TJ Cloutier famously once used the phrase ‘no set, no bet’. But while this is certainly a safe way to play a small pocket pair, I’d argue it’s not the most profitable. Just because you haven’t hit your hand, don’t always be quick to throw it away. If you’re the pre-flop aggressor and have been called, I would recommend pretty much always following through with a bet on the flop. Obviously this will depend on both the number of callers and the texture of the flop. In the extreme case of seven callers and a flop of A♣-Q♣-10♣, it’s quite clear that a pair of twos are unlikely to be the best hand; but at the other extreme, with a heads-up pot and a flop of 9-6-4 rainbow, chances are your opponent hasn’t connected and you can pick up the pot.
My general post-flop strategy when I haven’t hit a set will be to make a standard continuation bet and judge the reaction of my opponent(s). Obviously I’m hoping to pick up the pot right there. If I get any action I’m usually passing to a re-raise or looking to just check it down if I am called. I’m unlikely to call another bet unless it’s a very drawing board, which misses by the river and my opponent bets, or I have a specific read that my hand is good. There is also still a chance that I’m going to hit my card on the turn or river, if I can get there for free. A bet on the flop – particularly from position – is often enough for you to see the next two cards for free.
IF YOU MISS YOUR SET
If you have called a bet pre-flop, your post-flop actions will be determined by a number of factors if you miss your set. Again, the number of opponents and the texture of the flop are key, as is your position. The ideal scenario is heads-up and in position. It is likely that your opponent may make a continuation bet. Hopefully you will have some prior knowledge of whether the player is likely to make this bet with or without a hand, but even if not we might be able to get something from the hand. If you’re holding 4-4 and have called an early position pre-flop raise from the button and the flop comes 7-6-2 and your opponent bets out for 3/4 of the pot, all three of your options are viable.
Against a very tight player I might consider passing, but my standard play here would be to call and see a turn card. Notice that I’m not calling this bet to try to hit my set on the turn. I’m calling – in position – because there is still a good chance I have the best hand. Many players will automatically bet the flop, but once they are called they don’t have a hand and miss on the turn, it is common for them to give up the pot. You can use your position to your advantage and call the flop bet to see what action they make when a safe turn card hits. Say in this example the turn pairs the 2. Now our opponents checks and we have the option to make a bet and probably take down the pot. If, however, our opponent fires again, we usually have to give him credit for a hand and wait for a better spot.
Keep in mind that there is only a 4% chance of hitting a set on the turn after missing on the flop, and the same is true on the river. This means that it is almost never a good play to call a bet on either the flop or turn if you believe you are beat, just to try to hit your card. If the pot is 1,000 after the flop and your opponent bets just 50, you are still not getting the correct odds for the call. In this extreme example it could be argued that the implied odds make it a call, but to be faced with a bet that small is very rare and even then you have to ask why your foe is betting so small – maybe your set will be no good even if you do hit.
If you miss your set on the flop and think you are behind, it is usually incorrect to call an opponent’s bet to try and hit your set on the turn. You are only 4% to do so
IF YOU HIT YOUR SET
Playing sets is one of the most enjoyable parts of no-limit hold’em – more so than playing Aces for me. You know where you are more often post-flop (probably in front), and they’re much less likely to get cracked. It’s tough to find a bad way to play a set and I would say the key is to mix up your play, particularly if you’re on the same table for a long time, or you’re playing with the same players regularly. Betting out your sets used to be a great way of disguising them, and still is to some extent, but I see this so much now that sometimes it’s still better to slow-play your bigger hands. Once again, the number of opponents and the texture of the flop is key.
Against multiple opponents on a board of Q♥-J♥-2♣, a set of twos is not strong enough to slow-play. It’s too likely that one or more of your opponents has a strong draw and you don’t want to allow them to make it for free. On the other hand, you could quite happily slow-play a set of sixes on a 10-6-2 rainbow flop against a single opponent.
Having said that, if you’re the pre-flop aggressor and your usual style is to make a continuation bet on the flop, I would strongly recommend employing the same strategy when you hit your set. Despite the likelihood that your opponent has missed the flop and despite your reluctance to give him a free card, it looks far more suspicious if you suddenly check a flop, particularly when out of position. A better play would be to bet the flop as normal and hope to get called. If you do, try checking the turn. This is in line with how most players would play if they have missed the flop.
