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Tic tac toe.svg
A completed game of Tic-tac-toe
Genre(s) Paper-and-pencil game
Players 2
Setup time Minimal
Playing time ~1 minute
Random chance None
Skill(s) required Strategy, tactics, observation
Synonym(s) Noughts and crosses
Xs and Os

Tic-tac-toe (also known as noughts and crosses or Xs and Os) is a paper-and-pencil game for two players, X and O, who take turns marking the spaces in a 3×3 grid. The player who succeeds in placing three of their marks in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row wins the game.

The following example game is won by the first player, X:

Game of Tic-tac-toe, won by X

Players soon discover that best play from both parties leads to a draw. Hence, tic-tac-toe is most often played by young children.

Because of the simplicity of tic-tac-toe, it is often used as a pedagogical tool for teaching the concepts of good sportsmanship and the branch of artificial intelligence that deals with the searching of game trees. It is straightforward to write a computer program to play tic-tac-toe perfectly, to enumerate the 765 essentially different positions (the state space complexity), or the 26,830 possible games up to rotations and reflections (the game tree complexity) on this space.[1]

The game can be generalized to an m,n,k-game in which two players alternate placing stones of their own color on an m×n board, with the goal of getting k of their own color in a row. Tic-tac-toe is the (3,3,3)-game.[2] Harary's generalized tic-tac-toe is an even broader generalization of tic tac toe. It can also be generalized as a nd game. Tic-tac-toe is the game where n equals 3 and d equals 2.[3] If played properly, the game will end in a draw making tic-tac-toe a futile game.[4]


According to Claudia Zaslavsky's book Tic Tac Toe: And Other Three-In-A Row Games from Ancient Egypt to the Modern Computer, tic-tac-toe could be traced back to ancient Egypt.[5] Another closely related ancient game is Three Men's Morris which is also played on a simple grid and requires three pieces in a row to finish.[6]

An early variation of tic-tac-toe was played in the Roman Empire, around the first century BC. It was called Terni Lapilli and instead of having any number of pieces, each player only had three, thus they had to move them around to empty spaces to keep playing.[7] The game's grid markings have been found chalked all over Rome.

The different names of the game are more recent . The first print reference to "noughts and crosses", the British name, appeared in 1864. In his novel "Can You Forgive Her", 1864, Anthony Trollope refers to a clerk playing "tit-tat-toe". The first print reference to a game called "tick-tack-toe" occurred in 1884, but referred to "a children's game played on a slate, consisting in trying with the eyes shut to bring the pencil down on one of the numbers of a set, the number hit being scored". "Tic-tac-toe" may also derive from "tick-tack", the name of an old version of backgammon first described in 1558. The U.S. renaming of Noughts and crosses as tic-tac-toe occurred in the 20th century.[8]

In 1952, OXO (or Noughts and Crosses), developed by British computer scientist Alexander S. Douglas for the EDSAC computer at the University of Cambridge, became one of the first known video games.[9][10] The computer player could play perfect games of tic-tac-toe against a human opponent.[9]

In 1975, tic-tac-toe was also used by MIT students to demonstrate the computational power of Tinkertoy elements. The Tinkertoy computer, made out of (almost) only Tinkertoys, is able to play tic-tac-toe perfectly.[11] It is currently on display at the Museum of Science, Boston.


The first two plies of the game tree for tic-tac-toe. Once rotations and reflections are eliminated, there are only three opening moves – a corner, a side or the middle.

Despite its apparent simplicity, Tic-tac-toe requires detailed analysis to determine even some elementary combinatory facts, the most interesting of which are the number of possible games and the number of possible positions. A position is merely a state of the board, while a game usually refers to the way a terminal position is obtained.

Naive counting leads to 19,683 possible positions (39 since each of the nine spaces can be X, O or blank), and 362,880 (i.e., 9!) possible games (different sequences for placing the Xs and Os on the board). However, two matters much reduce these numbers:

  • The game ends when three-in-a-row is obtained.
  • If X starts, the number of Xs is always either equal to or exactly 1 more than the number of Os.

