Set Mining in Tournaments
Set mining in tournaments is an art in and of itself. You are going to have scenarios where set mining is right and profitable, but there will also be endless spots where the numbers won't justify moving forward. It's often stated that poker is a game of numbers and math. While the actual math involved in poker, as it relates to skill, is often greatly overstated, set mining is one of the plays that relies on it the most. If you are unable to make some basic calculations as to your chances of hitting and getting paid off with a set, you may as well not play any small or middle pairs at all. Sure, pairs have natural value, but they usually require significantly improved strength if they want a chance at taking down a huge pot.
Tournament play tends to create three different types of stack sizes. There are times (like the beginning of an event) where you have several hundred big blinds and can play many hands without real risk to a good portion of your stack. The next type of stack size will fall somewhere in between large and small. It's in these levels that you can play a lot of pots, but you still need to be selective.
The last and final type of stack in tournaments is small or even micro sized. When you have a small stack, it means that you are hanging on by a thread. You really need something to happen or you are likely to go broke. Given this information, this article is going to analyze the viability of and approach to set mining within these three dimensions.
Set Mining with a Huge Stack
Set mining with a huge stack is going to be the most relaxing time to ever play your pocket pairs. Your investment is going to be small relative to your potential, a loss will not hurt you, and you have the advantage in just about every way imaginable. Now, the important thing to remember is that a huge stack (and any other stack) is going to be in relation to your opponents. If a tournament has just begun, you are really just average. The potential in set mining lies in your ability to get all of the money in the middle. If you are playing with hundreds of big blinds but don't have a real lead over your opponents, this is usually going to require a big bluff or a cooler. When you do truly have a lead, however, things are going to be much easier.
Let's say that you are one of the chip leads mid-way through a tournament. When you have a pocket pair, set mining is going to require little more than playing slow pre-flop and slow post-flop, regardless of whether or not you hit a hand. Your stack size will enable you with the opportunity to call down bets even if you don't improve, which is one of the biggest assets to set mining with more chips than other players.
Likewise, players will be more inclined to stack off if they are short compared to you when you do manage to land a set. As backwards as it might seem, a huge stack can often times allow for the most passive approach (when you include missed sets). A huge stack should allow you to win big pots, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you should always be playing big pots, and there is a difference. Like anything else in poker, carefully picking your spots is key.
Set Mining with a Moderate Stack
Set mining with a moderate stack is both the trickiest and the easiest time to play pocket pairs. The reason for this is that you'll have few pre-flop options and that giving up post-flop will be easy to do. Without the luxury of chips to spare, you aren't going to need to even consider the idea of floating other players' bets. If you call a raise pre-flop and end up totally bricking the board, folding to most bets will become second nature.
As cut and dry as this might appear, it's worth noting that sometimes you'll still need to change gears and be aggressive. Missing a set doesn't always mean that you should give up. If a player, especially one with a big stack in a tournament, seems to be making continuation bets over and over, shoving to a flop bet could very well make sense. Of course, this is heavily reliant on the texture of the flop and so on and so forth. Though messing around and getting fancy is usually a bad idea, there are definitely some situations where creative play is worth looking into.
Set Mining with a Small Stack
Set mining with a small stack is all but impossible to do. The very premise of effective and profitable set mining calls for proper pot odds and implied pot odds. If you are playing with just a few big blinds, this is going to be irrelevant, because most everyone at your table will have you covered. In fact, you won't even be able to cover your odds with the amount of blinds that you have left. For example, if you have 8 big blinds and a player raises 3x, calling the bet with the intention of set mining is flawed because you have next to no room to fold on the flop. With a small or micro sized stack, set mining should be converted into pushing or folding.
With all of that said, there's a possibility that limping would allow for set mining. If you are in late position with 11 big blinds and several players limp ahead, calling the bet could set you up for a great double up opportunity. You are unlikely to get all folds if you shove now, you have position post-flop, and you can even give up if you miss and face bets. The reason that set mining would work here is because nothing else really does. It's not so much that chasing after a set makes a lot of sense in and of itself, but that the other options are worse. Sometimes you just have to pick the best of the worst, and this will be a recurring theme when you are nursing a short stack.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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