A Review of Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers by Larry Hodges

Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers ReviewBack in April I teamed up with ‘Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers’ author, Larry Hodges, to give away a free copy of his new book. This was also when I first started reading my copy of the book…

Five months later and I’ve finished it! (The only message to take from this is that I’m a terrible reader, the book is great).

In fact, I’ve read much of it twice.

I have a bit of a habit of starting a new book as a reach the half-way point in my current book. This leads to numerous half-read books and few finished ones. When I came back to Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers again in August I decided it was best to start from the beginning again and take notes as I read.

This post will be a review of the book and you’ll also get to see some of my notes, what I took as the “key points”.

But firstly, who is Larry Hodges…

Larry Hodges has become a bit of a hero of mine since I started reading his daily table tennis blog last year. He is a very knowledgeable coach from the USA that has also played at a high-level himself despite starting relatively late in the sport. Larry has worked with many of the top players in the USA and held coaching positions with their national team. He is also very active sharing his knowledge with those he doesn’t come into direct contact with, via his books (he’s published several) and his website/blog.

With so much time spent teaching correct table tennis technique, tactics can easily be forgotten. This was the motive behind Larry’s book. To shed some light on the tactical side of our sport and help players and coaches alike think a bit more tactically, using their head and not just their body.

That’s enough of an introduction. For my review I will share with you seven key points that I took from the book. I think this will give you a better idea on the content of the book as a whole and the kind of invaluable advice it contains. I’ll then finish with a short review, in general, about the book and what I thought of it.

Key points from ‘Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers’

The following seven points were made over and over in the book. For me, at least, this was very much appreciated as it was often only after reading a point for the third or fourth time that I finally thought, “Wow, this is important. I should remember this.” With so much great content in the book I thought it was very wise to use repetition to make sure the most important tips stood out.

1. Aim your shots to the crossover or wide to the forehand or backhand.

From the first to the last chapter this point was stressed repeatedly, and rightly so. Too often we spend all our time trying to play the perfect stroke but we play it right into our opponents backhand block or forehand counter-loop. If you watch the professionals play you will see a high percentage of shots going into these three areas (the crossover/middle, wide forehand, wide backhand) and balls that don’t go to these positions will often be hit for a winner.

Here we see Timo Boll being forced to lean backwards to get to a well placed ball into his crossover.

Implementing this one tip into your competitive matches (if you aren’t doing it currently) should cause visible improvements in your results. If you are a beginner or intermediate player, playing other beginners or intermediate players, a well placed shot to the crossover or wide corners will often win you the point outright or give you an easy ball to smash.

Make sure as well that you practice aiming for these zones in the training hall! If you always do drills into a steady backhand or forehand block then you are going to get used to hitting all your strokes to these positions. It is more difficult going very wide or into the crossover with an attack so it’s very important you practice until you can do it comfortably.

2. Understand the difference between tactical and strategic development, and why you need both.

Before reading the book I had a vague understanding of this concept in my head, although I probably would have struggled to explain it clearly to one of my players. Larry does a superb job of explaining the difference between tactics and strategy and why both of necessary for development. I think the best way to explain is with an example;

Let’s say you are an intermediate player, playing in one of your first tournaments. You have a fairly solid topspin/driving game that you play up to the table and you can push balls that come short and low. Your main weakness is your open-up stroke (your topspin loop off a backspin ball) which is inconsistent and you lack confidence in. You come up against a player that is quite passive and likes to push, a lot! They are a beginner and have spent a lot of time pushing but haven’t really developed the rest of their game.

In this scenario you have two options. One will focus on tactical development and the other strategic.

The tactical thing to do is find ways to avoid getting into push-to-push rallies, as these will probably be won by your opponent that loves to push. Your push is not as good and you are likely to make too make errors if you try to attack the pushes. When you are serving you could focus on long, fast serves or serves with topspin that will be hard to push and will start attacking rallies that you can dominate. When you are receiving you could try and roll the serve to force a drive from your opponent. Tactically this is your best bet in this situation and gives you the greatest chance of wining the match.

