Catching a set of cards at the poker table is not easy to do

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Remember the song “Catch A Falling Star” that was popularized by famed crooner Perry Como back in 1957?

That’s the song I think of when I catch a set at the poker table. Like a falling star, it is not easy to do. The odds are much against it.

First, you have to be dealt a pair. The odds are 16-to-1 against that. And then you must catch one of the only two remaining cards of that rank. The odds are 7½-1 against that happening on the flop. Combining both probabilities, that will happen much less than 1% of your hold’em hands.

It might well be likened to catching a falling star. Well almost.

Start with Pair

Don’t be discouraged. At times you will peek at your hole cards and find a pair. In fact, in the long run, you can expect a pair more than once every two orbits at a full table of nine players. Good start.

Now the odds are only 7½-1 against making a set on the flop – often enough to make it interesting.

Playing Small Pairs

The problem with these hole cards – 7s down to deuces – is that an opponent might very well catch a bigger set and you will be betting/calling – maybe even raising – with your set of 7s all the way to the river. That could be very costly!

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely there will be two sets at the same time. Still, it happens often enough to warrant caution. That’s why the higher pairs are preferable – especially in a late position where you get more information before declaring.

Hold’em Caveat

With small/medium pairs, the Hold’em Caveat takes on importance: Pre-flop plays best in multi-way hands with no raise. Since the odds of catching the set on the flop are so much against you (7½-1), it is desirable to see the flop as cheaply as possible (no raises), and with three or more opponents staying in to give you high implied pot odds if/when you catch your set.

Making a Set

Let’s say you called to see the flop with 7-7 in a middle position in a limit hold’em game. Four others and you limp in, no raises. That’s the ideal situation with your 7-7 in the hole. On the flop, the dealer turns up another 7, giving you a set: Hole cards: 7d, 7s, 7h, 9c, 4c.

The Flop

There is a possible club-flush draw against you, and only one card (9c) that could make a higher set. There also are two possible straight draws. The Big Blind bets, two others call, and you mull over whether to raise to make it less attractive to draw for the club flush or a straight – or to wait for the turn when the bets are double.

After all, even if someone connects with a flush, you could make a full-house. (Pray for a 4 or 9 on the turn.)

You decide to just call. The turn is 2d, not likely to help anyone. The Big Blind again leads out. You put him on an over pair to the board. After another opponent calls, you make your raise. With your set of 7s, you are betting for value. The more chips entering the pot, the better for you. 

All three opponents call your raise. The river is Ah. Your hand is best unless an opponent holds 9-9 or A-A in the hole. That’s not likely. He probably would have raised with such a hand.

Meanwhile, your opponents can only guess at your hand. They may put you on a pair of 9s, top pair on the board until the river, or perhaps two-pair, including the A on the river. They all check to you. After all, you earned their respect when you raised on the turn.

Eyeing the size of the pot, they all decide to call when you bet – and win a huge pot! That’s one scenario – a good one for you.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher based in Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact him at [email protected]

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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