Fair warning, this may be long (and that's coming from someone who has a tendency to be long-winded), as the basic idea I want to ramble about is pretty tightly coupled with a few other concepts.
One of the problems posed by any limit game is that you often find yourself in a spot where you likely currently have the best hand, but one that's vulnerable. Unlike a continuation bet (where you represent strength preflop and follow through when the flop misses you) situation, you're in a slightly tougher spot, as you usually don't have the luxury of simply folding when someone else wakes up and bets into you.
So, in short, what the hell do you do when you're playing limit HE and likely have the best hand, but one that's vulnerable? One thing to note that while the title of this is "Protecting Hands in Limit HE" it could also easily by "Playing Top Pair, Weak Kicker", as that's the situation that most often arises when you have a good but vulnerable hand.
These situations basically break down into two main categories:
1) You have a big pair/medium pair/pair/overcards and, after the flop, have an overpair or top pair, top kicker. The flop, however, is scary coordinated, usually two to a flush, or with multiple cards in the playing zone.
2) You have top pair on the flop, but have a very weak kicker.
I'm actually not going to spend much time on #1, as correct play with these hands is pretty easy. Basically you just go nuts and stay aggressive, until the board or other players give you reason to pause.
If you have and the flop comes , you can't slow down and start worrying about straights or the spade flush getting there. Your hand is almost always good here and you have to punish people aggressively playing draws here, trying to buy free cards on later streets. Yes, sometimes you're going to look like an idiot, when someone rolls over QJ at showdown, but them's the breaks.
That said, you still have to exercise common sense. If you're showing all kinds of strength and someone keeps playing back at you, slow down at a certain point and respect the fact they might, indeed, be able to beat your TPTK or overpair or even your set. All I'm really getting at here is that your decision in the above scenario isn't whether or not to press the accelerator in an attempt to protect what you think is the best hand, but how hard to mash the accelerator. Knowing to hard to mash is beyond the scope of this and so situation specific that it's crazy to try to address it.
The second situation (top pair on the flop, but a weak kicker) is more interesting and complicated, and the one I think gets misplayed most often.
You're in the BB with in a typically aggressive 15/30 game at Party. UTG raises, MP cold-calls, MP+2 cold calls, button cold-calls, SB calls, and you call. (You're getting odds to call with almost any two cards here, closing the action, and Q8s is more than enough to call with.)
SB checks. What do you do?
Check, and fold to any bet. Yes, you have top pair, but that's about it. You're facing a huge field. Not only are you likely dominated by any other Q, but there's also no way to clarify your hand, as people will aggressively raise with draws here, both flush and straight draws. You also have almost no hope of improving, as you're still dodging the flush plus another 8 for two pair gives anyone with a J the straight.
Betting out here, with the intention of folding to a raise is just setting 1 SB on fire, for no reason. Checking with the intention of calling if it's just 1 more SB to call is just setting 1 SB on fire, for no reason, despite the pot size. Just abort the mission. The flop is horrible for you, in a field that size, despite the fact that you have top pair.
One thing to pay attention to in situations like this is whether pairing your kicker significantly improves your hand. Don't just assume that those are clean outs, as they can also put four to a straight/three to a flush on the board for your opponents, as well.
Let's use exactly the same situation as above (you're in the BB with ) but thin the herd. This time, only MP raises pre-flop, and only SB calls. You also call. (This call is slightly more debatable here but still correct.)
SB checks. What do you do?
This is much more difficult. You only have two opponents, the flop is scary, pot is decent sized, and you have top pair, weak kicker. MP raised pre-flop and has position on you.
This is a good example of when you really need to sit on your hands a bit, take your time, and think a few levels deep here.
The first scenario you want to run through your head is whether or not this is a hand you want to take to showdown if the board doesn't get any scarier, as far as putting the flush out there, or a K or an A (potentially giving an opponent a higher pair). You also want to consider the possibility that your opponents might already have an overpair (in this case KK or AA), two pair, or a set, and the possibility that you're outkicked already by QJ, QK, and QA.
With two opponents (and one in the SB, who on average needs less to be in this hand) and a decent sized pot, the likely conclusion is that you want to take this hand to showdown, barring the board getting scarier. Against typically aggressive opponents, it's just too weak to meekly fold to one more bet on each street here. If it gets heads up, you likely want to continue even if the board puts the three flush out there, as the odds are high that just one opponent doesn't have the flush.
The question, then, is do you check or bet, after SB checks. If you check, though, you have to do so with the decision already made as to whether you want to check-raise in this spot. Enter another level of thinking and a detour, which is check-raising to protect vulnerable hands.
