The Joy Of Sets

Ah, the mighty set. Does anything compare to the feeling we get when the dealer spreads the flop and shows us exactly what we were hoping for when we limped in and then called a raise? Apart from those rare occasions where we flop Broadway or limp with a suited ace and make the nut flush right off the bat (which is usually only of limited profitability anyway), the set is poker's greatest thrill. It is also, in my honest (if disposable) opinion, one of the most commonly misplayed. Most of the books will tell you that big hands play themselves. The hell with that. The goal of poker is to make as much money as possible, and the set could always stand to make more. But even the maniacs tend to revert to tried-and-true slowplay when they make the hand that's supposed to pay them back for all the action they've given the table. See if you can remember the last time you were surprised when you bet an overpair on the turn, got checkraised despite the paucity of draws, check-called the river and saw your opponent turn up a set. It's old hat. You knew it was coming. My friends, the traditional slowplay of the set has jumped the shark. It does not extract maximum value. I think there's a better way, and I offer it here for your approval. Laying The Groundwork To get full value for a set, you've got to be recognized as someone who will be aggressive with a marginal hand - but in most online games today you should be doing that anyway. Blind defense is one of the best ways to establish this image. Whether it's a raised or unraised pot, I will nearly always checkraise the flop with top pair no kicker (or, if the pot's shorthanded, even middle pair). This often falls into the category of bluffing with the best hand, especially on a paintless flop, and reverse implied odds be damned - if I can get it heads-up, I'll play out of position against someone with a six-outer all day. (I do keep track of players who will bet-call the flop with an overpair, hoping to raise my lead on the turn.) I lose a few bets this way when I'm beat or drawn out on but probably make up for it when the turn blanks and a lone opponent folds overcards (or calls a turn bet and then misses on the river). (N.B.: I don't know whether this is true or not, but a willingness to play a marginal hand strongly out of the blinds seems to make it more likely that your blinds will be attacked, not less - maybe because the promise of action makes the button's Q7o seem that much stronger. I do know that it's one of the cheapest and most effective forms of advertising, much cheaper than trying to run a bluff through the aggressive-passive players who go from flop maniacs to turn and river calling stations.) You can do similar things from middle position, though usually it requires that you lead out with QJo at a jack-high flop and be willing to threebet the preflop raiser's raise - since they're as likely to be doing it with AK or AQ as AJ. Though this means sometimes putting in an extra small bet or two when you're behind, it does add some definition to your hand and, since it will often eliminate a straggler with middle pair, also helps you suss out the draws, which can save you two big bets on the turn. Clobberin' Time Here's where the hard work pays off. The players against whom you'll get the best value for your set are the ones who are a bit loose overall but don't do much value-raising preflop. A raise from such a player usually indicates a strong hand, preferably a high pocket pair - the stronger their hand is, the better off you are. If I've flopped a set out of the blinds, and I think my opponent likely has an overpair or TPTK, I'll do exactly what I always do when I flop a hand he can beat - I'll checkraise. If I'm in middle position, I'll lead and let the raiser raise, then call. This will a) convince my opponent that I've got a hand I'm willing to play, and probably one he can beat; and b) charge a good price to any drawing hands, whose owners won't know that their edge is much thinner than usual this time around. If one or two players drop out, so much the better. The fishy calling stations will stick around no matter what, and - this is key, here - the fewer the players in the pot, the stronger your opponent will perceive his hand to be. Turnin' Tricks What you do next depends on your opponent's action. If my presumptive-overpair threebets the flop, I like to sit back and imagine myself splashing around in a fountain of dollar bills. He thinks he has the best hand. Let him keep thinking it, because he will almost always follow up with a turn bet, which you can promptly checkraise. There are many opponents who still won't give you credit for a big hand here because you played it so strongly on the flop - by playing your monster like a marginal hand, you've put yourself in position to capitalize on your opponent's perceptions. Yes, if your opponent threebets you on the turn you have to consider the possibility of set-over-set; I usually consider it for a length of time measurable in nanoseconds before deciding whether to cap the turn or go for a river checkraise. Note that the turn card is almost irrelevant. That's because if it's small, your opponent still has an overpair, and if it's a paint, it either helped his hand or probably didn't help yours. The appearance of an ace might cost you a bet or two if your opponent puts you on top or middle pair with an ace kicker; on the other hand, it might make top two for your opponent and get you still more action. A board pair might slow him down, but if it pairs the top card, you might get to cap the turn and river with your boat against his top trips. Countin' Chips As the saying goes, if you flop a set and lose, and you didn't lose a whole lot of money, you didn't play it right. The way I'm describing here will indeed lose you more money when your set goes down in flames. But it's those little extra bets you chisel out of your opponents that really make your bottom line. Discounting the blinds, the traditional flop check-call, turn check-raise, river bet line earns you 3.5BB from a lone opponent. Once you factor in the blinds, you're getting 4.25BB, which barely even compensates you for the odds you take to flop the set in an unraised pot in the first place. The method I've described (though, granted, it depends on certain conditions) ekes at least an extra BB out of the process. This math is fast and loose and ignores the times you'll actually get a pocket pair that wins on its own, but: You're 16:1 to get a pocket pair before the flop. If you're playing in a very fast online game, you might see four pocket pairs in an hour; you'll flop a set about once every two hours. That means an extra .5BB/hr. Multiply that by the 2.9 billion hours you spend playing poker every month, and that makes you John Fucking Rockefeller. When that happens, send cash. I'm running bad.


Anonymous Online Wong PoK√©r Hu said...

I am not a great poker player, however I do appreciate your attempt to deviate from the conventional strategies. In my opinion, great players are defined not by their winnings, but by their ability to rise in different circumstances and utilize different strategies.

11/24/2005 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger roqq said...

I wonder if your method of advertising might prove too expensive to be worth it, but you at least say you are trying to get people to think that you are loose cheaply, so maybe you are right. Ironically, I think I try to advertise more through blind stealing than blind defending, so I suppose if we met there could be a real bloodbath! Well, probably not, since I probably wouldn't push too hard beyond the flop. Overall I think I get the most value from my sets through table selection. If you can find the right people to pay you off, they will do it regardless of your image. Of course, if you are playing at higher limits than me you may not have the same luxury.

12/17/2005 04:41:00 AM  

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