Play them well to be successful
of the nicest feelings in poker is to flop a concealed set, one of the strongest
hands in hold'em. In practice, you will do this less than one time out of 200
hands. First, you have to start with a pocket pair, which happens one time out
of 17 hands. Next, you have to be in for the flop. (Needless to say, if you do
not ever fold a pocket pair preflop, you are seeing far too many flops.) Then,
you need to catch one of only two cards in the deck on the three-card flop. You
are slightly worse than a 7-to-1 underdog to flop a set when you have a pocket
pair. No wonder even a veteran like me gets a nice thrill when I flop a set; it
is a fairly rare hand.
A lot of people act like flopping a set relieves them of all responsibilities to play well. This is not true. I will grant you that a set is easier to play than a mediocre hand. But, the fact that you are more likely to get into a big pot means that playing a set well is a large factor in how you do in hold'em, particularly no-limit.
A good hand like a set is going to lose a lot of money if drawn out on, so I am careful to avoid giving a free card to a player who might pick off a gutshot straight and beat me. For example, if the flop was A-J-7 rainbow, I would not check three jacks. In fact, I also would not make a cheap bet. If my opponent has A-K, aces up, or a set of sevens, I am more than happy to give him a chance to hang himself. I do not want to play guessing games on the turn by checking the flop, even though my opponent has a four-outer at best. I do not know his holecards, so if any card from an 8 to a king comes, I have no assurance that my hand is still good. If I bet the flop and he calls, and a straight card comes, I normally will play him for something other than a straight until the betting indicates otherwise. He may be an 11-to-1 underdog to hit a gutshot straight, but the payoff will surely be so big that it will be worth it for him to draw to his gutshot if he can do so cheaply. Do not think that if you bet a third of the pot, he will be making a serious mistake by calling in a no-limit game. On the contrary, no-limit is a game of implied odds, so you should make a solid-size bet to make sure that he is getting insufficient odds to play, even when the implied odds are figured in.
When the stacks are deep and the big money starts going into the pot, not all sets are of equal value. Even though set over set is a rare occurrence, you must take this possibility into account. A lot of how you treat tiny pocket pairs depends on the quality of the game. At $1-$2 blinds, there are many players who think having pocket aces on a ragged flop or pairing A-K calls for backing it with all of their money. Against such tyros, I suppose that every pair is playable if you can see the flop cheaply. In the games I normally play - from $5-$10 to $25-$50 blinds - bottom set is a hand to worry about if the chips start flying into the pot. When there are drawing cards on the board, you can be put in a situation in which you simply cannot get away from bottom set, because the other players are aggressive with their drawing hands. To me, the best defense against getting trapped with bottom set is the preflop fold. At the very least, I make sure that I am in position when I see a flop with tiny pairs. The pocket pairs 5-5 down to 2-2 are not playable hands in multihanded raised pots. There are likely to be other players who have pocket pairs bigger than yours. If someone raises and you call with 4-4, and someone else calls with 8-8, his money is going in a lot more soundly than yours. He is not likely to go any further unless he hits, and neither are you, but any big pot between you is going to be with you having only one out in the deck. Even though such an occurrence is rare, it is expensive, probably costing you all of your money.
Second set is a much more reliable hand than bottom set. Only one hand beats you. Furthermore, there are many situations in which you can be pretty sure that you are not up against top set. For example, you open-limp with pocket nines and several other players call. The flop comes Q-9-6, giving you middle set. Who at the table is going to show up with pocket queens? Almost surely, no one. If the big money starts to go into the pot, you can play your hand as the best. Furthermore, when you hold second set, there is a hand that someone may be very confident of having that is actually no good: bottom set!
Naturally, top set is the best of the sets, as it is the nuts unless there is a straight or flush possible on the board. Many times, a player who holds this hand treats it as if there is no way it can be outdrawn, especially if the board is paired. My poker philosophy is that you are not supposed to slow-play this hand just because you can give a free card without much chance of being outdrawn. I played this hand (which made a profound impression on me) about a quarter-century ago: I held A-9 in an unraised pot. My opponent was a gentleman I will call "The Stockbroker." The flop had come Q-9-9 with a two-flush. I bet, and my opponent called. The turn was an offsuit 8, making a possible straight. I bet, and he called. On the river, the third flush card came. I checked, and my opponent made a decent-size bet. I figured that he had made a draw somewhere, and I folded. He flashed me pocket queens and took the pot. Had he raised me on the flop instead of smooth-calling, there was no way for me to avoid going broke. So remember, do not automatically slow-play a hand that can be slow-played without worry of a drawout. The good player realizes that there is another thing to worry about: losing his market.