# How many Tic-Tac-Toe (noughts and crosses) games are possible?

A nice simple question which is perfectly possible to solve with a little bit of brute force.

The number is clearly bounded above, since there are 9 possible ways of placing the first mark, 8 remaining ways of placing the second, 7 the third, ..., and 1 the ninth. This would be 9*8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1 = 9! = 362880.

But 362880 is clearly too high. For example, a game that finishes after the seventh mark with three in a row would count twice in this figure, but should only count once. So we should expect a lower figure. But all games should continue until either all nine squares are filled or someone has three in a row (or both), so there must be at least five marks. So all we have to do is find how many games end with five marks, and similarly how many with six, seven, eight, or nine. For nine, there are two possibilities: either someone has won on their ninth move, or it is a draw with no three in a row.

For simplicity, we can assume that the first player starts with an X and the second uses an O.

## Number of games ending on the fifth move

An easy calculation:
there are 8 lines of three squares (three vertical, three horizontal, and two diagonal) and it doesn't matter in which order the three Xs were placed, and the two Os could have gone into two of the other six squares in any order. So we are looking at 8*3!*6*5 = 1440 possibilities for games ending in a win on the fifth move.

## Number of games ending on the sixth move

Slightly harder:
there are again 8 lines of three squares, and it doesn't matter in which order the three Os were placed, and the three Xs could have gone into three of the other six squares in any order (providing that the Xs are not three in a row). Ignoring the bracketed phrase, this gives us 8*3!*6*5*4 = 5760 possibilities. To take account of the bracket, we need to exclude cases where there are three Os in a row and three Xs in a row: none of them can be a diagonal, and if a particular row is taken, there are only two other possible rows, so we need to exclude 6*3!*2*3! = 432 cases. So we are looking at 5760-432 = 5328 possibilities for games ending in a win on the sixth move.

## Number of games ending on the seventh move

Another little complexity:
there are again 8 lines of three squares, but this time it does matter in which order the four Xs were placed, as the fourth must be on the line, while the three Os could have gone into three of the other five squares in any order (providing that the Os are not three in a row). Ignoring the bracketed phrase, this gives us 8*3*6*3!*5*4*3 = 51840 possibilities. To take account of the bracket, we need to exclude cases where there are three Os in a row and three Xs in a row: none of them can be a diagonal, and if a particular row is taken with Xs, there are only two other possible rows of which one has an X, so we need to exclude 6*3*6*3!*3! = 3888 cases. So we are looking at 51840-3888 = 47952 possibilities for games ending in a win on the seventh move.

## Number of games ending on the eighth move

More of the same:
there are again 8 lines of three squares, but again it does matter in which order the four Os were placed, as the fourth must be on the line, while the four Xs could have gone into four of the other five squares in any order (providing that the Xs are not three in a row). Ignoring the bracketed phrase, this gives us 8*3*6*3!*5*4*3*2 = 103680 possibilities. To take account of the bracket, we need to exclude cases where there are three Os in a row and three Xs in a row: none of them can be a diagonal, and if a particular row is taken with Os, there are only two other possible rows of which one has an O and two remaining places for an X, so we need to exclude 6*3*6*3!*2*4! = 31104 cases. So we are looking at 103680-31104 = 72576 possibilities for games ending in a win on the eighth move.

## Number of games ending on the ninth move

This could easily be calculated by substracting the possibilities already covered from 9!. But we will save that for a final check and move by brute force. The ninth game could end in a win or a draw, and we will calculate each.

For a win, there are a wide variety of possibilities:
not only do we need to ensure that there are no three Os in a row before the fifth X is placed, but also that there is not already a distinct line of three Xs in a row. First we will consider a win involving a diagonal only: there are two, and the fifth X must be on the diagonal; this means that the other two Xs can only be in 8 of the remaining 15 possible pairs of squares off the diagonal; this leads to 2*3*8*4!*4! = 27648 possibilities. Second we will consider a win which only involves one vertical or horizontal three in a row: the other two Xs can be in 10 of the remaining 15 possible pairs of squares off the row to avoid another three in a row of X; only 4 of the 10 avoid three Os in a row; again the fifth X must be in the desired row; this leads to 6*3*4*4!*4! = 41472 possibilities. Third, we need to consider the possibility that the fifth X completes two distinct threes in a row where they intersect: there are 22 possible intersecting pairs of three in a row; the fifth X must be the intersection; this leads to 22*1*4!*4! = 12672 possibilities. So we are looking at 27648+41472+12672 = 81792 possibilities for games ending in a win on the ninth move.

For a draw, it is much easier:
there is a total of 16 possible patterns for the five Xs and four Os which have no three in a row (there are three basic patterns increasing to 8+4+4 with reflections and rotations). So we are looking at 16*5!*4! = 46080 possibilities for games ending in a draw on the ninth move.

So in total we are looking at 81792+46080 = 127872 possibilities for games lasting as long as the ninth move.

## A check on our calculation so far

We could have caluclated the possibility for the ninth move as 9! -4!*(fifth move wins) -3!*(sixth move wins) -2!*(seventh move wins) -1!*(eight move wins) = 362880-24*1440-6*5328-2*47952-1*72576 = 127872. This is the same result as before, so despite the possibility of offsetting errors, we can have some confidence in the result.

## How many Tic-Tac-Toe (noughts and crosses) games are possible?

Adding all these figures together gives the desired result:1440+5328+47952+72576+81792+46080 = 255168 possible games in total.

This table sets out the results above:

 Win in 5 moves 1440 0.6% Win in 6 moves 5328 2.1% Win in 7 moves 47952 18.8% Win in 8 moves 72576 28.4% Win in 9 moves 81792 32.1% Draw 46080 18.1% Total 255168 100.0%

Despite this, my personal perception is that the game most usually ends in a draw (the result if both players are perfect), and that a win in 7 moves is the second most frequent real life result.

The number of games could be reduced still further by taking account of symmetry (e.g. the first move could only be the centre, the middle of a side, or a corner, i.e. 3 possibilities rather than 9) but the calculations would be harder.

I first produced this page in February 2001 following a Scientific American article by Ian Stewart. In 2002 Steve Schaefer contacted me to tell be he had calculated the number of solutions taking symmetry into account, together with many other calculations on a similar theme, such as the fact that (modulo symmetries) there are only 765 possible achievable positions if X goes first, and even fewer if the players are even moderately sensible. On this basis his equivalent table to that above would look like:

 Win in 5 moves 172 Win in 6 moves 579 Win in 7 moves 5115 Win in 8 moves 7426 Win in 9 moves 8670 Draw 4868 Total 26830

Since a square has 8 symmetries, it is counter-intuitive that that each of the numbers in this table is less than an eighth of the equivalent number in the earlier table. This does depend on the precise definition of what counts as equivalent games under symmetries. See if you agree with the following:

• the first diagram below is equivalent to the second using a reflection in the line between the top right and bottom left, so they can both be considered as being the third;
• therefore the fourth must be equivalent to the fifth, since they are both essentially the sixth, which is simply the third with two extra moves.
 X1 O1 X2

 X2 O1 X1

 X O X

 X1 O2 X3 O1 X2

 X2 O2 X3 O1 X1

 X O2 X3 O X

An alternative approach would be to decide that the fourth and fifth are in fact different (since O2 is next to X1 in the fourth and next to X2 in the fifth). This would lead to higher number of possible games - an eighth of the numbers in the first table for a total of 31896.