Dead Man's Hand

Just my luck, I married into a family of card players. I hate playing cards—no, “hate” is too strong a word. “Bored” would be a better characterization, bored to the point where I don’t care whether I win or lose, a fatal shortcoming. By contrast, my late sister-in-law was a tournament bridge player, and my brother-in-law has been playing poker with the same group of buddies since law school decades ago. At family gatherings, there is the inevitable point after a meal when the table is cleared, and a deck of cards is brought out. I have no wish to spoil anyone’s fun, so that is the point when I cheerfully make myself scarce.

In 1964, psychiatrist Eric Berne published his landmark book on transactional analysis called Games People Play, which might at first appear to have little to do with the card games my in-laws like to play at family gatherings. According to Berne, human relationships often play out according to certain “scripts” followed by the various parties, even if the rules of the game are never explicitly stated. There are winners and losers in these games as well, although nothing so straightforward as a winning poker hand. Berne gave colorful names to the games people play, which apply to a broad range of human transactions involving love, marriage, work, child-rearing and even therapy itself. For example, in a game called “See What You Made Me Do,” the instigator blames another person for having caused his or her own behavior, a game popular with married couples, as well as parents and children.

Sometimes the games people play in life overlap with card games, as in the one Berne called “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch.” In poker, you might play this game when you are dealt four aces and find you are more interested in having another player at your mercy rather than actually just winning the hand. But what happens when you are dealt aces and eights? This, of course, is the hand the legendary gunfighter “Wild Bill” Hickok was reputedly holding in a game of five-card draw when he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall at a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1876. Did Hickok think he was holding a winning hand in the moment when his life ended? Aces and eights was certainly not an unbeatable hand. And what game did McCall think he was playing in the moment he shot Hickok from behind?

It turns out McCall and Hickok had played cards the evening before. McCall was drunk and lost heavily. Hickok persuaded him to call it a night and even advanced him some money to buy supper. McCall felt insulted and returned the next night with a gun. Hickok was sitting with his back to the door, not his usual practice. McCall may have thought he was playing some variation of “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch.” And while the game ended then and there for Hickok, who was holding what later came to be known as the “dead man’s hand,” it still hadn’t quite played out for McCallum. He discovered that the rules of the game were different than what he thought, as it is for all of us in the end. He also was playing a dead-man’s hand, only without any cards. McCallum was tried and convicted of murder and hanged seven months after the crime.

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