Sets are great hands, but like any hand in poker, they are exceptionally difficult to play out of position. You should not have any issues making money with sets no matter where you are positioned at the table, but playing pots in position is always the easiest route. Playing your sets out of position can certainly be done effectively. There is a defined difference between playing sets for profit out of position and playing sets for maximum profit. Some players think that so long as they win the hand, they must have played their set just fine. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a number of different situations that you will run across with sets, but each one depends on a handful of different variables.
The primary elements involved with how you should play your sets out of position include pre-flop action, your relative strength given the board, your opponents, and stack sizes. There are some other relative dynamics that will come into play, such as your history with a particular player or two, but these are factors that need to be analyzed on a case by case basis. Once you can quickly break down these four essential elements with your sets out of position, you will have an easier time maximizing your value.
The pre-flop action is relevant in any post-flop situation, not just when you flop a set. Pre-flop play is the foundation for everything else that happens in a hand; it is your main set of context clues that can be used for extended decision making. Assume that you open raise with any random pocket pair. If your open raise was met by a handful of flat calls, you shouldn’t be putting your opponents on particularly strong hands. If, on the other hand, you were 3 bet, the 3 bet was called by another player, and then you called, you should be putting the other players on stronger starting hands. These are the types of things that do not take an expert to figure out. The truly tricky spots are in smaller pots where no one has made a play to assert their position in the hand, such as the open raise followed by calls situation above. While making big investments with small pocket pairs is not the best play, aggression from other players allows you to get a better feel for where you stand.
Relative strength is absolutely critical with sets, regardless of how big the set is or your position. A major leak for many players is not being able to identify the spots where a set was once good, but is now beaten. As strong of a hand as a set might be, it is hardly invincible. You can be easily beaten by straights, flushes, full houses, and even better sets. There are a number of landmines that you will need to look out for whenever you have a set, regardless of how harmless the board might look. One of the worst things you can do is lull yourself into a false sense of security. If you flop a full house or the nut flush, fine, don’t worry about being beaten too much, but a set is seldom going to be the nuts after the last card falls.
The boards to beware of with sets will be obvious to the majority of poker players with any significant amount of experience. You shouldn’t ever feel comfortable when you are holding a hand like 88 on a board of 8h 9h Th. Not only is there a decent shot that your hand is already beat, but there is an even greater shot that it will be dead in the water by the river. The reason that players get attached to their flopped sets is because it does not happen all that often. When you are finally able to land a set, it feels like the pot is already in your hands, but this is a critical mistake in approach that will inevitably cost you a lot of long term money. For the most part, the flop is not going to pose a major threat to your hand, but there will be a lot of hands where you can either be behind or you will need to dodge a lot of cards.
There is little value in playing scared poker, but there is a lot of value in being cautious. Position is important with relative strength because you will need to alter your opponent’s play to cater to your best interests. If the board is draw heavy on the flop, leading out could be a much better option than going for a check raise. A check raise attempt might lead to a simple check back and a bad card falling on the turn, something that you definitely do not want to see with a set. Analyze your particular situation, determine which hands will pay you off, and figure out how to get the money in the middle.
It should go without saying that your opponents will play a vital role when determining the best way to play a flopped set out of position. Loose, aggressive opponents are more likely to ignite the action on their own, while you will need to bet out into passive players.
Knowing how your opponents tend to play is an easy way to capitalize on your hand’s value, sometimes without even needing to do anything on your own at all. There are really only three different types of people you are going to be facing in any given situation: tight, aggressive, or somewhere in between. The game plan against each of these opponents should be straightforward. Bet hard into the people who like to call down, battle with the people who like to make plays, and mix it up with anyone in between. The playing styles of other players in the hand are the biggest indicators of which plays will be the most profitable.
Stack sizes are particularly important pre-flop when you are looking to hit a set. In post-flop situations too, though, they will play a role in how you decide to go about playing your hand. If you are heads up in a pot, out of position, with a set against a short stack, check raising will be a great move. This would be the best play because you will allow the player to bet or bluff off their entire stack on their own. If you lead out in this situation, the player will have an easy decision to fold when they miss the flop. Checking into a short stack out of position allows for the other players to make a mistake and donate their stack to you. Look at it this way, a short stack is likely to get all of their money in on the flop, and checking to them is the easiest way to induce action.
Playing against a big stack out of position with a set is entirely different than playing against a short stack. Big stack players give you an opportunity to either lead out, check raise or check call. Deciding which particular move is best will largely depend on the board and your strategy for the remainder of the hand. If you think your opponent is drawing, leading out makes the most sense. If you think they are strong, a lead bet followed by a turn check raise would be great. If you are not sure where you are at, leading out for two streets may very well be the best play. Nothing is set in stone, but big stacks will almost always allow for additional maneuverability out of position.