Lessons From Poker: The Tight-Aggressive Player

Table Tennis Playing StylesWith all the research I’ve been doing for my book (looking at the late bloomers of table tennis) I’ve been coming across lots of information about the benefits of sampling sports during childhood.

Aside from the psychological and social benefits of sampling sports at a young age, instead of focusing solely on one and starting intensive training, it’s also been suggested that skills can be learnt and transferred between sports. So for example, the ball skills you learn at a young age playing football would help you out in your table tennis whenever you happen to start playing later on.

This got me thinking about potential skills that could be learnt and developed in other disciplines and perhaps transferred to table tennis. And that’s where I’ll begin this current series of posts. I’ve been looking into other sports and trying to identify aspects which could be transferred to our table tennis.

This series of posts will all begin with “Lessons From…” and then I’ll talk about a certain sport or activity and a particular lesson we can learn from it. Today’s post is looking at the game of poker and next I’ll be looking at basketball.

Before I begin…

If you think you have a good idea for a “Lesson From…” post then please leave a comment below and I’d be happy to work with you to create an awesome post.

Now, on with the post!

Poker is a game that I really enjoy. You might not think that there are many similarities between table tennis and poker, but you’d be surprised.

  • Poker is a game that most people have played and a lot of people think they are pretty good at, but few people actually take the time the study, practice and improve at it.
  • Poker is all about making the right decisions in different situations. You may get lucky and win having made a poor decision (such as pushing a long serve) but your chances of winning are increased if you can make the correct decisions.
  • Poker involves aspects of being aggressive and trying to force your way of playing on your opponents. It also involves patience and the need to be consistent and not give away free chips (points in our case).

It’s this aspect of the game, the need to play aggressively but also with a high degree of self-control, that I want to focus on today.

In particular I want to talk about playing styles.

In poker, playing styles are mentioned a lot. Developing players are encouraged to play a certain style and also to identify the playing styles of their opponents.

There are four main playing styles in poker;

  1. Tight-Aggressive (the winner)
  2. Loose-Aggressive (the maniac)
  3. Tight-Passive (the rock)
  4. Loose-Passive (the fish)

If you’d like to find out about these poker playing styles in detail then I recommend you check out this article here but if you just want the gist of it, here we go…

Poker Playing Styles

  • A tight player only plays hands that he thinks he has a good chance of winning.
  • A loose player plays lots of hands, some good, some not so good.
  • An aggressive player bets and raises to put pressure on opponents.
  • A passive player checks and calls, reacting to the opponents moves.

I listed the styles above in the generally accepted order of best (tight-aggressive) to worst (loose-passive).

You can see that it is always better to be aggressive than passive but then within that it is better to be tight than loose.

How does this apply to table tennis?

If we look at the four playing styles in turn I think it’ll become apparent that the same four styles occur in table tennis.

I’ve tweaked the definitions a little…

  • A tight player is trying to be consistent. This doesn’t mean that they don’t attack, it means that they attack when they feel they have a good chance of making the shot but choose a safer shot when it’s more difficult for them to get a strong shot on the table. They are like the poker player that picks and chooses when to play a hand based on their chance of success.
  • A loose player is a player that goes for the big shots regardless of whether they are likely to go on or not. They are like the poker player that players every round regardless of whether they have a good hand and therefore a good chance to win or not.
  • An aggressive player is looking for ways to force a mistake from their opponent. They aren’t being aggressive like a maniac but they are trying to dominate the rally. They are like a poker player that use large bets to put their opponents in uncomfortable decisions where they have to make tough decisions.
  • A passive player isn’t very proactive. Instead they just play without really thinking and react to whatever shots their opponents give them. They don’t have much of a plan and they are just there to play. They are like the poker players that let their opponents do the betting and raising and just find themselves calling, round after round.

Poker-Playing-StylesAs in poker, the best style of play is tight-aggressive (the winner). These players do not make many mistakes but when they get chances to attack they go for it and try to force errors. They are combining the ability to make few errors themselves and force errors in their opponents. Play like this and you are going to start winning matches.

When watching top players we often see them as being loose-aggressive. “They go for every ball”, we say. We tell ourselves that to play like them we must play like a maniac and sooner or later, as we improve, the shots will start to go on.

I think what we forget is how few errors the top players make. A loose player would make lots of unforced errors but top players rarely do this. Their high level of ability allows them to attack very strongly while still being consistent and confident the shot will go on the table. They are in fact playing a tight-aggressive style.

How to identify a players style

In poker a lot of emphasis is placed on identifying the playing style of your opponent so that you can decide the best way to play. They think this is so important that pretty much all serious online players will pay monthly subscriptions for software that tells them the playing style of their opponents based on their history of play! And why do they want this information so badly? So they increase their chances of winning.

I think this type of analysis is badly needed in table tennis.

A tight-aggressive player should be easy enough to spot, when you are playing them. You’ll quickly realise that they aren’t giving you any free points (you have to work hard for every point you win) but they are also quick to finish off a point if you make a mistake (such as returning one of their serves high or misreading spin). These will be the toughest players to play against as you’ll have to play well to beat them. I don’t have any more advice for you than that! This is why we want to be tight-aggressive players.

A loose-aggressive player is very common, especially in junior tournaments. Look out for the players that looks really good, and has some pretty amazing shots, but doesn’t have the ranking or tournament results to back it up. This type of playing is going to have a swing at everything. If their shots go on they’ll look fantastic but this style of play is not going to profitable or consistent enough in the long run. This type of player may get a fantastic upset (and get a load of ranking points) but they aren’t going to win a tournament like that because sooner or later the shots will start missing. The way to play this type of player is to play a little tighter yourself. Let them give you the free points if they like. Be aggressive and look for ways to force mistakes in their game. If you are too passive you’ll let them swing at will.

poker-stylesA tight-passive player can be tough to play against. In poker they are called “rocks”. I think I used to be a tight-passive player when I was a junior. I was very concerned about not making mistake but then would often not have any sort of game-plan and would find myself just reacting to whoever I happened to be playing. Beating this type of player is all about being clever with your aggression. It’s no good always looping across the table as they will probably be happy to sit and block the ball back. You need to stay up to the table, cut out your own mistakes and attack to difficult positions.

A loose-passive player is really probably only a beginner. This type of player will go for risky shots but not really try to dominate the rally. Imagine a beginner that just makes the wrong decisions. They try to drive your long backspin serve and it goes into the net. They try to counter a smash looking for a glory shot but knowing that it’s unlikely to ever go on. You don’t really have to worry about this type of player.


  • It’s important to think about your own playing style and that of your opponents.
  • It’s always better to be aggressive than passive. Passive play is never good and you’ll only win if you are playing someone that is a fair bit weaker than you in ability.
  • It’s always better to be tight than loose. Loose play leads to too many unforced errors and free points for your opponent. The top players may look loose but they’re not.
  • Sometimes, a loose aggressive style can work, especially if you are playing someone that is much stronger than you, but although you might get the odd good win you’re unlikely to win a tournament playing this way.
  • Try to build a game around being tight-aggressive (the winner). Cut out your own mistakes (tight) but look for opportunities to dominate rallies and force mistakes from your opponent (aggressive).