Ways to play a flopped set

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A set is three of a kind when you start with a pair in the hole. The odds are long against connecting on the flop; but it does happen. It’s a powerful hand, and often wins the pot. What’s the best way to play your flopped set? It depends.

In poker, probability rules the roost. The math of poker is sacrosanct – inviolable. A skilled player will make most of his decisions on that basis. When the pot odds are higher than the card odds – a Positive Expectation – you want to build the size of the pot.

Suppose it’s a limit game. In a late position, you call to see the flop with 9-9 in the hole. That’s a decent starting-hand, but usually must improve to win the pot. The flop is a beauty: 9-8-3 rainbow. Your set of 9’s is bound to be well ahead of each opponent’s hand. The odds are much in your favor.

What are your options? (1) raise; (2) call a bet by a player before you; or (3) just check. Your inclination is to raise the betting to get more chips into the pot – value betting. On the other hand, the latter two options will keep more opponents in the hand, allowing you to better build the pot on the turn and river when the bets are twice as big. What’s your choice?

Here’s some factors to consider. Skill is the key.

• Your image: If you have been playing tight, that’s how your opponents see you. In that case, betting out or raising will force out some opponents, thereby making it difficult to build the pot. And, of course, the opposite holds. A loose and/or deceptive image will keep your “customers” in the hand, helping to build the pot for you.

Much depends on the nature of the flop. If it offers opponents potential for drawing to a straight or flush, it would be wise to try to thin the field; play against two or three opponents, so you are less likely to draw out on. (Better to win a smaller pot than lose a big one.)

• Types of opponents: Being skilled, you are aware of each of your opponent’s playing traits. Take this into consideration as you play your set if it doesn’t improve further – as is likely. Tight players are to be respected – especially if the board offers a draw to a straight or flush. Loose and deceptive opponents are welcome. Let them contribute to “your” pot.

• Did the flop help an opponent? On the flop, there is a bet before you. If it’s by a tight player, most likely he has a strong hand. For the 9-8-3 flop in this case, the best he could have would be a set of 8’s – second-best to your set of 9’s.

• Playing position: On the flop, position can influence how you play your set. In an early position, slow-playing is the wise decision (unless you have good reason to try to thin the field). Let an opponent do the betting for you. In a late position, if several opponents have bet to see the turn, your raise will serve as a value bet, building the pot for you, as they call your raise. But, if only one or two opponents have made a bet, continue to slow-play.

• Betting on the turn when it is a rag: On the turn, the bets/raises have doubled in size. From a late position, if the turn is a rag, and an opponent bets out before you and is called by other opponents, your raise will get customers. (The pot is too big for them to give up at this point.) On the other hand, from an early position, consider making a check-raise – assuming you are relatively certain someone will make the bet.

But betting on the turn also can spell danger: If the card could lead to a straight or a flush – and your hand has not improved beyond the set of 9’s – caution is in order. Look for tells. Likewise, these same considerations pretty much apply on the river.

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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