A Guide to Tic Tac Toe Strategy

Maddy Marcus / June 22, 2020

Whenever a competitive game comes out, a player-defined meta is sure to follow. Whether it's a classic board game like Clue, a trading card game like Yu-Gi-Oh, or a worldwide e-sport like League of Legends, players always have strategies that make the game as easy to win for them as possible. Even simple games like Minesweeper have hidden depths if you go looking.

But some games, like the classic Tic-Tac-Toe, are so simple they don't appear to have any clear strategies. But what if we told you there existed hidden strategies you could use to ensure your future victories?

Does that sound intriguing? Then without further ado, let's jump right into the top Tic-Tac-Toe strategies!

Tic-Tac-Toe Instructions and Basics

Before we dive into the top strategies, it's important to break down the mechanics of the game first. Tic-Tac-Toe requires two players and starts with a 3x3 square grid.

The player who goes first places an X on any of the 9 squares they choose. After that, the second player places an O on any of the remaining squares, and the two players go back and forth until one player has 3 in a row of their letter (either as a vertical line, horizontal line, or diagonal line).

The player who gets those three letters in a row wins the game. If all 9 squares fill up and no one has 3 in a row, the game is a tie.

Types of Play to Avoid

One of the main types of play you want to avoid in Tic-Tac-Toe is placing letters at random. This strategy is very easy to counter, as more experienced players will simply counter each of your plays to ensure a tie or set up a win condition while you aren't looking. 

Another type of play you'll want to avoid is playing only to block your opponent from making moves. Against an average player, the best result of this strategy tends to be a tie, and certain high-level strategies benefit from the opponent blocking them on a turn-by-turn basis (as opposed to the grand picture).  

In terms of the first square you pick in a game, try to avoid the square dead in the center. This should only occur if you go second and your opponent takes a corner space (as this will let you force out a draw).

You should never pick the middle square of every column or row (besides the center square) under any circumstance as your first move. This is because this move deprives you of taking a critical piece of the board your opponent needs to win and gives them a free turn to set up on you.

Tic-Tac-Toe Strategies

Thanks to a large number of possible combinations of X's and O's that you can get in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe (255,168 to be exact), it's impossible to know the exact way every game will play out. That said, there are two key strategies you can use to give yourself the best chance of winning (or at least not losing).

Strategy #1: Go First if Possible

For starters, going first gives you the most board access. After all, if every square gets filled, you've got a claim to 5 of them (while the person who goes second only gets 4). 

Another perk of going first is that one of the expert strategies for the game revolves around going first and putting your first X in one of the far corners. From there, try to capture the adjacent corners on your next turn so you can get your opponent in a situation where they can't stop you from achieving three in a row. At the very least, capturing all the corners helps secure a tie if your opponent plays to counter your move.

For example, let's say you place an X in the top left corner. Your opponent takes the bottom left corner to block your row. 

You then place an X in the top right corner. Your opponent has to place their O in the middle of your two X's or they lose next turn. When they do, place an X on the bottom right corner. 

Your opponent is now caught in a Catch-22. They either block your right column of X's and you win on your next turn with a diagonal row, or they block the diagonal and you win with the column. While there is a great variety of moves your opponent could make on their first turn, as long as they try to block you with a non-center space on their first turn, sticking to corners will ensure you lock them out of forming any win conditions.

Strategy #2: For When You Get Stuck Going Second

But you won't always go first in every game you play. Should that happen, you have to make sure you make the precise counter-play to ensure a tie should your opponent be playing at the top skill level. If they take a corner square, take the center to counter. 

If they swap it up and grab the center to disorient you, grab a corner. As long as you block every move your opponent makes from there on, you're guaranteed a tie. If you want to win, you'll have to hope they slip up and take the wrong square on your turn so you can exploit that to take back the offensive momentum.

If your opponent whiffs their first turn and grabs the middle square of any row or column, it's easy to punish them and turn it back around to a win. If they do this, grab a corner and proceed gameplay as if you were doing the first-turn corner strategy with X. Worst-case scenario, you should be able to force out a tie if they recover down the road.

The King or Queen of Tic-Tac-Toe Strategy

And there you have it! Now that you're an expert in Tic-Tac-Toe strategy, you're ready to challenge all your friends and mop the floor with them! Alternatively, you can play online or challenge yourself with a more strategic game of tic tac toe. And if you're looking for more foolproof tricks to win every game you play, check the other posts on our blog for more advanced strategies!