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Playing for Set-Value

Playing for Set-Value 0001

Playing for setvalue, what exactly does that mean? Most of you probably already know what it means, but for those of you who don't, heres a brief explanation. Playing for setvalue means that you play a pocket pair with the aim of flopping a set. If you don't hit your set, you give up your hand in 95% of the cases. In this article we will discuss situations in which you limp with a low pocket pair and get confronted with a raise. We will also talk about situations where you put your opponent on a very strong hand, and you will have to improve your hand by hitting a set in order to win the hand. Often you will be forced to call a raise or reraise in order to see a flop. In situations like these you will then have to ask yourself whether or not your preflop call is profitable or not.

The 5/10 rule

The 5/10 rule implies that you can call a raise with a pocket pair if the raise is less than 5% of your effective stack and that you have to fold if the raise is more than 10% of your effective stack. If the raise is somewhere in between, you will have to rely on your own judgment. With effective stack I mean the stack that can effectively end up in the pot. If player A has a stack of $50 and player B has a stack of $30, none of the two can win more than $30. The 5/10 rule is about implied odds. If your opponent has a shortstack, or he raises more than 10% of his stack before the flop, your preflop call is no longer profitable. If, on the other hand, both of you have large stacks in front of you, you can always call with the goal of winning his whole stack.

Personally I'm not a great fan of the 5/10 rule, as I believe that a call/fold decision is based on more factors than just the effective stack. Some players also believe that the 5/10 rule isn't up to date anymore as the games nowadays are a lot more aggressive. As a result, you will now stack your opponent less often, because he now tends to raise with more marginal hands. This is definitely correct, but also the fact that the 5/10 rule is only focusing on stack sizes is a strong argument not to use this rule.

First, a couple of odds

Before discussing all the factors, we first need to calculate a couple of odds.

The chance that you WON'T flop a set is (48/50) x (47/49) x (46/48) = 0.8825 or 88.25 %. Therefore, the chance that you do flop a set is 1 - 0.8825 = 0.1175 or 11.75 %. Is this enough for our analysis? No! Because even if we do flop a set, there is still that chance of us losing the hand. Think of flushes and straights that your opponent might hit. On average you are an 88% favorite to win the hand if you flop a set.

So how big is the chance of flopping a set and winning the hand? This would be 0.1175 x 0.88 = 0.1034 or 10.34 %. Let's just assume that 10% is a good estimate for the number of hands we will win when playing for setvalue.

Some players often use the well known 82% to 18% relationship that exists between an overpair and an underpair. For example: with {4-Spades}{4-Clubs} against {k-Hearts}{k-Spades}, you roughly have 18% chance of winning the hand. This 18% statistic can be used in preflop all-in situations, but in cash games that will seldom be the case, as you will hardly ever see a turn and river if you don't flop your set. Therefore this 18% figure is far to big to use here.

In addition to that, some critics might claim that in 5% of the cases, where you don't flop a set, you can still win the hand if you flop and open end straight draw for example. This could increase your 10% winning chance. But we can always make things more difficult for ourselves by coming up with all kinds of scenarios on the flop. We are purely talking about setvalue here, and by sticking to the 10% mark we are already being very realistic with our chances of winning in the long run.

Analyzing the important factors

Range of villain

To begin with there are some general things that we can figure out by thinking logically. If villain raises or reraises, we can put him on a certain range. The tighter this range is, the more tempted we should be to play for setvalue. Why? Well, let's assume we get {5-Hearts}{5-Diamonds} against villain 1, and later on against villain 2. Villain 1 is extremely tight. If he raises you can almost be sure that he is holding JJ+. He doesn't even raise AK because he thinks a long the lines of: "hit something first, then bet". Villain 2 plays differently. He is lose and raises preflop with every pair, suited Ace, suited connectors etc¦

Now imagine each one of you has a stack of 100BB. Villain 1 raises. Call or fold? Beginners will often think "I'm going to fold, he has me beat anyway", in this situation. If you have little or no implied odds (like towards the end of a tournament), this would be correct. In a cashgame, where you often have >100BB in front of you, it wouldn't be. You call and hope to see a flop along the lines of {5-Spades}{2-Hearts}{8-Diamonds} so that he can never fold his {a-Hearts}{a-Spades}. You are going for his entire stack here.

A couple of hands later villain 2 makes a raise and you have {5-Diamonds}{5-Hearts} again. What to do now? Well, in this case you wouldn't only want to play for setvalue since you have less implied odds. Now I'm not saying you should fold here! You just need to be aware that this loose villain is not going to push with his {7-Spades}{8-Spades} on a {5-Spades}{2-Hearts}{9-Diamonds} flop.

So remember, the wider the range of your opponent, the less likely you are to stack him. Someone who only raises with AA/KK is much easier to stack than someone who raises with every hand that has a nice color.

Postflop aggression and level of villain

This is also an important factor. Some villains will practically never C-bet if they don't hit, while other villains might fire out a 2nd or 3rd barrel (betting the flop, turn and/or river with air). Playing for setvalue obviously becomes more interesting against aggressive opponents.

The more aggressive villain is playing, the more money you can get into the pot before the flop. You already start licking your fingers after flopping your set against an opponent who likes to lie by firing out bets on the flop, turn and river. But nothing is more frustrating than flopping a set and see villain fold against a 1/3 pot bet.

