You’re in middle position with (A, J), the flop is J, 9, 7. An early player bets, one player folds, and the action is on you. You call allowing 3 players in after you for 1 bet. The next two cards are hearts and one of the players you let in for one bet takes the pot with a Jack high flush using their 8. Bad luck? No, you failed to protect your hand.
Failing to protect your hand is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Whenever you hold a marginal hand (in many cases top pair top kicker qualifies as marginal), you must protect it! This is especially true if the board is at all coordinated. In the example above there are both potential flush and straight draw possibilities available to your opponents.
So how do you protect your hand? By betting and raising in order to give your opponents with weak draws incorrect odds to call. In the above example the correct play would be to immediately raise after the early position bet. This would force everyone to cold call 2 bets thus forcing them to either fold or make an unprofitable call with their weak draws. Raising also gives you information on your opponents hands. If someone re-raises you then at the very least you’re up against a strong draw, possibly an overpair or even a set. Keep in mind that at low limits sometimes a re-raise from an opponent means literally nothing. They may be raising just for the fun or it, or they may be drunk. I’ve seen players at Party Poker cap the betting on the turn with 10, 3 offsuit with only a draw to middle pair! It’s important to be aware of your opponents play styles.
By raising and forcing players to make an unprofitable call, yes they may still draw out on you, but the extra money you’ve forced them to put in the pot will make up for the money you lose in the long run to suck outs. Protecting your hand means putting your opponents in a situation where they are presented with two losing choices. They can either fold thus losing them the pot, or call for more money than their hand is worth because your raise now gives them unfavorable pot odds. This extra money that often goes into the pot in low limit games is called dead money. Dead money is the reason online poker is so profitable. I’ve played at a number of online sites and find some are better than others. For example, I find it easy to deposit and withdraw at netbet.co.uk, whereas others send you through and the entire process that seems somewhat deliberate (in regards to withdrawals).
Sometimes betting out or even re-raising the flop will not protect your hand because the pot is large enough that your opponents will be receiving the correct pot odds to call for two small bets. In this case it is often better to wait until the turn to raise, thus forcing your opponents to call two or more big bets, increasing the likelihood that your opponents will fold.
Another way to protect your hand is to check-raise from early position if you’re certain that a late position player will bet. Attempt this when opponents are unlikely to fold to one bet, but when faced with the prospect of cold calling two bets are more likely to throw away their hands.
Unless you hold a monster hand or face only one or two opponents and the pot is small, you should constantly be thinking of how best to protect your hand. Remember also to keep an eye on the pot size. The size of the pot should always impact how you play your hand. Whenever the pot is large you should focus your attention on winning it outright. Don’t attempt to outplay your opponents with fancy moves or try to build the pot up. Just take the pot! Protecting your hand will increase the likelihood that you will do just that.
On the other hand, if the pot is minuscule and your hand is strong, then allowing a few extra players into the hand won’t hurt you too much. In this case it would be correct to bet for value or even check in an attempt to induce a bluff from an aggressive player rather than trying to win the pot immediately.
Remember that poker is not a game for the timid. Aggressive, intelligent play is always rewarded over the long run. Checking or calling when you should bet is the hallmark of a weak player. Repeat to yourself until it’s etched into your brain, “A hand that’s good enough to call with is good enough to bet.” Most of the time you should either be either betting or raising, and only rarely calling. Always protect your hand aggressively, always look for ways to win the hand immediately when the pot is large, and always put your money in the center when you have the best of it.