Check-raising in situations like this is a valid option because it both clarifies the hand and protects your hand when you do have the current best hand. While many people have the check raise in their toolbox for situations when they have monster hands, they sometimes overlook the value of the check-raise in protecting good but vulnerable hands.
What you have to be careful about, though, is remembering that your goal with a check-raise in this situation is to drive opponents out, not to build pots. And the crucial thing to evaluate is your position, before you even contemplate the check-raise.
In the above example, going for the check raise is likely a mistake. Remember, the SB checked to you. If you check, odds are MP will bet. If SB calls, what exactly is your check-raise going to accomplish? In typical online games, only the tightest of tight opponents will fold to one more bet in that situation, so it's 99% likely that both MP and SB will call. Not only did you not knock anyone out, but you actually built a larger pot to give people more incentive to chase draws. If SB instead folds to MP's bet, then a check-raise isn't bad, but it's also probably not optimal. More on this in later detour.
If you were instead the SB, and you check, BB checks, and MP bets, then by all means, consider the check-raise. Remember, if your goal is to knock opponents out with a check-raise to protect vulnerable hands, you have to be in position to force opponents to face two more bets, not one more bet. If you have position on some of your opponents, consider a check-raise to protect vulnerable hands.
Looping back to our main thread, let's recap the situation. MP raised pre-flop, SB called, and you called in the BB with ), the flop is . SB checked on the flop and the action is on you. You've ruled out folding unless the board gets scarier and don't have position to try for a check-raise. Your decision is to either check/call or to bet out.
Betting out is a much more attractive option than check-calling. But before you bet out, you have to use that big juicy poker brain, and already know what your response will be to different results.
The most obvious thing to consider is that MP will raise if you bet. Does this bother you, enough to the point that you'd rather check?
It shouldn't, because betting out is actually the best way to protect your hand in this situation. Remember, you've decided your hand is currently too good to fold, but it's vulnerable. Hands like that thrive on the least number of opponents, so you want to do everything possible to thin the field, especially when it's a decent sized pot, which makes it worth the effort. You've already determined that a check-raise won't knock anyone out, due to your poor position. The only other way, then, to face any opponents with two bets to continue is by betting out yourself, offering the pre-flop raiser the chance to raise again.
It took my slow monkey brain a long time to absorb the above concept, so you might read that again. It's pretty counter-intuitive at first, but the concept applies to nearly every poker variant, especially Stud. There are many situations that even if you slip on X-ray glasses and KNOW that the pre-flop raiser currently has a better hand, you still want to lead into them if there's a great likelihood that they'll raise, as the EV you gain from getting it heads up is larger than the money you lose when you don't improve.
If you're a devotee of Sklansky/Malmuth, you've likely read about this in regards to situations where you have middle pair, top kicker, but it also applies to good but vulnerable hands, too.
So you bet out, with no fear of a raise, which you'll call. If everyone just calls, so be it, you've already decided to take the hand to showdown. Getting raised also makes the decision to go into check-call mode for the rest of the hand a much easier one, too. That's what I mean by "clarifying" the hand, as it gives you additional information to lean one direction or another in your decision making.
But there's another option. What if you bet, MP calls or raises, and SB check-raises?
Even with just two opponents and a decent pot, I fold here if SB wakes up and check-raises. Some may call weak bullshit on that, but your real problem now isn't top pair, weak kicker but that you're caught between the player showing strength pre-flop and the player waking up and coming over the top. Even if they're both aggressively playing draws and your hand is best (which is a real possibility), you're never going to be closing the action and faced with the unenviable proposition of getting strung along calling if they go to war on later, more expensive streets.
Don't be afraid to abort and save your bullets for a better spot. Remember, your pre-flop call was thin to begin with, a flop bet is slightly thin, and there's no shame in avoiding spots in which you have a thin edge, at best, especially when out of position.
So we'll follow the most likely scenario. You bet, MP raises, SB folds, and you call. (The aggros might suggest a re-raise here but I think calling is superior, for reasons below.)
The turn is , putting on the board. You're in the BB with facing one opponent, MP, who raised pre-flop and on the flop.
Action is on you. Check or bet?
Now we have to shift gears. Our goal in protecting our hand was to get it heads up if possible. Mission accomplished. The turn also looks like a blank, so the odds that are hand is good increased. We still may have to dodge river cards, but all signs point towards our odds of winning this hand improving.
We're going to showdown now, come hell or high water. We're willing at this point to check-call on the turn, and check-call on the river. (While the Ah or Kh on the river might make it a really, really difficult decision to call, the pot's too big at this point to fold to just one more bet.) Since our hand is good but weak, we don't hate it if it goes check-check, check-check. We still don't know if MP has a bigger hand currently or is drawing and there's no good way to find out now. But do we still need to protect our hand by betting out here (despite the fact that we've been raised twice by MP) if our opponent is still on a draw, either the flush or straight draw or AK?