The skill level of your opponent is also very important. Some players are so bad that they will call off their entire stack with QQ on a k-high board. Some players can never fold their AA postflop, while others may have no problem mucking their Aces. Better opponents will give you less action after the flop, which makes it hard to build up a pot.

Money issues

I will now describe 3 situations. They differ only in one aspect: the amount your opponent 3-bets. Imagine both you and villain have a stack of 100BB in front of you. You get {10-Diamonds}{10-Hearts} UTG+1. UTG folds and you raise to 4BB. Everyone folds towards villain on the button, who makes it 8BB (example 1), 12BB (example 2) and 16BB (example 3). SB and BB fold and you need to make a decision. Villain has been playing very tight and you put him on an overpair.

If you call, is that profitable in the long run? 10% of the time you will hit a set and win the hand. The other 90% of the time you will have to fold on the flop. If you don't hit a set, you will lose the cost of the call. If you do hit, you will win the current pot (don't forget to include the SB, BB and maybe limpers) + a certain amount X. The number X gives you your implied odds: what can I get out of my opponent if I hit my set? We know that X can't be greater than what villain has in front of him after the reraise. Here is how you would calculate your EV for the 3 examples:

EV = (chance of hitting a set and winning)(current pot + X) + (chance of losing)(cost of the call).

Example 1

EV = (0.10)(13.5BB + X) + (0.90)(-4BB)

Example 2

EV = (0.10)(17.5BB + X) + (0.90)(-8BB)

Example 3

EV = (0.10)(21.5BB + X) + (0.90)(-12BB)

Let's take a look at these equations in the form of a graph:

Playing for Set-Value 101

First of all one important remark. All the lines in this graph end at a certain X. Line 1 is longer than line 2, which again is longer than line 3. This is because X is decreasing because villain raises more preflop. The more he raises preflop, the smaller his stack is after the flop, which reduces the value of X.

In example 1 you can see that you already break even (EV=0) when X = 22.5BB. This is definitely doable. In example 2 it gets a little bit more tricky. Here you break even when X = 54.5BB. That is more than half a stack you have to win postflop on average, and whether or not that is possible depends on villain. If he only raises with AA this could be possible. But if he raises with 22+/AJs+ this will be a lot more difficult. Example 3 is completely hopeless, as you can never break even in this situation. You could only break even once you win an average of 86.5BB postflop. This is not even possible since villain only has 100BB - 16BB = 84BB left after his preflop reraise. In that case you cannot call for setvalue

Let's imagine now that we let the player UTG raise to 4xBB instead of folding. You call with pocket 10's and the same player on the button raises to 8BB/12BB/16BB, just like before. How does the situation change? Well, for a start, there are 4BB more in the pot now.

Adjusting the graph:

Playing for Set-Value 102

You see that now, in example 1 you can call when X = 18.5BB, and in example 2 when X = 50.5BB. You can now even call in example 3 when X = 82.5BB, although you would have to be sure to ALWAYS stack villain every time you flop your set. As you can see, the player UTG has now improved your situation by putting more money in the pot before the flop.

From this graph we can see that stacks, your implied odds, the cost of your call and the money in the pot are all factors that need to be considered.


After this analysis we can summarize a couple of points:

Range villain:

- smaller: better to call for setvalue

- wider: rather not call for setvalue (maybe for pair value)

Against players with a small range you can best play for setvalue. You can do the same against loose players, but you might want to reraise him instead of calling his raise, either because you think your pair is good or to increase the pressure on him. Just bear in mind that you get less implied odds against loose players because they often enter pots with marginal hands.

Postflop agression:

- more: better to call for setvalue

- less: rather not play for setvalue

The more aggressive a villain, the more money ends up in the pot. You can trap him by pretending you're on a draw, you can convince him that you're bluffing whatever you do: the more money there is in the pot, the better it is for your setvalue.

Level of villain:

- weak: better to call for setvalue

- better: rather not call for setvalue

Good players can often figure out that you hit your set, and will give you less implied odds. Bad players are easier for you to read, and they will easily push their JJ all-in on a 4-5-8 board. Tilters are also easy to stack. Easy Money!


- bigger: better to call for setvalue

- small: rather not call for setvalue

Big stacks are good, small stacks are not. It is annoying to have a player with 20BB raise and you have to fold your {4-Clubs}{4-Spades} because there's nothing for you to win anyway. Stacks that are bigger than 100BB are usually OK. With small preflop raises, a stack between 60BB and 100BB will also do. With more players in the pot, there is also more stack to play for, so you can easily play for setvalue in a multi-way pot.

Cost of the preflop call

- less: better to play for setvalue

- more: rather not play for setvalue

Do you have to call 4BB or 5BB to see a flop? That one extra BB might not seem as much, but in the long run that one BB can change the value of your X dramatically. By the time a player 3-bets you to 4x your initial raise, it is pretty much impossible to call for setvalue, unless you maybe have a tilting opponent or massive stacks.

Money in the pot (raisers/limpers/callers)

- more: better to play for setvalue

- less: rather not play for setvalue

This factor also plays an important role. The more "dead money" there is in the pot, the better it is for you. This money has a positive influence on your EV, as you could see in the calculations above.


As you can see, there are a couple more factors that play a role when calling for setvalue. The aim of this article was to give you more insight into the situation, not only so you can make better decisions, but also to help you analyze your game better. You could stick to the 5/10 rule, but the decisions you make will improve if you also take into account the factors mentioned in this article.

Good luck & see you at the tables!

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