How to play a set

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What is a set?

A set is the name used for three-of-a-kind, when your pocket pair connects with a third card of its kind on the communal board.

Flopping a set puts you in one of the best situations that you can be in at a poker table. A set is a very strong, disguised hand that has the ability to crush players holding big overpairs to the board or two pair hands. It doesn’t rank as high as a flush or straight, but it’s very infrequent that anyone ever flops either of those big hands and, unless you’re unlucky enough to get in the dreaded set-over-set situation, you’ll always have plenty of outs to hit a full house. It’s often a good idea to fast-play this hand if someone shows strength or it’s a draw-heavy board (you don’t want to give someone the right price to draw to a straight or flush). The only time you might want to think about slow playing is if perhaps you’re heads-up on an uncoordinated board and are extremely unlikely to be outdrawn. Slow playing here gives someone a chance to catch up and pay you off.

The magic number

But how do you get the set in the first place? First, you need to be dealt a pocket pair, which will happen about once every 17 hands. Second, you have to flop your third card, which will only happen about 12% of the time (although you’ll make a set around 20% of the time if you see all five community cards).

The main point to keep in mind is that if your pocket pair needs to improve to win the hand you need to make sure playing the hand is not going to cost you too many of your chips. In a lot of situations you don’t need your pocket Aces, Kings, Queens or Jacks to hit a set to have the best hand, but with smaller pairs, there is an increasingly smaller chance of your hand being able to stand up to action without improving. For this reason, make sure that if you’re calling a raise to make a set, you’re not putting more than 10% of your chips in at any one point.

Postflop play

There are a lot of questions to ask when you flop a set but the first, and most important one, should always be, ‘How can I get all my opponent’s chips into the middle?’

If the blinds are small compared to the chip stacks (i.e. you’re playing a cash game or it’s the early stages of a tournament) and you’re first to act, it’s often a good idea to check-raise on the flop or turn, trapping money in the pot when they take a stab at the pot with nothing. Check to the raiser with the expectation that they will continuation bet and then raise them to around 2.5 times their bet. If they have absolutely nothing they will fold, but don’t think of this as an opportunity wasted. You’re making the play for the times that they do have a hand and you can get a lot of chips. 

Try to judge how aggressive your opponent is. The angrier they play the faster you should play your hand, as snap-calls and rash all-ins are more likely. If the board looks dangerous with high cards and a flushdraw you’re best betting out straight away. Leading out on the flop will not only build the pot, allowing for increasingly bigger bets on the turn and river, but will elbow weak draws out of the way and almost certainly still get action from a player with top pair or two-pair, who will be in huge trouble against your hand.

If the pot is already fat compared to your opponent’s chip stack, and you’re acting before them, a check will give them the chance to bluff-shove all their chips into your monster. In this case trapping is the best option because if you bet first your opponent must have a good hand to play on, as they’ll know that they’re committed for the rest of their chips. Give them the rope to hang themselves.

Hitting a set in a multi-way pot 

Playing a set slowly against one opponent can be worthwhile, but doing so against multiple opponents is a recipe for disaster. Only the very driest of boards, such as Kc-8h-3s, will bring a turn card that isn’t going to have you worrying about a straight or flush, so don’t give free cards. Bet anywhere between half to full pot and hope to get action from drawing hands, flopped two-pairs and, if you’re really lucky, fish that can’t get away from top pair.

Set-over-set

Being on the wrong end of flopping a smaller set to a bigger set is one of the most unfortunate situations in no-limit hold’em. The odds against it happening are slight though, and you can’t read too much into it – it just happens sometimes. When someone makes a standard raise with J-J and you call with 6-6 and are ‘gifted’ a 5-6-J flop you’re very unlikely to get away from the hand. If all the chips go in, which is very likely given the situation, you’ll be drawing to just one out to win the hand. Not good. But don’t let it put you off – if you can get your chips in every time you flop a set you will be a big winner in the long run.

The stats

How often will you flop a set with a pocket pair? 11.76%

What’s the chance of being dealt a pair AND flopping a set on any given hand? 0.69%

When you flop a set how often will you fill up to a full house or better? 33.4%

Roughly how often will a set beat an overpair on a rainbow flop? 88-91%

If you flop a lower set than your opponent how often will you hit quads? 4.34%

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