One interesting side effect of moving up in limits is that more and more pots end up being contested heads-up, often from the flop on. While that's nice in some ways, it also puts you in more difficult spots, as far as what you do exactly when you flop middle pair against an aggressive player, how often you bet/call to the river with unimproved big cards, and all sorts of other fun things.
It gets especially tricky when the only players involved are from the CO or button to the blinds, as you really can't put anyone on anything, even with a raise pre-flop, as the CO or button could be trying to steal with anything. You'll often find yourself essentially playing a 3 max or 4 max game, despite the fact that you start the hand sitting at a full ring table.
Play in marginal situations becomes more important in general, as that extra BB or two you pick up in a session suddenly starts becoming meaningful when you're playing 30/60, as opposed to .50/1. Like poker at any level, the toughest decision in marginal situations usually involves whether you have a good enough hand to continue playing, and if so how far, and how aggressively.
Lately I've been pondering over the fact that I often make a decision fairly early in the hand with good but vulnerable hands, as far as whether I'm willing to take the hand to a showdown, and that decision affects my play in various ways. While there's an obvious danger in committing yourself to a course of action and not deviating when circumstances change (i.e. someone wakes up and three-bets or unexpectedly bad board cards come), I'm finding I play better the earlier I commit to a specific course of action, as far as whether I'm willing to continue with a hand and take it to showdown, and whether I try to get there cheaply or not. This is especially true with hands like AK, as much of their value involves seeing a showdown, even more so when it's shorthanded or heads-up.
The short version of all this is that you'll likely show better results if you commit early to a marginal hand, and pick the correct approach to maximize it's value at showdown. Just as you want to maximize the value of winning hands, you also want to keep the net loss to a minimum for vulnerable/marginal hands that you have to take to showdown, based on the circumstances.
There are many different paths to a showdown, though. Let's look at a few real-world examples from the last week to see what I'm babbling about. Keep in mind that I'm still a learning poker monkey, in many ways, so the play and decisions below aren't necessarily optimal, but are included just to show the various things that run through my head in tricky situations where I decided early on whether or not to take a hand to showdown or not.
Example #1: 5/10 6 max limit HE, I'm in the BB with KcKs.
Boo-ya. I gots a goot hand.
Folds to the button, who limps. SB raises, I three bet, button and SB call. I just sat down and have no read or info at all on anyone at the table.
Flop is Ah Kh 7h.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Flopped my set but thems is a lot of hearts out there. I'm still going to keep firing, though, unless another heart comes, or someone gets jiggy with re-raising. It's shorthanded and the odds of someone flopping a flush are tiny. I've also still got outs, even if someone does have a flush. I'm taking this to showdown every time, unless the turn and river are completely evil.
SB bets, I raise, button calls, SB calls.
I think my hand is good. Unless someone is a really sneaky monkey or has Qx h, even someone with a baby flush would likely pop it there when it's cheap to do so on the flop, to see if I just have a big pair or if I'm getting aggressive with the Ah.
Turn is Jc. SB checks, I bet, button raises. SB folds.
Crippety-crap. I've been showing lots of strength and he just raised into me, with three to a flush on the board. He also just limped pre-flop, so the odds are more likely that he's either got a flush or the Qh x or QJ, with the J also giving him some additional straight outs (assuming no flush is out there).
All that said, I still have outs, and he could still be on a draw. Not likely, but it is a possibility. There's $105 in the pot and it's $10 more to call. Am I more than a 10-1 dog to win this? Given the range of hands he could be playing and the general aggressive tendencies of players at 6 max? I can't be. Gotta call.
I call. River is 10h, resulting in a board of Ah Kh 7h Jc 10h.
Fuck me running. That was the absolute worst card that could come, as it put four to a flush out there plus straight potential, none of which I can beat. He showed strength with the raise on the turn, I'm doomed, gotta check and fold if he bets.
But wait... Can I really fold here, with a set of kings, and a pot of $115? He showed strength, true, but many players would show the same strength with two pair there, even if they didn't have a heart in their hand. If I check, he's virtually guaranteed to bet because of the pot size and the fact that I checked, even if he doesn't have a heart, and I can't legitimately call it, not even as a crying call. But not taking this to showdown makes me throw up in my mouth a little and will nag at me for awhile.
If I bet, though, he suddenly has a hard decision. I know, betting flies in the face of all conventional wisdom, as far as only being called by hands that beat me, but it's the only way to get this hand to a showdown, if I can't check and call. I've had momentum the whole hand. A bet would result in some players folding a straight and even some flush hands with only a 2h, 3h, 4h, etc. He only popped it on the turn and could have been just as scared that another heart would come, thinking I might hold one myself. If he raises, I can fold with complete and utter confidence that I'm beaten. Is peace of mind worth one more bet, especially if I'm the aggressor, instead of passively checking and then facing a bet? Sure.
I bet, button folds.
Example #2: 15/30 full ring, I'm in the BB with Qh 8h.
Folds all the way around to the SB, who merely completes. I raise. SB plays tons of hands and is very aggressive, bordering on maniacal status.
Q8h ain't so bad. And what's with this limpy limp bidness from the SB? Screw that, boss. I'll raise, he'll likely call and then check/fold on the flop when I bet out, regardless of what comes.
I raise. SB calls.
Flop is 9s 8d 2s.