HITTING TRIPS AFTER A CALL
If you have called a pre-flop raise in position and then flopped a set on a safe board, there are again several ways to play it, with variety once again being the key. You don’t really want to be known as someone who plays their big hands fast or slow – you want to be as unpredictable as possible.
Against a really aggressive player, it’s common to let them do the betting for you; just call their bets and let them hang themselves. I like to try and use my table image to force my big hands. Although it’s quite read-dependant, if you suspect the pre-flop raiser of having a big overpair and the flop comes down with three low cards (giving you your set), it can be profitable to play your set fast if you have an aggressive image.
It’s hard to play a set the wrong way – you can slow or fast-play it, the key is to mix it up and remain unpredictable. However, beware of badly textured flops
MUCKING A SET
While sets are definitely some of the strongest hands in hold’em, like any hand they are not unbeatable, especially when flopping sets with small pairs. Flopping set-under-set is probably as bad as it gets. This is primarily because you think you’ve caught the perfect flop, when in fact you’ve hit the worst possible. Most people will tell you that set-under-set is ‘one of those things’ and it’s unavoidable. For the most part they’re right. In Omaha we are told not to play small pairs, as flopping set-under- set is too likely and will lose us too much money. Applying the same logic to our hold’em game would spare us most of our set-under-set encounters, but I’m not about to advise you do that.
Small sets can be so profitable that the rare occasions when we do find ourselves victims of a set-under-set are more than compensated for by the pots we win by cracking big pairs. But we don’t always have to commit all of our chips when faced with significant action and we suspect we could be behind. Exercise a bit of caution and you could avoid a harrowing showdown.
The obvious time when a set might get mucked is on a flushing and/or straightening board, with multiple opponents creating large amounts of action. However, assuming the board is relatively safe-looking, what can we do to escape losing all our chips when we flop set-under-set? The first thing to do is assess the range of hands our opponent could have.
If someone has raised under the gun, you’ve called with a pair of sixes and the flop comes 7-6-2 rainbow, and your opponent has 7-7, you are going to lose all your money. That’s pretty much unavoidable, unless you are both very, very deep stacked. The reason is that with an under the gun raise, your opponent’s range includes so many hands, pretty much all of which you’re beating. A lot of players won’t pass the big overpairs here no matter how the betting goes, so if you don’t have much information on your opponent you are losing a lot of equity in the long run if you pass when he re-reraises you on the flop. Middle set is almost impossible to get away from, but while a set of 2s would also be tough in the scenario above, there are situations when bottom set can be passed on a safe-looking board.
KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ’EM
A good example I can share is from the EPT Dortmund earlier in the year. We were about an hour in, with the blinds at 50/100. An early-position raiser had raised to 300 and one other player had called. I called with 3-3 (I had my original 10k stack still intact), and both the blinds called. The flop came down 3♣-5♠-8♥. Both the blinds checked, the original raiser bet 1,400 and action was passed to me. With the action multi-way (and particularly with both blinds in on this board), I raised to 3,200 in an attempt to get the action heads-up with the original raiser. To my surprise, the small blind announced all-in! He had about 12,000, meaning he had me covered, and when the action was passed to me my thought process was as follows. This player had been playing quite conservatively so far. He has just called behind three other players, out of position. I could rule out that he was overplaying a big pair. There were no flush draws out, just a potential up-and-down straight draw. I couldn’t see him calling pre-flop with 8-3; 8-5 suited maybe, but his play so far hadn’t suggested that he’d like to go broke this early in the tournament with two pair when faced with a raise and a re-raise.
This was the only hand I could beat but I concluded it was much more likely he had pocket fives or eights. We were still only in level two of this tournament, and this was the first all-in we had seen at the table. Although I had put about 40% of my chips in this pot I was pretty sure I was drawing to one out, and with 6,000 chips left I could still do a lot in this tournament, so I made the pass.
Although the small blind didn’t show his cards, he later assured me it was 5-5 and I’ve no reason to doubt it. It’s not often possible to get away like this, but just make sure you think through the hand thoroughly, how your opponent has played this hand and how you’ve seen him play other hands to give yourself the best possible chance of escaping with at least some chips remaining.
It’s rare to have to muck a set, but there are occasions when you have to consider it, such as a flushing or straightening board or heavy action from a conservative player