The complete analysis is further complicated by the definitions used when setting the conditions, like board symmetries. Consider a board with the nine positions named as follows:

a b c
d e f
g h i

Possible symmetry are

  1. Identity (a)(b)(c)(d)(e)(f)(g)(h)(i) 39
  2. 90 deg Rotation Clockwise(acig)(bfhd)(e) 39
  3. 180 deg Rotation Clockwise (ai)(bh)(ig)(fd)(e) 35
  4. 270 deg Rotation Clockwise(acig)(bdhf)(e) 39
  5. Reflection respect the vertical axe (ac)(df)(gi)(b)(e)(h) 36
  6. Reflection respect the horizontal axe (ac)(df)(gi)(b)(e)(h) 36
  7. Reflection respect 45 deg the one trough (gec) (ai)(bf)(dh)(e)(c)(g) 36
  8. Reflection respect 135 deg the one trough (aei) (cg)(db)(hf)(a)(e)(1) 36

Because those symmetries plus the identity acting on the positions of the TIC-TAC-TOE are a permutation Group we can use the Polya method to enumerate the equivalent states, by the Orbit formula we have than that the number of orbits (the different 3-coloring pattern of our Tic-Tac-Toe board) is 2862 non symmetrical equivalents states. But many of them are not possible boards, according to the rules of the game. In the early 1960s Donald Michie proved that his M.e.n.a.c.e.,a Machine Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine, coud learn play tic tac toe with only 304 MatchBoxes so we need some euristic to reduce useful states. Since the X start first, we will have always a number of O in ours boards equals to the numbers of X or to X-1 (when is time to play for O), different numbers of symbols reefers to ILLEGALS boards. We also check for boards with 2 tris because of course the match will stop early, or we are at the end of the game if the X realize 2 tris.

Without symmetric reductions With reduction by symmetry furter info
19683 Overall Primary 2862 Example
Valid Boards 5868 Primary Valid 820 Symmetric 16821
MIDDLEGAME 4520 Primary middlegame 627 Box for player X 338, Box for Player O 289
DRAW 16 Primary Draw 3
ILLEGAL 13815 Primary illegal 2042 Simm Illigal 11773

In a computer simultaion of the MENACE the final states (winnings & draws) doesn’t need any board-allocation because only the previous state should contain the beads to lead the move, we have to allocate boxes only for the 627 Middle game states and because X will choose only when it’s up to him to move we will need 338 Box for the player X and 289 for the player O. Analyzing the following table we can improve little further because we can easily found some illegal states and some unnecessary ones.

Level Board X wins O wins Draw
0 X 1 0 0 0
1 O 3 0 0 0
2 X 12 0 0 0
3 O 38 0 0 0
4 X 108 0 0 0
5 O 153 21 0 0
6 X 183 21 21 0
7 O 95 58 15 0
8 X 34 23 23 0
9 -- 0 6 2 3

No winnings games for player X at level 6 and 8

No winnings games for player O at level 7 and 9

But already included into the winning set so no boards to eliminate,

We coud eliminate the 34 boards of the level 8 because in that case X have no choose but has only one possible move.

We have now the 304 MatchBoxes of the original M.E.N.A.C.E.

