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Back in grade school whenever we played a game of Tic-Tac-Toe (X's and O's) and the result was a tie, we would call it a "Cat's Game." I've never heard this term applied to a tie in any other circumstance and was interested in where this term came from and why it seems to be unique to Tic-Tac-Toe.

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  • I always thought it was because losing boards tend to have a "C" shape in the X's or the O's.
    – asmeurer
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:43
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    @asmeurer Interesting. I always drew a big "C" over the grid if it was a tie, but never really knew why... Mar 5, 2014 at 23:26

5 Answers 5

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I always took it as a sort of dismissal of the game. When you think about the games that a cat would play, such as batting around a toy, or chasing its tail, there is no win condition. So basically it is saying, "That is a game that served no purpose".

Apparently on the broader scale tic-tac-toe has always had a connotation with cats in many different cultures; here is an interesting snippet from a podcast discussing the topic.

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    Awesome, that sheds light on why I've never heard this term in any other circumstance. Mar 5, 2014 at 19:13
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    I'm not convinced by this, partly for the reason given against David's substantially similar answer, and partly because although kittens and puppies (and even energetic adult dogs) are stereotypically portrayed as idly playing and chasing their tail, balls of string, sticks, etc., adult cats aren't normally thought of that way. Mar 5, 2014 at 22:03
  • "When you think about the games that a cat would play, such as..." chess? I kid you not! I play chess with my cat! Sounds impressive, I know, but it's not: I win most of the time. ;-)
    – tobyink
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:47
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The "best answer" on Yahoo regarding this subject refers to it as a "cat trying to catch its tail." The analogy is that a cat won't win the game of trying to catch its tail, and you can't win a tied game of Tic Tac Toe.

This seems plausible, but then again, I've seen plenty of cats catch their tails.

An answer on Ask.com suggests that "Tac" spelled backwards is "cat," and cats scratch. And, since the game is a scratch . . .

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  • My cat can catch his tail.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 5, 2014 at 19:55
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    @Oldcat Isn't it slavery if you own another cat?
    – David M
    Mar 5, 2014 at 19:58
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    Rules don't apply to cats.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 5, 2014 at 20:06
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    I think this is rather unlikely, because while searching for the earliest relevant instance in Google Books, I had to ignore an awful lot where cat's game effectively meant playing cat and mouse - a somewhat gruesome "game" played by cats, that mice don't so much "play" as "endure". Until the cat gets bored, at which point the mouse definitely loses, because he's almost certain to be killed and in most cases eaten. Mar 5, 2014 at 21:59
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Early associations of 'cat' with tie games

Dictionary of American Regional English (1985) has this entry for cat's game:

cat's game n Also cat, cat game, cat's tail | A tie game of tick-tack-toe. 1950 W[isconsin] E[nglish] L[anguage] S[urvey] (Neither "x" no "o" wins {at tick-tack-toe}, you say it's ______) 6 Inf[ormant]s, W[isconsin], The cat's; 6 Infs, Cat's game; 6 Infs. (One) for he cat; 2 Infs, Cat got (or gets) it; 1 Inf, Cat. 1965–70 DARE (Qu[estion] EE38b) 120 Infs, widespread, Cat's game; 18 Infs, scattered, Cat; O[regon]15, Cat game; C[alifornia]37, Cat's tail; {24 Infs, Cat {wins, won, gets it, got it, has it, gets <or got, wins> the game)}

The earliest example of the expression that I have found in print is from Richard Andree, "The Need for Modern Mathematics" (1955) [combined snippets]:

Tic-tac-toe, three in a row, or old cat is a game which almost everybody knows how to play. My five year old son enjoys playing it under the name 'noughts and crosses.' Players soon discover that i[t] isn't very much of a game. The person who goes first can't lose unless he blunders. He doesn't necessarily win--it may be a cat game--but he can't lose unless he blunders, After you discover this, the game loses interest.

And from Edward McCormick, Digital Computer Primer (1959):

Tick-Tack-Toe. An example of logical problems which can be solved on a logical computer is the game of tick-tack-toe (tit-tat-toe, or naughts and crosses). This ancient child's game is simple enough to be thoroughly analyzed, and many devices for playing it have been built. It is played (if anyone need be told) by two people, who alternately place naughts and crosses on a 3 × 3 grid. The game is won by the player who gets three marks in a row. In game-theory parlance, the game is finite (comes to a definite end) and if played rationally will result in a draw (a cat's game).

A related idea appears in Bryng Bryngelson & ‎Esther Glaspey, Speech in the Classroom: Teacher's Manual to Accompany Speech Improvement Cards (1951) [combined snippets]:

Old Cat | A game similar to tick-tack-toe may be played as follows: One Picture Nine Game Card is given to two pupils, and the corresponding small cards are spread out face up on the table. The first player chooses any small card he wishes, names it, and plays it face up over the corresponding picture on the large card. (If he does not name the card correctly, he loses a turn.) The other player chooses a card, names it, and places it on the Picture Nine Game Card face down so as to distinguish it from the other player's. The two players continue, each trying to complete a row (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) with three of his own cards, as with circles and crosses in tick-tack-toe. If neither player gets three of his cards in a row, the Old Cat wins the game.

