Motivational asymmetry caused by differences in subjective resource value is a key component of strategic models of aggression. We study the role of motivational asymmetry in determining differential aggression and mating success of male house crickets, Acheta domesticus. We also assess the extent to which mating differences associated with motivational asymmetry are due to direct male–male fighting vs. male–female interactions. We manipulated male motivation to compete for a mating opportunity by providing males with either no access or nightly access to females for 4 d prior to the experiment. As predicted, when males from each treatment had to compete for the female, those with lower prior access were more aggressive and mated more often. In contrast, when males from each treatment were paired individually with females, there was no significant difference in the frequencies with which they pursued, courted or mated with females. We also found no evidence for female choice based on motivational asymmetry; the rate of successful courtship did not differ between treatments. We conclude that prior mate encounter rate can generate motivational asymmetry, leading to differential mating success mediated by direct male–male aggression.