Know how to stop losing when you play Tic-Tac-Toe

Tic-Tac-Toe Game
Tic-Tac-Toe Game (author photo)

Method 1 — Let the rookie win

That’s right, I’m telling you to lose. If you’re playing a child, let the kid win. This is the one case where you should choose to lose.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

Method 2 — Look ahead

Speaking of chess, if you regularly play chess, apply your seeing-ahead-skills to see more than one turn ahead in Tic-Tac-Toe.

Look 2 turns ahead

Quick definitions: A move occurs when one person marks a square. A turn is completed when two players each make one move. For example, an X played and an O played is one turn.

Try seeing 3 turns ahead

Once you get good at this, try increasing your ability to see ahead up to three turns. After the first 3 moves, you will be able to play out an entire game of Tic-Tac-Toe in your mind.

Method 3 — Never lose with these tactics

If you’re not playing a rookie, and the mental effort of looking ahead is unappealing, then follow these tips. Consistently apply these tactics, and you will never lose at Tic-Tac-Toe.

Rotate the examples

In the examples below, the X’s player always takes the top left corner first. There is nothing magic about the top left corner. Take any corner you want.

10 Tic-Tac-Toe tips, tricks, and tactics

Here are ten surefire tips to win (or not lose) at Tic-Tac-Toe. In all of these examples assume that X’s go first.

Tip 1 — Block three-in-a-row unless your move wins

Here’s the tip you knew. Don’t get lost in the other tips and miss this one.

Tip 2 — When given the choice, choose to go first. (aka “Be X”)

Going first grants an advantage in every game on the planet. Unless a game designer built-in a quirky disadvantage for taking the first turn, this principle applies to ANY GAME where players alternate turns. Going first is better.

Going first grants a permanent advantage.

For example, the advantage of going first applies to chess. White (the first player) gets the initiative, has an easier time taking control of space on the board, and can limit his opponent’s responses. Go first in Risk and you get to attack first. Go first in Monopoly and on your first turn you won’t land on an opponent’s property. See what I mean?

Go first in Tic-Tac-Toe and you get more space.

When you go first in Tic-Tac-Toe, you win a huge advantage in controlling space. How much of an advantage? With only 9 squares, each square represents 11% of the total space on the board. The player who goes first will take 55% of the board space, and the player who goes second will control 44% of the board. This advantage never changes.

NASA photo of outer space.
NASA photo of outer space.

Fewer chances to win

Fair enough. Let’s look at this differently. If you go second, you get to take 4 squares. With 4 moves, you have the opportunity to make just 1 tic-tac-toe.

O’s who go second always move 4 times in Tic-Tac-Toe
O’s move 4 times (author diagram)

If you go second, play for a draw. That’s the best you can reasonably hope for.

Go first for more chances to win

Imagine you are X’s and can take 5 turns in a row. How many potential tic-tac-toe lines can you make by taking five squares?

X’s who go first always move 5 times in Tic-Tac-Toe
X’s move 5 times in-a-row

It’s a huge advantage to get twice as many chances to win.

This is such an advantage that if you play O’s, your main job is to stop X’s from winning. You read that right. If you go second, play for a draw, because that’s the best you can do unless you are in a Method 1 situation, where you should let the rookie win.

Tip 3 — Look for forceful moves

Unless you are winning on this turn or blocking three-in-a-row, make a direct threat to force your opponent to block you. Forcing your opponent’s move puts you in control of the game. And we all like control.

Tip 4 — When playing O’s, if X’s start in the center, take a corner.

It’s common for players to take the center first. If X’s takes the center and you take an edge, X’s can force you to lose. It’s always a mistake for O’s to take an edge first. Always.

Two examples to prove it’s a mistake for O’s to take an edge first.
It’s a mistake for O’s to take an edge first.

Tip 5 — When playing O’s, take the center first

A smart X’s player will take a corner first. And if she does, you better take the center or X’s can force you to lose. Taking the center is the only way for O’s to stay alive against a smart player.

The center is the most valuable square.

It’s unlikely you will win, but as O’s your job is to stop X’s from winning. This is worth repeating. As O’s, you probably won’t win. But you can always stop X’s from winning if you know what to do.

Tip 6 — When playing X’s, take a corner first.

“But wait,” you’re thinking, “you said the center is the most valuable square!” Yes, yes I did. And if you’re playing X’s and want to take the center first, you can. But if you’re playing X’s, taking the center first will probably lead to a draw. When you play X’s, don’t play for a draw.

The most forceful move that X’s can make on the first turn is to take a corner.

That, my friend, is why the best first move for X’s is taking a corner. You’re forcing O’s to take the center or lose the game.

Taking a corner first forces O’s to take the center or lose.

These diagrams show ways for O’s to lose if they don’t take the center. These patterns work because X’s first played in the corner.

4 winning Tic-Tac-Toe patterns for X.
Winning Tic-Tac-Toe patterns for X

Tip 7 — Avoid edge squares

This brings up another principle. Squares have different values based on their positions. In order, from most to least valuable, here is the list of squares:

  1. Center — You can make up to 4 tic-tac-toes by controlling the center.
  2. Corner — You can make up to 3 tic-tac-toes from a single corner, either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.
  3. Edge — You can make up to 2 tic-tac-toes from a single edge (vertical or horizontal). And one of those must be across the center square.

Tip 8 — If O’s takes the center square, lay a trap by taking the opposite corner.

Here you’re playing X’s and you get to set a trap.

X’s can lay a trap for O’s
X’s can lay a trap
Spider web
Photo by michael podger on Unsplash
The X’s player sets a trap for O’s
O’s must watch out!
O’s makes a mistake by taking a corner.
O’s mistakenly takes a corner

Tip 9 — If you’re playing O’s, don’t fall for the Tip 8 trap.

Imagine you are now playing O’s, and find yourself in this situation.

X’s took opposite corners and O’s is in the center
X’s took opposing corners
O’s makes a mistake by taking a corner.
If you are playing O’s, don’t do this.
O’s make the correct move when responding to opposite corners.
Do this instead

Tip 10 — Rotate corners when you start.

While you’re learning these tips, it’s helpful to begin in the same corner. Once you master these tic-tac-toe tactics, begin each game in a different corner.

Beginning each game in a different corner camouflages your tactics.

Start in a different corner to hide your tactics. Most people won’t recognize your patterns, and will be less likely to say, “I see what you’re doing.”

Rotating Ferris Wheel
Photo by Kinson Leung on Unsplash

Tic-Tac-Toe tricks and tactics summary

Here’s a quick summary of the 10 tic-tac-toe tips. All of these tips assume that the X’s player takes the first turn.

  1. Block three-in-a-row unless your move wins
  2. When given the choice, choose to go first. (aka “Be X”)
  3. Look for forceful moves
  4. When playing O’s, if X’s start in the center, take a corner.
  5. When playing O’s, take the center first
  6. When playing X’s, take the corner first
  7. Avoid edge squares
  8. If O’s takes the center square, lay a trap by taking the opposite corner.
  9. If you’re playing O’s, don’t fall for the Tip 8 trap
  10. Rotate corners when you start

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