And that, my friends, is a really difficult question. I imagine if you polled the electorate it'd be a pretty split vote, as far as whether or not to bet out on the turn in our above situation to prevent someone aggressively playing a draw from seeing a free card by checking behind us.
I lean slightly towards the check camp, though, for a couple of reasons. The first thing you have to ask yourself is if you bet and get raised again, can you simply fold and lay down the hand? Because a lot of the value in betting in that spot isn't just in preventing a free card, but in potentially saving yourself 1BB by betting the turn and folding to a re-raise. (You save the 1BB because you're not check-calling on both the turn and river for a total investment of 2BB.)
If you can comfortably lay down your hand to a raise, then betting out is the best option. If you can't lay down top pair, weak kicker in that spot to a raise, 100% of the time, betting out is likely slightly more wrong than checking.
Here's the real crux of the situation. In a lot of cases situations where you want to protect hands morph into situations where you make more money by inducing your opponent(s) to continue to bet, even if they miss their draw. Especially if they miss their draw. You shift from trying to make them pay to draw to trying to induce them to bet, as your hand improved with the turn blank. As the hand progresses and they keep missing, you gain less value by punishing draws. It's similar to a way ahead/way behind situation where your hand is too good to fold, but not good enough to play it really aggressively. You can't comfortably bet or raise for value but you welcome the chance to call.
(Read that again, and take it in the context of aggressive, online games that most of us play in. Yes, mathematically speaking, what I just said above doesn't hold water. Because the pot's pretty big, the fact that they only have a 30% chance to hit their draw is still significant, as the 3 times out of 10 they do hit, they rake in a big pot. If a bet causes a significant number of opponents to fold, then betting is overwhelmingly the right choice, as you want to take down the sizable pot at all costs. If betting out causes 1 in 10 opponents to fold, then betting out is overwhelmingly the right choice, in a theoretical poker world in which 1 in 10 opponents fold to a bet in that situation.
The problem with that, though, is the reality of typical game conditions online. If you're playing in an aggressive online game where your opponent is raising you, on a draw, they're almost never going to fold to a single bet on the turn. Never. Even if they have junk. If anything, they're much more likely to re-raise than to fold to one bet, even with junk. If you can't eliminate an opponent by betting out and have a vulnerable hand, check-calling is a better option, in the practical world we play in. If you're in a real-world situation where you know that an opponent will never fold, incorporate that into your thinking, and throw out theoretical knowledge.)
So back again to our main situation, if you check to MP on the turn, he'll almost always fire again, even if he's still on a draw. The tendency and proclivity to bet when checked to here actually prevents him from taking off a free card. So, ironically, one way to prevent an opponent from taking a free card is by inducing them to bet.
Another advantage to checking with the hope of inducing a bet is that, assuming the river is a blank, your odds of successfully inducing a bet on the river increase dramatically, as lots of opponents will fire one last round on the river with absolutely nothing if you've checked on both the turn/river.
An additional advantage is a really obvious one, but you also could already be way behind in this hand, and check-calling limits the amount of money you're going to lose, especially if you have a hard time folding to a raise if you bet out.
The danger of checking is that they'll check behind you, take a free card, and hit their money card on the river. And there's no way around it, it is a real danger. Unfortunately we simply can't have our cake and eat it, too. If you add up all the factors (the possibility of currently being behind and not actually ahead, the likelihood of an opponent folding to a bet, the possibility of getting outdrawn on the river, the possibility of being ahead and inducing bets), I think a check is correct on the turn.
River is another blank, the . This one is easier, as we're almost home. Check here and call if MP bets. Even though the turn/river blanked you don't have enough for a value bet here, as getting raised causes you to throw up a little in your mouth and puts you in a really bad spot. Even if MP checks behind you still might lose to a junky two pair, or KQ, so you don't hate it if he checks behind you here, given you still just have top pair, weak kicker.
And that, finally, is likely more than you ever wanted to here me ramble on about concerning protecting hands/playing top pair, weak kicker. And remember that the standard caveat applies, as I'm by far not the best poker player in the world. A lot of words, I know, and a lot of individual decisions that might be bantered about and questioned, but I think there are some nuggets to be gleaned from the general ideas that underpin a lot of the thinking.
If nothing else, just take time to think through your decisions in difficult hands. Just because it's limit doesn't mean you shouldn't take your time, as there's no difference between thinking things through here and taking your time when faced with a decision for all your chips in a NL game.