One of the most dangerous hands to deal with in no limit hold em is the dreaded set. When you flop a hand like top pair at low or medium blinds, the hand you’re always most worried about is the set. When the blinds are truly high as a percentage of your stack you’re just going to ignore the possibility, because you can’t afford to fold any legitimate hands at that point. Plus, when the blinds are high few players are going to stick around with a small pair hoping to flop a set. But anytime before the second round of antes, you always have to be on guard for an opponent looking to flop the set. If he hits it when you flop a decent top pair, you could risk all or most of your stack in a fairly hopeless situation.

So how do we sniff out a set in no limit hold em? The only way I know of is to put your opponent to the test, and see what his reaction is. An opponent showing WAY too much interest on a rainbow board after a bet and a raise is unlikely to be afraid of top pair. But if the board is suited and/or straightening then you have a much harder time trying to figure out what you could be up against.

With that in mind I’d like to illustrate a hand I recently sat through — and badly misplayed. We’re playing Seat 8 in middle position, and the villain is immediately to our right, acting right before us. We’ve watched villain and he’s a very loose player that makes much larger than average raises (4x the bb) with a variety of speculative hands, such as QJ offsuit. He raises even more with his strong hands from what we’ve seen, including one hand we saw him raise 5x the bb with AQ. We’ve even watched him call a 3x re-raise of one of his large initial raises with QJ. He managed to outflop AK to double up that hand. He likes to play a variety of aces from any position and many suited cards, and he’s very aggressive whether he makes a hand or not. He’s not our favorite player at the table because he’s raising a lot ahead of us and is very tough to read.

This hand, the blinds are $25/$50, and villain raises to $200 (4x the bb) from third position. We act right behind him and find an AT of clubs. Ordinarily I’d be inclined to re-raise here and isolate a loose player with what figures to be the best hand, but I don’t want to build a huge pot with a mediocre holding. Plus, I think there’s zero chance that villain is ever going to fold before the flop. So I take the more conservative route and just call. I could also make a strong argument for folding a marginal hand against such an erratic player, but I think that’s a bit weak, especially since we have a very big stack ($5,370) nearly twice the size of anyone else at the table. The cutoff and button both call behind us, and the blinds fold. The pot is now $875, and four players see the flop:

Villain leads out for $100 into the $875 pot, a minimum bet. We’re next to act. At this point, we have $5,170 left in our stack, villain has $2,555, and the players to act behind us have $1,545 and $5,750 respectively. Now, on this board we’ve flopped top pair with a mediocre kicker. Calling is out of the question here. If villain had a better ace than us, why would he bet so little on a board with possible straight and flush draws? This looks like exactly the sort of probe bet that a loose, inexperienced player would use to try to buy a cheap turn card. Also, if we merely call, we’ll invite a raise from one of the two players still to act behind us, who may sense weakness if the action in front of them is merely a weak bet and a call. The button in particular is a very tight but aggressive opponent who would probably pounce on such weakness.

We decide to raise to $500. We’re not afraid of the loose, initial bettor but concerned that the cutoff or button might have an actual hand. Both players have been playing very tight and might have elected to merely flat-call with hands like AQ or AJ behind us. We might even be able to scare AJ out of the pot with a bet and a raise up front.

We raise to $500, and both the cutoff and button fold. Villain re-raises us $750 to $1250. The pot is now $2,725 and it costs us $750 to call. We have $4,670 left in our stack and villain has $1,305. What should we do?

This is probably the point in the hand where I should have realized I was either beat somehow, or villain had a hand that wasn’t worth an unnecessary risk. I’d only lost $700 at this point, but continuing to play would cost me $2,055 more (the amount of villain’s raise and the rest of his stack, which was surely all going in there). I could have folded and walked away with $4,670 and been in strong contention in the tournament regardless (starting stack sizes were $1,500). But I ignored the information that I extracted with my raise. Remember: bets and raises are designed to extract information from your opponents, and unless you have a good reason to doubt what a bet means, you should respect what a bet is trying to tell you.

Here, I initially interpreted villain’s min bet as a probe bet designed to provide cover for some kind of draw, and responded aggressively. I don’t think this was a mistake, as most loose players in villain’s class actually would make a weak bet like this on a draw. They would generally fold to a raise, however. If they didn’t, they’d probably just go crazy and go all-in with whatever random hand they were min-betting initially. A small, calculated third bet is not in the crazy, loose player’s repertoire. If he really had the flush draw, why would he three bet the hand for so little?

In fact, at the time I convinced myself he must have something like the QJ of diamonds, for an inside straight-flush draw. I couldn’t put him on a big ace for four reasons: (1) AK was on board which makes it less likely he had that particular hand; (2) I had an ace in my hand which made it less likely he had an ace in his; (3) I’d seen him raise 5x the bb with strong aces and in fact he only raised 4x this hand; and (4) I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t make a healthy continuation bet on a flushing and straightening board like that. Since I had a T to help block some of his straight draw potential and plenty of chips to spare, I pushed all-in and villain instantly calls. He turns over a set of 4s and I don’t get nearly enough help to win this hand. In hold em, there’s nothing worse than putting your money in drawing nearly dead!

In retrospect, the min bet was a very clever trap laid by a player who had flopped a very powerful hand and expected to be raised by one of the three players acting behind him, one of whom probably had an ace. He wasn’t concerned about giving a cheap turn card both because of the resilience of the set hand (which could always turn into a full house if the board pairs) and because he knew his weak bet was likely to be raised if anyone had an ace. I made the mistake of not respecting villain’s play merely because he was loose, when in fact I’ve since seen that he is capable of a variety of tricky plays like this.

But the biggest mistake is ignoring the betting information: anytime you see the sequence bet, raise, small re-raise, you need to stop and pay attention. I don’t think I’ve ever played a hand out with that betting sequence that I haven’t regretted the results. It’s one thing if another player pulls the trigger for all of his chips after you raise his flop bet. That could be strength or weakness. But a relatively small third bet is usually a very bad sign. Always be on the lookout for the set at the low and middle limits, and remember: there’s no shame in folding top pair if it prevents you from taking an unnecessary risk.

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