A much earlier allusion to a game-winning cat appears in Fred A. Sassé, Rookie Days of a Soldier (1924), where the game itself is referred to as "tit-tat-to":

Next, you walk around to the doctor who vaccinates your left arm by pricking two lines up and down and two lines across, similar to the old Tit-Tat-To game. The cat has the game in a great many cases, for the vaccination doesn't always work."

And earlier still, from Carolym Wells, "The Tit-Tat-Toe Club," in Ainslee's Magazine (1902):

The game [of tit-tat-toe] proceeded. "Be careful," said Miss Pollock, warningly, to her opponents; "some authorities think the second play is the most important of any. And, of course, it is, if one p;lays the Parkington opening. But the conservative opinion of late seems to favor the crackajack opening, followed by oblique second play."

The ladies of the whist club were unable to understand these technical terms, but being skilled in the art of living in a suburban town, they quickly took the cue of thoughtful hesitation, and they pondered over the placing of each nought and cross with faces expressive of most weighty deliberation.

"Cat it! Cat it!" cried Miss Pollock, suddenly, and every member of the whist club jumped involuntarily, but immediately resumed her composure, and glanced reprovingly at her neighbor.

"Cat it!" cried Miss Pollock, again ; "give it to the old cat, don't you know? Draw the game!"

To a few of the ladies present came a dim recollection of two childish heads hidden behind a discreet geography, and bending close above a slate, on which were marked the respective scores of the players, and a large space dedicated to the old cat.

"It is considered equally as clever to cat a game as to win it," Miss Pollock informed her audience. "Indeed our champions cat all their games."


Early associations of other figures with tie games

The cat may not have been the original beneficiary of tie games, however. From Alice Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in A Dictionary of British Folk-lore, part 1, volume 1 (1894):

Noughts and Crosses

This game is played on slates by school-children. The accompanying diagram is drawn on the slate, and a certain figure (generally twenty) is agreed upon as "game." There are two players, one takes naughts {0} and the other takes crosses {×}. The three places drawn on the slate above the diagram are for the players each to put down marks or numbers for the games they win, the centre place being for "Old Nick," or "Old Tom." The object of the game is for each player to occupy three contiguous places in a row or line with wither noughts or crosses, and to prevent his opponent from doing so. The diagram is of course empty when play begins. One player commences by putting his mark into either of the vacant places he prefers, the other player then places his in another, wherever he thinks he has the best opportunity to prevent his opponent from getting a "three," and at the same time to get a three himself; then the first player plays again, and so on alternately until all squares are occupied, or until one of the players has a "three" in line. If neither player gets a "three," the game is won by "Old Nick." Whichever player wins a game adds "Old Nick's" score to his own. In some games "Old Nick" keeps all he wins for himself, and then most frequently wins the game.—London (A.B. Gomme)

And from "Memoir on the Study of Children's Games," in A Dictionary of British Folk-lore, part 1 volume 2 (1898):

Other games of skill are those played by two or more players on diagrams or plans. Many of these diagrams and plans are found scratched or carved on the stone flooring or walls of old churches, cathedrals, and monastic buildings, showing that the boys and men of the Middle Ages played them as a regular amusement—probably monks were not averse to this kind of diversion in the intervals of religious exercise ; plans were also made on the ground, and the games played regularly by shepherds and other people of outdoor occupation. We know this was so with the well-known "Nine Men's Morris" in Shakespeare's time, and there is no reason why this should not be the case with others, although "Nine Men's Morris" appears to have been the favourite. These diagram games are primitive in idea, and simple in form. They consist primarily of two players trying to form a row of three stones in three consecutive places on the plan; the one who first accomplishes this, wins. This is the case with "Kit-Cat-Cannio" (better known as "Noughts and Crosses"), "Corsicrown" and "Nine Men's Morris."

Now, in "Noughts and Crosses" the simplest form of making a "row of three," where only two players play, and in another diagram game called "Tit-Tat-Toe," it is possible for neither player to win, and in this case the the result is marked or scored to an unknown or invisible third player, who is called "Old Nick," "Old Tom," or "Old Harry." In some versions this third player is allowed to keep all the marks he registers, and to win the game if possible; in others, the next successful player takes "Old Nick's" score and adds it to his own. Here we have an element which needs explanation, and it is interesting to remind oneself of the primitive custom of assigning a certain portion of the crops or pieces of land to the devil, or other earth spirit, which assignment was made by lot. It seems to me that a game in which an invisible player takes part must come from an era in which unknown spirits were believed to take part in people's lives, the interpretation of such part being obtained by means of divination.

