Gone are the days in online poker where you could safely fold anything that wasn't better than top pair and still turn a profit.
Playing with less than top pair can be tricky when you don't have the lead.
You're playing a guessing game and gambling that your opponent doesn't have you beat.
But that guessing game can be made easier by paying attention to three critical factors.
When to Call the Flop in Poker
1) Your Opponent
You have to study your opponent. Look at how often he continuation-bets on the flop. Look at how often he checks the flop and on what kinds of boards. Look at how often he double barrels the turn.
Pay attention to how often he plays pot control with showdown-value hands.
If he always checks back any non-top-pair hands, only bets top pair and bluffs on a J♥ 7♠ 3♣ board, you know when he's betting he either has top pair or a bluff.
If that same opponent seldom double barrels the turn, you'll also know that when he bets that turn again he has top pair or better.
A general rule is that you should be less inclined to call with a weak-ish second-pair-type hand if your opponent is likely to keep the heat up on the turn and river.
2) Board Texture
One of the most important factors when deciding to peel the turn with a second-pair-type hand is the board texture. There are just some boards that aren't as likely to have hit your opponent.
For example, 8♠ 7♠ is more likely to be good on a J♥ 8♦ 4♠ board than it is on a K♥ 2♣ 7♣ board. Thus you should be more inclined to call.
Get to know your opponent's pre-flop raising range and every time you're facing a bet gauge how likely it is to have hit his range.
3) Outs and Equity
As with anything in Texas Hold'em you should be more inclined to call if you have additional outs. Outs add equity to your hand. You're hoping your opponent will shut down when you call, but you want to have equity in case he chooses to continue.
You're playing $1/$2 online six-max, effective stacks $200. You're in the big blind and a decent regular raises to $6. The flop comes Q♥ 6♠ 3♠. You check and your opponent bets $10.
Which hand would you rather call with: 8♦ 8♣ or 6♥ 7♥?
Though the pair of eights is the "better" hand in absolute strength, 6♥ 7♥ is the better hand to peel with. The reason is the 6♥ 7♥ has more "Plan B" potential.
When you're beat with the pair of eights you have two outs to improve - the two remaining eights. When you're beat with the 6♥ 7♥, you instantly have more outs.
There are two sixes as well as the three remaining sevens. That's five outs right there.
You also have the backdoor flush and straight draws, meaning there's a ton of cards that can come and improve your hand on the turn.
So the "better" hand to call with is the 6♥ 7♥ - despite the fact it's worse in absolute value than the 8♦ 8♣.
There's a Lot of Value in Worse Hands
There's a lot of value in playing hands worse than top pair - especially against opponents that c-bet too often.
Get to know how your opponents play certain hands and pay attention to their barreling frequencies. Don't just call and give up on the turn every single time.
Pay attention to how the board runs out and weigh that with how likely they are to double or triple barrel.
Folding every hand that isn't top pair is essentially leaving money on the table. But if you start calling every hand without thinking, you'll burn even more money.
Just think about how your hand stacks up vs. your opponent's range and play poker. And remember that a potential Plan B really adds equity to your hand.