The joy of set mining

Are you making the most of your small pocket pairs? We explain how with our set mining masterclass

If you read hand discussions in magazines or on strategy forums, you’ll often see the term ‘set mining’. But what does it mean? In simple terms, set mining is getting involved with small pairs, in an attempt to flop a set and win big. The concept of set mining assumes that if you don’t flop a set, you’ll usually give up after the flop. It’s something of a derogatory term, in that it’s often used to describe a strategy used by unimaginative, tight players, especially online. But set mining is a perfectly reasonable strategy in the right situations.

Set mining is closely linked to the concept of implied odds. Implied odds is an extension of pot odds, which takes into account the money you could win and lose on future betting rounds, in addition to the current round. You can use implied odds to justify a call where the pot odds would usually be insufficient (or, conversely, a fold where the pot odds seem good, called reverse implied odds).

To give an extreme example, let’s say you’re playing nine-handed $1/$2 no-limit Hold’em and you have 2-2 on the button. A very tight under-the-gun player moves all-in for $200, and everyone folds to you. Should you call? There is $203 in the pot and it costs you $200 to call, so your pot odds are 1.015-to-1. Obviously you should fold your deuces, as these odds aren’t good enough against a tight opening range. Now let’s say that instead of moving in, the UTG player raises to $6. The effective stacks are still $200. The pot odds still won’t be good enough to call, but remember that your opponent has $194 left to bet. If everything goes well, you could win his entire stack. This is a clear set mining opportunity, as you’re looking to flop a set and will very rarely continue after the flop without one. Is it worth calling the $6 with the intention of folding every time you miss? The answer is complex and depends on many things.

Profitable set mining

In hold’em you will flop a set about once in every 8.5 times you see the flop with a pocket pair. So even if you assume that you will be paid off every time you flop a set, you still need to compensate for the times you miss. Sticking with the same simple example, 7.5 times you will miss your set and fold to a bet on the flop, losing $6 each time, for a total cost of $45.

Therefore, the one time that you do hit your set, you need to win at least $45 just to break even. So you’re looking to make this type of call against opponents with deep stacks. As a rough guide, many players use the ‘ten times rule’ for this situation, and will only make the call when their opponent has at least ten times the initial raise in reserve. This larger figure accounts for the times when you hit a set, but don’t get paid off. In tournaments or short-stacked ring games, it’s often much harder to justify this type of call because there simply isn’t enough money to win (your opponents won’t often have ten times the initial raise).

The next factor to consider is how often your opponent will commit a lot of money after the flop with the worst hand. Thankfully, it’s common in low stakes games for players to commit their entire stack with top pair or an overpair, and this is the ideal environment in which to set-mine. In tougher games, players read their opponents better and fold big hands when necessary, so you should be less inclined to set-mine.

It also helps if your opponent is likely to have the sort of hand that he will call you with after the flop. Although you might expect that loose players would be better to set-mine against, this isn’t necessarily true, as loose players will often not have anything to call you with after the flop, and therefore might not pay you off. It’s much better for your opponent to be either a calling station or a very aggressive player, as you can then make money either by value-betting your hand (in the case of the calling station) or by slow-playing (in the case of the aggressive player).

In addition to your opponent’s aggressiveness, it’s actually better to set-mine against an early position raise, which is more likely to be a strong hand, than a raise from late position, which could merely be a steal.

It also helps to be in position after the flop, as this will allow you to better judge from your opponent’s actions whether you should play your hand aggressively straight away, or slow down and allow them to catch up a bit. What should you do if the pot is reraised after you call? Well, you simply apply the same criteria again. It’s now even more likely that your opponent has a hand to pay you off, but the amount you have to commit to the pot is larger. However, if the effective stacks are really deep, you might still be able to win a lot of money and it might be worth calling.

Now that you know the secret to set mining, you should be careful not to take it too far! Many players set-mine too often, especially late in tournaments where the stacks are rarely deep enough to justify it. One common scenario in which it is not usually profitable to set-mine is when you’re playing against a strong, aggressive opponent, who will exercise good pot control after the flop. Against this type of player, you might not make enough money with your set to justify calling.

Another situation where you might not set-mine is if it’s highly likely that there will be a reraise after you call, and you won’t be able to call that reraise. If there’s a player at your table who is fond of squeezing, or if there’s a player behind you that is looking for a good opportunity to move all-in, then you should be much less liberal in calling the first raise.

No worries

Should you worry about your opponent making a higher set than you (so-called ‘set over set’)? In short, no. Even if you were certain your opponent held a pocket pair there is still only a one in 99 chance of you both flopping sets at the same time. So unless you have some sort of incredible read on your opponent, you should almost never be willing to fold a set on the flop. It’s just too likely that you’re winning.

You should be more cautious when the pot is multi-way, of course. If there are five or six players in the pot, the chances of set over set are higher, and there’s also a greater chance that your set will run into a flush or a straight. But in general, multi-way pots can be beneficial, as they increase both your initial pot odds and the chances that somebody will make a hand with which to pay you off. To be honest, if you’re too scared of set over set to commit your chips, then perhaps poker isn’t the game for you!

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