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Playing Texas hold’em, having been dealt a pair in the hole, you stay to see the flop along with several opponents. No one raises. The flop gives you a matching card to your pair – three-of-a-kind.

In that case, when you start with a pair, that’s called a set. If you start with two unpaired holecards, flopping a pair on the board that matches one of your holecards, gives you “trips.” The value of flopping a set versus trips is no one has any idea you hold three-of-a-kind. That’s a big advantage.

It won’t happen all that often. Starting with a pair in the hole, the odds are about 8-to-1 against catching the set. But it does happen. So it’s best to be prepared.

Of course, any set – even a set of deuces, is a powerful hand. It is a made hand that could very well win the pot even without further improvement. Certainly, you want to make the most of it.

What’s the best way to play your set?

The answer – as usual in such cases: It depends. Most important is to recognize any set (or trips) is somewhat vulnerable. Even a set of Aces will be beat by a straight or flush. Here are some things to consider:

• How high is your set? Of course, a set of Aces is the best. A small set can be beat by a higher-ranked one. And, an opponent could make a straight, a flush, even a full-house; and quads are still possible. That would render your set a costly underdog.

Study the board as the hand progresses. On that basis, is it likely an opponent could make a better hand? Observe your opponents. Any tells?

Surely, you can hope to fill up to a full-house when a pair comes on the board – rare but it does happen. If so, you would prefer that it be lower in rank than your set. But, even a higher pair is usually OK; it’s not likely an opponent has a higher full-house. Still, it’s best to be cautious.

• What is your position? The later the better. It always helps to know how your opponents act before you have to make your decision. If they all check to you, consider whether to slow-play to build the pot on later streets when the bets are bigger. That would be best when you hold a high set. With a small set, it would be wise to bet or raise to thin the field, improving the chance your set will hold up; don’t give anyone a “free card.”

• What kind of players are you up against? How should this affect your play?

Loose players are best; you can expect to win more chips from them as they are likely to chase you to the river – especially since your set is well concealed.

Pay special attention to aggressive players. You can’t be sure how they will react. Watch them for tells. If one raises your bet, most likely he has a big pair. In that case, he has just two outs. Your set has a huge edge. Consider a reraise to get more chips into the pot.

• How can you build the size of the pot?

Remember, your hand is well concealed; your opponents have no idea as to its strength. That enhances your big edge after flopping the set. The odds strongly favor you. So it would make good sense to try to build the pot. Be prepared to use deceptive tactics such as slow-playing to keep opponents in the hand, and check-raising – especially in a loose game when you can be quite sure an opponent will bet out after you check. If you use the check-raise on the turn, it would make good sense to bet for value on the river.

• In a no-limit game, stack size is also important. The more chips your opponent has, the more you can hope to extract from him.

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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