Flopping top set and how to play it

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In a previous column, we discussed various factors you should consider after flopping top set on the board – playing your hand on the flop so as to maximize your win.

Recall: It’s a $4-$8 limit hold’em game. You are seated in a middle position and make a set of 10’s on the flop. For example, it could be 10-8-2 rainbow. A set higher than your 10’s is not possible at this point.

Let’s consider several possible hands and situations that could occur, depending on the other two cards that fall on the flop – along with your set-making 10. What would be the best way to play in each case?

What if, along with your set, a pair falls on the board? If the pair is lower in rank than your set – say a pair of 9’s, pause a moment and think: Yes, an opponent could have trip 9’s; but your set of 10’s has him beat. What’s more, you now have a full-boat! This would be a good time to slow-play to keep as many opponents as possible in the hand so they can contribute to the pot in the later betting rounds when the bets are higher.

Whatever you do, do not raise with your top set on the flop. That would be a big mistake; although, many players are prone to do so. (You can readily see why they would raise in this situation.)

What if it’s a pair of Kings that falls on the flop along with your 10? Again your 10’s-full-of-Kings has him beat. But, one caution: now, you need to hope another pair does not appear; in that case, your opponent’s Kings-full (sadly) overwhelms your 9’s-full. (If you play much hold’em, you probably have seen this happen more than once.)

After the flop of 10-8-2, an early-position comes out betting. From your middle position, before the action gets to you, note how many opponents have bet and called to see the next card (the turn card) on the board. Then, peek to your left: Are any players behind you gathering their chips to call the bet?

If it appears only one or two opponents will call the early-position bet on the flop, a raise would likely discourage others from calling, mucking their hands. In that case, you cannot build a very big pot. So, just go along by calling (do not raise) the early-position bet – slow-play.

On the other hand, if three or more opponents are calling the early-position bet, your raise would make more sense. In this case, you are more likely to get action from callers, possibly even a re-raise from an opponent with a strong hand – but second-best to your set. Remember, he has no idea you hold top set.

As the dealer places the turn card on the board, instead of focusing on the card itself, try to watch your opponents’ faces, especially their eyes, as they first see the turn card. (You can look at the card afterwards. It won’t change.) That would be a good tell as to how the card effected his hand.

Body language can help too. Did he suddenly sit straight up in his seat and look around at the other players, indicating the card helped his hand? If so, what do you think he might be holding? Is your set in trouble? If you are almost certain your trip 10’s is still the leader, by all means, bet, or raise if someone bets before you. Remember: Your goal is to maximize your win.

The turn is the best time to build your pot. If an opponent with a drawing hand does not improve on the turn, he is likely to fold to a bet on the river. You may not get any action on the river.

Bottom Line: Flopping top set is a great opportunity to maximize your wins. Toward that end, slow-play is a viable strategy. Usually, in a limit game, raising is best on the turn when the bets are doubled.

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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