Similarly (but later), from Francis Ross, Reading to Find Out: A Silent Reader for Primary Grades (1923):

Tit-Tat-Toe | This is a game for two people. | Draw four lines across each other like those in the three lower figures on page 34. | One player marks a space with o. The other player marks a space with x. They take turns in playing. | The one who first has three marks in a line wins the game. He says,

"Tit-tat-toe, / Three men in a row."

Look at page 34 to see how to keep the score. Let us pretend that the two children who are playing are called Ruth and John. Those games that neither Ruth nor John wins we will say belong to Jack, who is just a make-believe child.


Assessment

A number of early descriptions of the game refer simply to a "drawgame." For example from The American Boy's Book of Sports and Games (1864):

TIT-TAT-TO. This is a game that small boys enjoy, and some big ones who won't own it. A figure is drawn on the slate, as in the cut, and the object of the game is that one shall draw three crosses in a row before the other can draw three naughts in that way ; each to mark but one at a time, somewhere between the bars, and the two to mark in turns. ... If A is smart he will put his cross between those two naughts, though it end in a draw game, for B will put his naught on the opposite side, and then no one can make it [three in a row].

Nevertheless, it is striking that various tic-tac-toe traditions avoid declaring a game in which neither active competitor wins a tie. Instead they assign the victory to a silent third party—old Nick, old Tom, old Harry, the old man, Jack, the old cat, or the cat.

The names "Old Harry," "Old Nick," and "Old Tom" are historically associated with the Devil, which introduces an infernal twist to the silent participant's identity. Whether the cat appeared as a stand-in for the Devil in an effort to make the silent adversary's identity more child-friendly or whether it drew on old associations between cats and devils—or whether, entirely to the contrary, the cat appeared independently of Old Nick and Old Harry simply because cats were common, familiar, and silent observers in many a place where people played games of tic-tac-toe—the sources I've examined don't say.

What they do establish, with some degree of certainty, is that characterizing a draw in tic-tac-toe as a win for old Tom, Nick, or Harry was familiar in parts of Britain by 1894, and that characterizing it as a win for the old cat was familiar in parts of the United States by 1902.

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Completely winging it here, I'm going to suggest that Tic-Tac-Toe is typically a childrens' pastime, so it's natural to associate it with The Cat's Cradle Game (a "game" which nobody "wins").

It's worth noting that many/most children are fiercly competitive. If two children are playing Cat's Cradle and it "goes wrong", one might well start complaining vociferously that it was the other's fault, and thus that he somehow "lost".

It's easy to imagine a nearby adult stepping in and defusing the situation by pointing out that Cat's Cradle isn't a "win/lose" sort of game. It would thus be quite natural for the children to figuratively refer to that "no winner" game later, when Tic-Tac-Toe ends in a draw.


The earliest reference I can find for this usage is from 1952, and implies it probably wasn't a "recent coinage" at that time.

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    The odd thing about the 1952 source (which is from the American Dialect Society) is that it appears as part of what appears to be a questionnaire to determine regional word-choice differences. The entry (#55) that includes the term "cat's game" shows a partially completed game of tic-tac-toe and then offers the interviewee the following fill-in-the-blank options: 'This is a game of _________. cat and rat/naughts and crosses/ tick-tack-toe/ tit-tat-toe. If it works out so that neither "X" nor "O" wins, you say it is ________. cat's game/a tie/'.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 5, 2014 at 18:46
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    The question I have is whether there is any connection between the Western U.S. regional term "cat and rat" for tic-tac-toe and "cat's game" for a draw in the game. Is the idea that, in a draw, the cat must simply wait patiently for another chance to catch the rat in a mistake?
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 5, 2014 at 18:48
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    Huh? That's a stretch though I suppose anything's possible. :-) Mar 5, 2014 at 19:20
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    @Sven: I can't see the full context, but what I do see in the Books "snippet view" is... tick-tack-toe/tit-tat-toe/ If it works out so that neither "X" nor "O" wins, you say it is . cat's game/a tie/ 56 Other games played on paper or a blackboard by two people: tick- tack-toe, hangman, battleship. I think it's unlikely that "The American Dialect Society: A Historical Sketch" would have been punlishing a "questionaire" like that. It's simply using slashes to separate alternatives/variations, just as we do all the time today. Mar 5, 2014 at 21:54
  • You can see all of #55 in the snippet at books.google.com/… (unless your browser gives a different view than mine does, which is possible). I guessed that this was part of some sort of questionnaire because #56 follows up by offering options for "Other games played on paper or a blackboard by two people: tick- tack-toe, hangman, battleship" and #57 addresses "Table games played with dice: cootie, bunco, backgammon."
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:09
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I always figured it was almost a method of keeping score of the tie games, i.e "we were 1 and 1 and then tied this game, so who gets the point? i guess the cat? alright so the cat gets the point for that round, chalk it up as one of the cat's wins, or it was a cat's game"

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    Welcome to EL&U. Please note that this is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site that favors definitive answers. Can you present any support for this theory, such as an authoritative reference, or examples of similar constructions? Otherwise, this is only personal conjecture.
    – choster
    Nov 22, 2015 at 22:42

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