Aggression in games

In almost every game I can think of one of the hallmarks of a good player is aggressiveness. In fact, I actually can’t think of a single game where being aggressive isn’t a good thing. Whether it’s pinochle, poker, backgammon, basketball, or anything else, aggression is generally the way to go. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to always keep the pedal to the metal; sometimes you have to back off a bit and slow down.

So why is it a good thing to be aggressive? First off, it’s just easier to be on offense than defense. If you’re the one being aggressive by constantly attacking and being on the offense it makes it hard on the other guy because he has to constantly react to what you’re doing. He has to guess what to do, whereas you’ve already acted and committed. Sometimes just being aggressive in and of itself will win for you. In poker for example, you can pick up a lot of pots just through raising or betting out even when you don’t think you have the best hand. You can bet or raise with nothing, but you can’t call with it, so oftentimes leading out will get you the pot. All the best poker players in the world are extremely aggressive at the table.

In a bidding game like pinochle the aggression comes during the bidding. When I teach people how to play I tell them that if they’re in doubt about whether to bid or not that they should bid. Most beginners don’t bid aggressively enough, and you can’t win in pinochle unless you take bids and make hands. Sometimes of course it backfires on you and the cat (the three extra cards you get for taking the bid) doesn’t help you at all, but in the long run you’ll be way ahead by bidding aggressively. As an aside, one thing that helps in Pinochle is to have a little bit of meld to fall back on if you don’t make it. If you’ve got 60 or 80 meld go ahead and bid once or twice even if you don’t have a great hand (i.e. less than 3 holes). You can always pick up a marriage or a pinochle or a couple Aces to make a nice playing hand: just enough to make a small bid. And the more bids you take the better chance you have of making a big hand.

Of course, you can’t always be in 100% attack mode. Various game experts talk about “controlled aggression” which may seem contradictory but really isn’t. You can’t be super-aggressive all the time (a “maniac”). Not only is this not as effective, but it’s pretty annoying for the other players. It’s pretty annoying when you’re playing poker and someone at the table is raising it every single time. Don’t be that guy. What you want is to be selectively aggressive: attack when it’s to your advantage but back off when your aggression could backfire. Backgammon is a great example of a game where you need to learn when to be aggressive and when to play safer. You need to be aggressive so you can have the best chance of advancing your position and setting yourself up well, but if you’re too aggressive you’ll end up exposing your pieces to too many shots and get hit too often. Finding that balance is one of the keys in backgammon, but if you’re going to err you want to err on the side of aggression, despite the old saying (“err on the side of caution”) 😉

And I think that’s true for most games: you need to be aggressive, but being a maniac is counterproductive. You need to tend toward aggression in a controlled manner, but when in doubt attack. When I was taking fencing lessons (something I wouldn’t mind doing again) there was a more experienced student who was a super nice guy and kind of took me under his wing and helped me develop my skills. Well I had noticed that whenever I sparred with someone I ended up spending the entire match on their end of the mat, never retreating into my own half. I asked my mentor one day if that was a bad thing, thinking that maybe I should be better utilizing the space available to me or that I wasn’t mixing things up enough or something. He was like, “No, that’s great! If you’re always in his area that means you’re the aggressor and you’re the one controlling the action. It’s like a street fight, if you’re constantly pushing the other guy back and making him retreat that means you’re winning.” It may surprise you to know that I have very little experience with street fighting (unless you count the video game Street Fighter II, then I have tons of experience), but the advice stuck and made sense anyway, and I never worried about being overly-aggressive in fencing again.

If you know me you might be thinking about how I’m not a very aggressive person. And I’m not in real life, but when I play games I generally am (and especially when I fence!). It doesn’t always come naturally, but sometimes it does. Fencing is one example where I was naturally aggressive. Other games, like backgammon and pinochle, I got more aggressive as I got better at the game (or maybe I got better at the game because I got more aggressive). Having started to play poker (Hold ’em) pretty recently that’s a good example of a game where I’m still trying to find the right amount of aggression. It’s important to find that point in just about every game, but remember that when in doubt aggression is the way to go.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Aggression in games

  1. I liked this post a lot. I’m not sure how to explain why here. 🙂

    “…being a maniac is counterproductive.” Ha.. wise words.

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