However, follow this principle and what will happen the next time to face a similar opponent? Well, you’ll be stuck in the same situation. If you focus is long-term improvement (rather than short-term results) then perhaps it would be wiser to focus on your strategic development in this situation instead. Strategically, the best thing to do against this pusher is to use the game to practice your open-up, that way you’ll get lots of chances to improve it! So serve short, let you opponent push, and if the push goes long look to get in with a loop. Chances are you’ll make lots of errors and perhaps you will lose the match when you could have won by serving fast but… you’ll be getting better as player and gaining lots of experience playing your open-up in a real match situation.

It’s important that you understand the difference between tactical and strategic development, and there is a time for both. In the Olympic finals there is no point Zhang Jike saying to himself “Well, sometimes I struggle with my forehand flick off a short serve so instead of using my powerful backhand one to tactically put myself in the driving seat I’ll use this opportunity to practice my forehand flick”. That would be ridiculous, as it’s the wrong time and place for that, but if you’re a beginner or intermediate player it may be worth thinking strategically in your next few matches (instead of tactically), perhaps losing matches that you may otherwise have been able to win, and improving as a player instead. Practice matches or friendly matches are a great place for this type of strategic development as it doesn’t matter if you lose.

3. Don’t think during points. Think in-between points and then let your subconscious take over.

With all this tactical and strategic thinking going on you’d think a bit of brain training is in order so that you can keep it up during the fast-paced rallies. Fortunately, this isn’t true. One of the big points made several times by Larry (and Werner Schlager) in the book was that when the point starts you need to stop thinking (consciously) and let your subconscious take over.

Table tennis is too fast to be able to consciously think through where to move, and which stroke to play, and where to play it, and what is going to come back, while the point is in play. Instead of you need to do enough practice that your subconscious “gets the message” and begins to be able to read the game as it happens without conscious thought. The key here is practice. Do enough of it and every time you see a short serve drift long you’ll automatically attack it (rather than push). Every time you see a player step around to play their forehand from the backhand corner your wrist will pull back to allow you to block/punch/smash down the line.

So do your thinking in-between the points. If you are serving then “plan your point” to an extent. Decide what serve you are going to do and the likely return you’ll receive but then stop thinking and get ready to play whatever is given to you.

4. Develop a “heavy no-spin” serve as a variation.

As you improve you’ll find yourself doing an awful lot of low, short serves to the middle of the table. Any long or high serves will probably be hit past you so the majority of the time you’re forced to serve this way.

One excellent type of variation, recommended by Larry, is the “heavy no-spin” serve. It may sound like a contradiction but in fact it makes a lot of sense. In short, it’s a float serve that is disguised to look spinny. It’s important that is looks the same as one of your spinny serves but then your contact on the ball is not as fine to create much less spin.

I get the feeling that Larry Hodges really loves these serves (he certainly loves the name) so if you’d like more information I’m going to let him explain in full. I found a Q&A post here where he explain what a heavy no-spin serve is an how to perform one.

5. Find your opponents weaker side and then put pressure on it.

Most players will either be stronger on their backhand or their forehand, very few are equally balanced even at the highest level.

Larry makes the point that you must identify this weaker side as early on as possible so that you can exploit it. You could do this by watching your opponent earlier in the day, speaking to other players, playing attention during the warm-up, or if all else fails testing both sides out during the opening game.

Once you have discovered the weaker side you should base your tactics around it. Let’s go through a couple of examples…

You are playing a lower-level opponent that has a decent forehand but a poor backhand. You should put maximum pressure on this weak backhand by playing into it repeatedly, over and over. This will give you the most chance of winning easy points as your opponent is more likely to make errors. If he starts looking to play his stronger forehand from the backhand side then you can start switching to his wide forehand to catch him out.

You are playing a higher-level opponent that has a strong backhand and forehand, although you know that despite both shots being good his backhand is weaker. If you play consistently into his backhand your opponent will likely play relative strong stroke, as he knows where the ball is going. A better tactic in this situation might be to play the first ball wide in the forehand, forcing your opponent to move to cover it. Then you can quick block into his backhand so that he has to move back and play a backhand on the move. Now you are more likely to expose his weaker backhand than if you had just gone there from the start.

