Tuesday, March 8, 2011


The children's game, Tic-Tac-Toe, was mentioned in a recent Rational Choice reading, which got me thinking: Where does the name come from? Is it really not winnable for skilled players?

They actually sell these now. Profitable? No idea.
In the modern information age, I have it easy: a quick few minutes on the internet, and I can know anything I wish to know. It's pretty amazing; older generations would have had to ask someone who may or may not have a reliable answer, or else go to the library and find a book dedicated to the history of the game. My research is effortless in comparison. It's a wonder everyone growing up today doesn't simply spend their whole lives furiously reading everything the internet has to offer, learning about every famous person, foreign culture, or popular movie from all of time. Sometimes, my friends and I do end up reading and learning about one thing or another, and then sharing that information. Such is the case now for Tic-Tac-Toe, so here's what I dug up.

As for the name, it's due to American silliness. The British called it noughts and crosses, after the Xs and Os. (I believe we should not call them X's and O's; apostrophes would imply possession). Anyway, a game of "tic-tac-toe" existed, but was entirely different, and we seem to have just mixed them up, intentionally or not.

So that game would never happen. But Roman-style?
As for whether or not it can be won; indeed, it cannot. If both players know what they are doing, they can force ties. This makes for an interesting computer program, as teaching a machine to win under all scenarios serves as a manageable exercise in basic programming.  What interests me more, however, is the Roman game. Apparently, Romans played tic-tac-toe, though a bit differently. The board looks the same, and is found sketched all over the place in ancient Rome, but they didn't draw in their moves. The game was played with game pieces, three for each player.

So I wonder how they played. Presumably, they took turns putting down their pieces...but since they only had three each, they had to pick up and move the pieces for their fourth (or later) moves. Could this game be winnable? Perhaps. I'd love to give it a try. Anyone up for ancient Roman "zeri e x?"

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