Dear Dave: My wife and I are big fans of tic-tac-toe, and we try to play it whenever we're not too tired after work. The problem is, whenever she goes first, she places an X in the center square. This makes it very hard for me to employ a winning strategy. Do you have any suggestions?
—Frustrated in Poughkeepsie
I get this question a lot. Opening with the center square every single time is the mark of an immature player, and a practice that the National Tic-Tac-Toe Federation officially frowns on. If you think about it, avoiding the center-square opening gives you eight more squares to choose from! That's far more than a limited, goal-oriented player will ever see!
But because your wife's practice isn't illegal, all you can do is persuade her to try something else. I can think of two ways to do this.
1.) Suggestion. When your wife has finished drawing the grid, but before she has actually written an X, do what the fast-food industry calls "suggesting a sell," by saying something like "Say! I wonder what would happen if you started in the upper left-hand corner?" or "I bet a middle-right opening would lead to a game full of nail-biting excitement." Keep at it! She may not succumb right away, but after fifty or a hundred times your influence may sink in.
2.) Negotiation. This is the most direct approach. Turn your normal tic-tac-toe into a kind of game! When you start your match, say something like "Honey, if you avoid opening in the center square this evening, I will reward you with sex." (Or, if you prefer, "If you open in the center square again, I won't have sex with you.") A strategy like this helped me to beat Lance Carlotti in 1996 and win the National Tic-Tac-Toe Federation's Golden Stickpin, but instead of sex I used threats of leprosy. You can do the same to give your matches life "outside the box."
I have a pen pal from England. Recently, when I was telling her about my love of tic-tac-toe, she responded that she was already familiar with the game, only in her country it was called "naughts and crosses." Is this really the same game? Can I play it with her?
—Curious in Poughkeepsie
Although technically nothing prevents you from playing your pen pal, I advise against it. You cannot afford to expose yourself to foreign styles of play if you want to maintain your competitive edge. But deeper philosophical issues are at stake here. Can you play tic-tac-toe with an opponent who thinks she's playing something called "naughts and crosses"? Can you have a "tied," or "cats," game if she thinks she's "got you up the crumpet," or whatever those people say? The British unwillingness to compromise on these issues explains why the National Tic-Tac-Toe Federation is not the International Tic-Tac-Toe Federation.
I play tic-tac-toe every day at lunch with a guy at work. He has this really annoying habit—instead of writing an O he uses a smiley face! It's driving me crazy!! Can you make him stop???
—Frantic in a Town Just South of Poughkeepsie
I think if the game had been meant to be played your friend's way, it would be called tic-tac-smiley-face.
The National Tic-Tac-Toe Federation's official term for this practice is nonstandard orthography, and on the professional circuit it carries a minimum fine of $25 and forfeiture of the game. The worst case of this I ever saw was at the 1989 Nationals, where a contestant, angered by an earlier loss, started replacing all his Xs with a well-known four-letter obscenity. He was fined $200, stripped naked, and beaten senseless in the parking lot. Although nothing this extreme has happened since (for one thing, the National Convention no longer serves alcohol), the message is clear. If you want to use smiley faces, do it on your own time! That's what hotel rooms are for! The rules of tic-tac-toe are not complicated, and everyone must abide by them. If you can't bring yourself to do this, perhaps you should be playing nine-men's-morris.
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