Agonistic behaviour between male orb–web spiders Metellina mengei competing for access to female webs was examined in field experiments to test the major predictions of game theory. Winners of fights were significantly larger than losers, particularly with respect to the length of the first pair of legs, which are sexually dimorphic in this species and used extensively in agonistic encounters. The size of the winning male had no influence on contest intensity or duration, and neither did relative size. However, fight intensity and duration were both positively correlated with the size of the losing male. Resident males won significantly more contests than intruders. Winning intruders were significantly larger than winning residents and it was these winning intruders that tended to produce the longer fights. Female weight and hence reproductive value had a marked influence on fight intensity and duration of fights won by the intruder but not those won by the resident. This indicates that only the resident obtains information about the female. These data are discussed with reference to the discrepancy with theory and a failure of some contestants to obtain information on resource value and relative contestant size necessary to optimize fight strategy.