The tactics for these situations are very different but they are both based around a weaker backhand than forehand which you need to use to your advantage. The stronger the opponent the more you may have to think before you can find a way to expose their weakness. Larry, if you’re reading this I love this tactic and it had never really occurred to me before!

6. Practicing hitting shots down the line, not always diagonally.

Throughout the book Larry emphasises the importance of placement. There’s no point hitting a 100mph forehand straight into your opponent block! Instead, you would be better off taking a bit of pace off the ball and aiming it cleverly to catch your opponent off guard. Down-the-line shots are great for this as players naturally expect the ball to come back on the diagonals.

However, if you want to be able to hit a backhand down the line winner at 10-10 in the 5th game then you better have spent the time practicing it beforehand. I (and Larry) think we spend way too much time practicing our lovely diagonal strokes and nowhere near enough time getting them going down the line. If you can only play a backhand loop cross-court, then you haven’t really mastered the backhand loop, you’ve mastered part of the backhand loop. Practice until you can place every shot you use, anywhere on the table.

7. Test out your opponent in the first game.

This is my final key point from the book and something that I definitely need to do more of myself. Larry talks about the importance of trying lots of different serves, receives and strokes out in the first game and paying attention to what your opponent is good and bad against. When I put it like that it sounds simple and obvious but I know that I rarely do this.

Instead I just start serving short, tight serves (as always) and hoping they give me some pushes to attack. I may be playing an opponent that hates receiving long serves but there’s a good chance I’ll never find that out because I didn’t test him against a few long serves early on. When it gets tight later on in the game or match, that is not the time to try and fast serve and see if he rips it past you or not!

When receiving serve you may have a preference for touching or pushing or flicking but again try them all out and see what your opponent doesn’t like. If you’re great at flicking short serves then well done but if your opponent loves to hit a flick with a flat third ball attack then maybe you should stop using your great flick and start using your average deep push instead.

Perhaps everyone else already does this but I have to admit most of the time I’m not thinking this way.


And that brings me on nicely to my conclusion of the book and everything I’ve learnt from it.

Throughout the book Larry makes reference a few times to the so-called “non-thinkers”. The players that just play and don’t really think about tactics. As a “thinker” himself his point is to punish these players for not thinking and outsmart them with your tactics. I think that I can come at this from a slightly different perspective. Many readers of this book will probably start out as “non-thinkers” and I would admit to being a “semi-thinker” at best. However, reading this book has really opened my eyes to the kinds of things I should be thinking about while playing competitively.

If you are a “non-thinker” buy this book! You won’t regret it.

Larry said that his main aim with the book was to “make you think” and he certainly has for me. I can’t wait for the next time I play so that I can start putting some of this thinking into action as see the results.

And I think these “tactics” and “thinking” is incredibly important. Over the last 18 months I’ve seen my ranking climb slowly from about 200th in England to 150th. I’m not saying that’s particularly impressive but it is when you consider that I have barely picked up a bat outside of a bit of coaching and for a couple of tournaments. This increase in ranking has not come from an increase in skill caused by training. It has comes from an increase in thinking.

I love this book and for me it’s been just another step on my journey from being a non-thinker to a thinker.

Larry thank you very much!

PS. Finally, I would like to point out that you can be a great tactical thinker when you’re coaching and a great strategic thinker when you’re practicing and still be a terrible tactical thinker when playing yourself. This is me! It’s not like I don’t have a brain or stand in the corner and tell my players to fight more, move faster, hit harder and other useless cliches when they come to me for tactical advice in-between sets. However, that doesn’t mean that I put any of that tactical thinking into my own game when I play. And that is what I’m changing… slowly.

Buy the book

The book is available via Amazon and has a paperback and Kindle version. If you’re from the US it’s $16.16 (paperback) and $10.29 (Kindle). If you’re from the UK it’s £10.24 (paperback) and £6.71 (Kindle).

You can have a look inside the first few pages by visiting Amazon, which will give you a feel for the book. There is also a promotional poster which clearly shows you the titles of all 21 chapters that you can view here.