Know how to stop losing when you play Tic-Tac-Toe
(Or, how to lose only when you choose)
It’s a simple game. You probably learned how to play on the back of a kid’s menu, waiting for a hot grilled cheese sandwich.
Tic-Tac-Toe is deceptively simple. Given a three-by-three grid, win by connecting three Xs or Os in a row.
But you’ve lost — we all have. I’m here to show you how to lose only when you choose. And along the way, I’ll show you a cool trap!
First, let’s clear up one misunderstanding. I can’t tell you how to always win.
Nobody can, because two savvy opponents will always play to a draw. Players who can look ahead, or who know a few strategies that I’ll show you, will play to a draw. They will only win if their opponent makes a mistake.
For this article, assume that X’s always go first. I’ll give you three methods to lose only when you choose, and 10 tips to help you win. If you’re just here for the tips, scroll down to Method 3.
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.
Seeing a child light up because they won — hearing a little girl laugh because she won again, and again, and again — yeah, that makes you a winner.
Finish this article, and I promise you’ll know how to stop a kid from ever beating you. But if you’re playing a kid, or you just taught your foreign friend how to play, let them win. This isn’t chess.
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.
If you’re looking for the tips, skip ahead to Method 3.
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.
Start by trying to visualize two turns ahead. Since there are only nine squares, after the first move is made, there can only be a maximum of 4 more turns (8 marks on the board) until the game ends.
It’s not necessary to consider all the move variations out in your head as you play. If you can just look two turns ahead whenever it’s your turn to move, you will draw or win most games.
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.
So try Method 2 if you want to learn how to see ahead. This will come easy for many club-level chess players.
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.
For clarity, I started in the top left corner. But you can rotate any of these examples to any corner.
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.
If on your move you can win, do that and complete the tic-tac-toe. If you can’t win on your move, and your opponent’s next move threatens a win, block your opponent from making three-in-a-row.
This is the obvious piece of advice. But if I didn’t include it, this guide would be incomplete. All of the examples in these 10 Tic-Tac-Toe Tips assume both players know this tip.
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.
I know some of you are thinking, “Space is abstract” or “I don’t play chess” or “Don’t hurt my head, I just want to beat my cousin at Cracker Barrel.”
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.
Imagine you are O’s and can take 4 turns in a row. How many tic-tac-toes can you make?
See? Playing O’s, you can only make one tic-tac-toe. Just one.
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?
See? If you go first, you have the potential to make up to two tic-tac-toes. While the second player has the potential for just one tic-tac-toe.
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.
Making a forceful move means putting two of your marks in a line so that an open square in that line threatens to win with tic-tac-toe. Your opponent must block that square or lose.
When forcing your opponent, do so in a way that prevents her from countering with another tic-tac-toe. This will keep you in control. Diagrams in Tip 6 give you several examples of how to threaten tic-tac-toe and prevent your opponent from creating a counter-threat.
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.
Here are two diagrams to show you why O’s taking an edge first is a mistake.
Read these diagrams from left to right. In these examples, X always takes the first turn. Here are two games where the X’s player starts by taking the center, followed by O’s taking an edge.
Now, I’m not going to show you all the possible variations. Once you see a few of these, you’ll be able to apply these tips and make your own patterns.
The takeaway? If you are O’s and X’s takes the center, take a corner 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.
The next tip is given from X’s vantage point. The diagrams in Tip 6 show why this tip is true, and why you must take the center first when playing O’s (if the center is available).
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.
Remember Tip 3? “Look for forceful moves.” The most forceful move that X’s can make on the first turn is to take a corner.
Want to know why the first player’s most forceful move is to take a corner?
The only response that O’s can make, and not lose, is to take the center square. If O’s take any square other than the center, then X’s can force them to lose. That’s seven chances out of eight for O’s to make a mistake. Viewed another way, taking a corner first gives you seven opportunities to win.
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.
(Read these Tic-Tac-Toe diagrams from left to right.)
There are other variations for X’s to win, but these all demonstrate how O’s will lose by not taking the center square.
In all four examples, X’s second move forced O’s to block a tic-tac-toe threat. Additionally, notice how X’s blocked in a way that prevented O’s from countering with another tic-tac-toe. Because O’s violated Tip 5 by failing to take the center square first, X’s forced O’s to lose.
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:
- Center — You can make up to 4 tic-tac-toes by controlling the center.
- Corner — You can make up to 3 tic-tac-toes from a single corner, either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.
- 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.
See the pattern? The center gives you more opportunities to make tic-tac-toes. Edges are the weakest squares. Take an edge only when doing so you win the game, or you prevent your opponent from winning.
Look at the diagrams in Tip 6 again. How many edge squares did X’s take in those diagrams? Go ahead, scroll up and count them, we can wait.
Did you count the edge squares? What did you learn? That’s right, X’s took exactly zero edge-squares. ZERO. Don’t take an edge square unless A) you’re forced to block your opponent, or B) by taking an edge you end the game by winning.
There is one caveat about taking edges. I’ll talk about that in Tip 9.
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.
This assumes you took a corner square first. If you didn’t follow Tip 6, and you didn’t begin the game by taking a corner, I’ll assume you’re smart enough to be left to your own devices.
This is your last chance to prevent O’s from forcing you into a draw. What you’re hoping for is that the O’s player takes a corner because you just took two of them. Take the opposing corner and set a trap.
Here we see O’s make a mistake by taking a corner.
Since O’s took a corner, X’s can force a win by taking the last corner.
It’s been my experience that this tactic works more often if you move rapidly. You take the corner, O’s takes the center, and you quickly take the opposite corner. Maybe that effect is psychological, I don’t know. Give it a whirl.
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.
Good job, you remembered Tip 5, “When playing O’s, take the center first.” But watch out, because X’s just set a trap. If you take a corner now, X’s will block you in the other corner and threaten two tic-tac-toes.
In this situation, you MUST take an EDGE. Any edge, it doesn’t matter.
This violates Tip 7 (avoid edge squares), but I warned you in Tip 7 there was a caveat. This is it. In this scenario, you must take an edge. You will force a draw as O’s. Let’s look at that mistake again, and at the correct move.
Here, O’s makes the wrong move. X’s blocks O’s and threatens two tic-tac-toes.
Here, O’s makes the right move. This will play out to a draw.
In this scenario take an edge and you can force X’s into a draw. This is the best O’s can hope for against a smart opponent.
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.
Starting in a different corner forces you to become a better player. You will get better at visualizing the moves. That will also make you a better defender when playing O’s. More importantly…
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.”
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.
- Block three-in-a-row unless your move wins
- When given the choice, choose to go first. (aka “Be X”)
- Look for forceful moves
- When playing O’s, if X’s start in the center, take a corner.
- When playing O’s, take the center first
- When playing X’s, take the corner first
- Avoid edge squares
- If O’s takes the center square, lay a trap by taking the opposite corner.
- If you’re playing O’s, don’t fall for the Tip 8 trap
- Rotate corners when you start
Thanks for reading. May you lose only when you choose!
Ken Palmer is a software engineer and writer. He lives in Tennessee with his family, dog, guitar, and collection of games. An active member of the Twitter #WritingCommunity, Ken also writes about life hacks and the craft of writing.