed 10 men) Wild Bill’s legend across America continued to grow, and stories about his sharpshooting skills multiply.

But while Bill’s gunslinging prowess was the stuff of legend, so was his propensity for a card game or two. On arriving in the lawless mining town of Deadwood in South Dakota, Bill frequented the many poker games at the town’s saloon (immortalised in the TV series of the same name – see sidebar).

And it was here that Bill would finally go to meet the great poker gods in the sky. History tells that on a day in August 1876, Bill was playing poker at the Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood. With him, another gunman – Charles Rich – and a steamboat pilot called Willie Massie. Making up the numbers was Jack McCall, a young gunslinger who’d crossed paths with Bill on several occasions.

Wild Bill’s Dramatic Death

One of the rare occasions where Bill wasn’t sat with his back to the wall, he wasn’t prepared for the young pretender entering the saloon behind him and whipping out a Colt .45 revolver. McCall shot Wild Bill in the back of the head, and although witnesses say Bill’s body hung in the air before falling to the ground, he was killed instantly.

Dead Man's Hand

In Bill’s fist was the 5-card Draw poker hand that would forever become known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”: black Aces and black Eights (although in Texas Hold’em, a starting hand of Ac-8c or As-8s has been bastardised to carry the nickname).

Legend goes that McCall then tried to shoot witnesses in the crowd but his gun contained so many dud bullets he didn’t manage to slaughter any more. McCall was later arrested, tried, and found guilty of murder, and hanged on March 1st, 1877.

Wild Bill – and his close friend, Martha “Calamity” Jane – would become legends of the wild American frontier. For poker players everywhere, though, Wild Bill became a poster boy for long-haired lanky old-school poker players 250 years before Chris Ferguson came on the scene.

Wild Bill Hickok On Screen

Here are some of the more successful attempts to immortalise the gambler-gunslinger on-screen:

Wild Bill (1995)

Jeff Bridges stars as the legendary lawman and gunslinger in this account of Wild Bill’s last days. David Arquette (of Scream and marrying-Courtenay Cox fame) is great as an oily Jack McCall. Keith Carradine co-stars as another hero of the era, Buffalo Bill.

Deadwood (2004)

Speaking of Keith Carradine, the legendary actor turns up in the multi-award winning HBO series set in the real town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Featuring some career-defining turns from Ian McShance as a hotel owner and Timothy Olyphant as a local sheriff, among others, it’s also noteworthy for some stunning dialogue. Nowhere more so is this demonstrated in an early example of trash talk from Wild Bill to Jack McCall over a hand of poker.

Calamity Jane (1953)

The image of “Calamity” Martha Jane in Deadwood is of a rough, tomboy-ish scout who’s infatuated with Wild Bill. It’s about as far removed as you can get from this whipcracking account of the “romance” between the pair. Howard Keel stars as Wild Bill with Doris Day as Jane, warbling her way through classics like ‘Just Blew In From the Windy City’ and ‘The Black Hills of Dakota’.