That's even better. I actually got a piece of the flop. Remember the mantra, be an aggressive monkey, be an aggressive monkey.
SB checks, I bet. He calls.
Would have preferred to win it there but a call isn't horrible. Middle pair, decent kicker is often good here when it's heads up. Unless he shows strength or the turn and river are bad, I'm betting out and taking this to showdown.
Turn is 6d. SB checks, I bet, SB raises.
Hmm. That's not good. Let's actually stop and think here. It's unlikely he has a set or an overpair (or even overcards), as he'd have raised with that pre-flop. Maybe he completed with something like 10 7 (especially if it was sooted) and just turned a straight, but the odds are highly unlikely that's the case. Plus he'd prolly wait until the river to pop it. If he has a set, he has a set, Remember, don't fear monsters, not when it's heads-up.
He could have a 9, which is most likely. Not much I can do about that, but unless he has Q9, I still have some outs. He could also likely be aggressively playing a flush/straight draw, so I could still be ahead. It's a decent sized pot, I have middle pair, good kicker, against a pre-flop limper and a non-threatening board. Folding is too weak here, so I have to take this to showdown. I'll call here and make the possible crying call on the river, too.
I call. River is 8s.
Boo ya. I think I just pulled one out of my monkey ass.
SB checks, I bet. SB ponders a bit and finally calls and flips over a slowplayed AA, which loses to my river suckout.
Example #3: 15/30 full ring, I'm in CO with Ad Kd.
Folds to me, I open-raise. Folds to BB, who calls. BB is a tight, passive player who's a marginal loser over the 3,000 or so hands I have data for.
Flop is Qh 7d 4s. BB checks, I bet, BB calls.
Was hoping for the fold there from Mr. Tighty but nay. I want to see a showdown with my AK on a non-threatening board like that, but as cheaply as possible. I have overcards, backdoor flush potential, plus a gushot straight, but he's going to passively call me down with any Q, and likely even with a 7.
Assuming he checks, I'll bet out on the turn and give him one more chance to fold, but shut it down there. I could check the turn but then I put myself in a much more difficult spot on the river, if I don't improve and he bets out. I also need to bet out on the turn as I have momentum and I need to give him the chance to fold, which he might do even if he middle pair, AK, etc., given how tight he is.
If I bet on the turn and he raises (and I lose my backdoor flush potential), I can easily fold. If he was uber LAGgy I might consider calling the raise and taking it to showdown but he's too tight and passive to get jiggy and pull moves with a hand that I'm ahead of and can beat unimproved. If he calls the turn and checks on the river, just check it down, assuming you don't improve, as he's likely got something and A high isn't going to take this down.
Turn is 2c. BB checks, I bet, BB calls.
River is 10d. BB checks.
You got the showdown you wanted. He's too tight to call down with something like AJ, which is the only hand you can beat. He'll either fold to a bet or show a hand that beats you.
I check. BB shows Qd 9d and wins.
Example #4: 15/30 full ring game, I'm on the button with 10s 10d.
Folds around to me. I open-raise, SB three-bets, BB calls. I call.
Please flop a 10, please flop a 10.
Flop is Qh 9s 8c. SB bets, BB raises.
Well, the good news is I have middle pair and a gutshot straight. The bad news is that despite being on the button I'm out of position, given that the blinds have turned into raising monkeys, and there was definite strength shown by both pre-flop. While it is indeed short-handed, everything points to the fact that I'm drawing pretty slim. Taking this hand to showdown is going to be expensive as hell and I've lost all momentum. Can't take this to showdown so there's no need to dick around now and piss away chips, hoping for a miracle turn card.
Example #1 is the most dodgy, as river likely should have made me abandon my early decision to take my set of kings to showdown. If you catch horribly bad there's nothing wrong in aborting the showdown mission, which I likely should have done when the 10h came on the river.
Example #2 looks bad, as I was actually way, way behind and needed a miracle river, but it's actually a pretty good example. This sounds dumb, but you can't ignore the possibility of marginal hands sucking out and becoming much stronger, even if it's remote. Except in very rare cases where you're drawing dead from the flop on, marginal hands usually increase in value if a showdown is seen. If marginal hands never caught well and improved in value then your decision to commit to taking them to showdown would be an easy one, as you'd almost never commit to that.
Example #3 is pretty straightforward. You don't always want to continue with AK to showdown, unimproved, but sometimes you need to, based on the player you're butting heads with. It also depends on whether or not you were the pre-flop aggressor, as the chance of the opposition folding adds much value to taking AK to showdown when it doesn't improve. You could argue that I should have checked behind him on the turn, hoping for check/check on the river, too. Which might be a better line, if he's truly tight and passive and won't bet a pair of any sort there, but I hate having to decide whether to call a bet on the river with the unimproved AK there, and you can often avoid that predicament by betting the turn and then checking behind on the river, paying the same price of one BB.
Example #4 is pretty straightforward, too. It's similar to #2, as far as having middle pair (plus the gutshot), but the action by other players turns this into a pretty easy decision to abort and abandon all hope of seeing a showdown, as it'd be far too expensive. While you could try to make an argument for continuing due to implied odds, your position makes it hard, as the blinds could go to war and continue to raise and re-raise and you'd be caught chasing between them. If you could see a showdown cheaply with your hand you would, but all signs point to thatbeing impossible.