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Tic-tac-toe. It’s a familiar game, and we all know the players: the X, the O, locked in an inevitable struggle for control of a 3 x 3 grid. But what’s at the route of their seemingly endless conflict? Is it a friendly rivalry, a long-term grudge, a bitter enmity…or something more complicated?

For the creation of Tic-Tac-Tome, the first-ever book that can play a game of tic-tac-toe, the two adversaries came together for their first major project since the revival of Hollywood Squares. This seemed like an ideal time to try and square their differences.

But even though these two characters sometimes stand in for hugs and kisses, their feelings about each other don’t by any means fit into neat little boxes.

by Rick Chillot

photography by Andie Reid

X, THE UNKNOWN

I met X at a local coffee shop, a place that he said he often goes to because it affords privacy. And yet he chose to sit in front, clearly visible to passersby, and while we spoke he was constantly glancing up and down the street as if hoping someone would notice him. That, I would soon realize, is X all over: eager to mark his spot, never as happy as when he’s in the center square.

RC: I think a lot of people were surprised to hear you were involved in a book project. Did you have any qualms about it?

X: You know, I get a lot of projects pitched my way. I often find myself agreeing to something out of sheer exhaustion.

RC: It’s just that you’re mostly known for your film work—

X: Look, if this is about…I’ve never denied my involvement in the adult film industry, but that’s not where I made my mark.

RC: Actually I was thinking of your work with the X-Men film franchise.

X: Oh, yes. Sorry if I sounded cross.

RC: Is it true there was talk of a sequel to the Vin Diesel move, you know, Triple X?

X: Well, the actual title was xXx, and there was a sequel. I told them they should call it Quadruple X…or rather, xXXx. But they went with xXx: State of the Union, and nobody saw it. They’re talking about bringing Vin Diesel back for the next one. But I think people will be confused if they don’t add a fourth X to the title.

RC: So, the book, Tic Tac Tome…did the idea originate with you? To create a book that plays Tic Tac Toe with the reader?

X: No, it was something that crossed my agent’s desk. At first, it didn’t seem good for my brand. It’s hard for people to take you seriously when they mostly know you from alphabet books and pen-and-pencil games. Which is frustrating. I mean, I'm involved in genetics, in software development... imagine if you couldn't x out of a browser window? And consider all the work I’ve done in the field of mathematics. In algebra alone, I’ve stood in for so many numbers…did you know I was up for the lead in Einstein’s special relativity equation? The most famous equation of all time, and they give it to some common everyday letter that has no mathematical experience. I don’t even remember…was it F?

RC: I believe it’s E; E=MC2.

X: Right. E, seriously? That’s a shoe size, not a computational variable. Anyway…

RC: So what changed your mind about doing the book? Was it a chance to work with O again? I don’t think they two of you have been in a film together since War Games.

X: Not really. To be honest, I had no idea if she was going to be in it.

RC: You had no idea if there would be an O in a book of Tic Tac Toe?

X: They really just needed me on board. Any letter could take the supporting role. There was even talk of having a zero fill the slot. Which would have brought in a whole new audience, maybe the sudoku crowd. But probably would have upset the traditionalists. Anyway, I guess she didn’t have anything else going on, so I’m glad we were able to throw some work her way.

RC: A lot of people wonder about the relationship between the two of you. Out of all the letters in the alphabet, why are you and O always at cross purposes?

X: I don’t know if that’s an accurate way of looking at it. I mean, to me, it’s just a job, nothing personal.

RC: Sure, it seems that way now. But did it start out like that? I mean, how did the two of you end up competing like this?

X: [long pause] Well, it’s been a long while. But as I recall, I was the one who moved into the grid first. I was happy to just occupy one square. I’m not even sure when she showed up, just at some point I noticed I wasn’t alone.

RC: You hadn’t met before?

X: I just knew she was some vowel from somewhere near the middle of the alphabet. She used to hang around with LMN and P a lot, but I don’t really socialize with other letters very much.

RC: Do you remember what you thought when you saw her?

X: I guess…you know, I guess I hadn’t seen a letter like her before. She’s all curves. I remember thinking, where are the lines? She doesn’t have any. No serifs even. Even a C can have serifs. I wasn’t even sure she was a letter at first; I thought she might be a symbol of some sort.

RC: She really made an impression on you.

X: No, not really, I mean, I noticed she was there because there was no one else in the grid. Then the next thing I know she moves to the square next to me.

RC: Just like that?

X: Yeah, it was weird. It’s one thing to stop by and say hello, but she was really all up in my grill. So I just claim another square, you know, just to have a bit of a buffer zone. Then she takes up another square. I mean, she doesn’t have to be in the grid, right? I was there first. So I’m not about to just give it over to her just because she’s rolling her weight around. And that’s how it all started.

RC: Do you think the two of you will ever come to an accord?

X: You’ll have to ask her that. I don’t mind sharing. There are nine spaces in the grid, after all. But I’m not going be boxed in.

THE STORY OF O

 When you go looking for O, you learn quickly that she doesn’t like to hover in one spot. She’s a rolling stone, and you’ve got to keep moving or get bowled over. Since she’s fond of the outdoors, we met at a park where flowers were in bloom and dogs roamed across stony footpaths.

RC: You seem to like to keep busy.

O: Oh, you know, a vowel’s work is never over. There are a lot of words out there, and only five of us to carry those open-throated sounds. Well, six really; sometimes Y.

RC: Do you ever ponder slowing down?

O: Gosh, I don’t know how I’d enjoy doing that. New jobs pop up so often! Like O magazine, which has really boosted my profile. Oh, volunteer work too; I’m obsessive about blood donation. So I suppose I just love working.

RC: So for the book, Tic-Tac-Tome…was it hard to find the time to devote to it?

O: Ooooh…sometimes. I love books though. So I rolled with it. No problemo.

RC: You haven’t done any projects with X for quite awhile… aside from the Toss Across launch a few several decades back, I can’t think of a new game that both of you have fostered.

O: I know. Though there was the home version of Tic Tac Dough…but that bombed. When you remove Wink Martindale from the scenario,  it’s a no-go.

RC: Did you have any reservations working with X?

O: Oh boy. Whooo. No, not…okay, some. He’s a loner, sort of. Likes to go solo. Mopes around the end of the alphabet, brooding, so moody…. Also, working with your X is no pot of roses. But I’m a pro, so…

RC: Wait, you and X… you were in a relationship?

O: I know he’d never own up to it. He’ll pooh-pooh the very notion. But go open any love letter. Look at the bottom… you’ll notice us both.

RC: X seems to imply that you made the first move, when you met. That once you saw him in the grid, you started closing in on him.

O: Whoa, hold on. That is so…look, ponder the logic. He goes into that dopey criss-cross box. I follow, choosing a spot not so close. So the next move is his, correct? I hoped only to coexist. Who chose to come closer? Not moi.

RC: Do you think the two of could ever reconcile? Or are you doomed to be forever locked in coordinated combat?

O: Who knows? It’s a zero-sum contest, and I won’t be the one left with nowhere to go. Oh, no. Now, if you don't mind...I gotta go.