Number of terminal positions[edit]

When considering only the state of the board, and after taking into account board symmetries (i.e. rotations and reflections), there are only 138 terminal board positions. Assuming that X makes the first move every time:[12]

  • 91 distinct positions are won by (X)[12]
  • 44 distinct positions are won by (O)[12]
  • 3 distinct positions are drawn (also known as a cat's game[13])[12]


Optimal strategy for player X. In each grid, the shaded red X denotes the optimal move, and the location of O's next move gives the next subgrid to examine. Note that only two sequences of moves by O (both starting with center, top-right, left-mid) lead to a draw, with the remaining sequences leading to wins from X.
Optimal strategy for player O. Player O can always force a win or draw by taking center. If it is taken by X, then O must take a corner

A player can play a perfect game of tic-tac-toe (to win or, at least, draw) if they choose the first available move from the following list, each turn, as used in Newell and Simon's 1972 tic-tac-toe program.[14]

  1. Win: If the player has two in a row, they can place a third to get three in a row.
  2. Block: If the opponent has two in a row, the player must play the third themselves to block the opponent.
  3. Fork: Create an opportunity where the player has two threats to win (two non-blocked lines of 2).
  4. Blocking an opponent's fork:
    • Option 1: The player should create two in a row to force the opponent into defending, as long as it doesn't result in them creating a fork. For example, if "X" has a corner, "O" has the center, and "X" has the opposite corner as well, "O" must not play a corner in order to win. (Playing a corner in this scenario creates a fork for "X" to win.)
    • Option 2: If there is a configuration where the opponent can fork, the player should block that fork.
  5. Center: A player marks the center. (If it is the first move of the game, playing on a corner gives the second player more opportunities to make a mistake and may therefore be the better choice; however, it makes no difference between perfect players.)
  6. Opposite corner: If the opponent is in the corner, the player plays the opposite corner.
  7. Empty corner: The player plays in a corner square.
  8. Empty side: The player plays in a middle square on any of the 4 sides.

The first player, who shall be designated "X", has 3 possible positions to mark during the first turn. Superficially, it might seem that there are 9 possible positions, corresponding to the 9 squares in the grid. However, by rotating the board, we will find that in the first turn, every corner mark is strategically equivalent to every other corner mark. The same is true of every edge (side middle) mark. For strategy purposes, there are therefore only three possible first marks: corner, edge, or center. Player X can win or force a draw from any of these starting marks; however, playing the corner gives the opponent the smallest choice of squares which must be played to avoid losing.[15] This makes the corner the best opening move for X, when the opponent is not a perfect player.

The second player, who shall be designated "O", must respond to X's opening mark in such a way as to avoid the forced win. Player O must always respond to a corner opening with a center mark, and to a center opening with a corner mark. An edge opening must be answered either with a center mark, a corner mark next to the X, or an edge mark opposite the X. Any other responses will allow X to force the win. Once the opening is completed, O's task is to follow the above list of priorities in order to force the draw, or else to gain a win if X makes a weak play.

More detailedly, to guarantee a draw, O should adopt the following strategies:

  • If X plays corner opening move (best move for them), O should take center, and then an edge, forcing X to block in the next move. This will stop any forks from happening. When both X and O are perfect players and X chooses to start by marking a corner, O takes the center, and X takes the corner opposite the original. In that case, O is free to choose any edge as its second move. However, if X is not a perfect player and has played a corner and then an edge, O should not play the opposite edge as its second move, because then X is not forced to block in the next move and can fork.
  • If X plays edge opening move, O should take center, and then follow the above list of priorities, mainly paying attention to block forks.
  • If X plays center opening move, O should take corner, and then follow the above list of priorities, mainly paying attention to block forks.

When X plays corner first (best move for them), and O is not a perfect player, the following may happen:

  • If O responds with a center mark (best move for them), a perfect X player will take the corner opposite the original. Then O should play an edge. However, if O plays a corner as its second move, a perfect X player will mark the remaining corner, blocking O's 3-in-a-row and making their own fork.
  • If O responds with a corner mark, X is guaranteed to win, by simply taking any of the other two corners and then the last, a fork. (since when X takes the third corner, O can only take the position between the two X's. Then X can take the only remaining corner to win)
  • If O responds with an edge mark, X is guaranteed to win, by taking center, then O can only take the corner opposite the corner which X plays first. Then X can take a corner to win.

Further details[edit]

Consider a board with the nine positions numbered as follows:

1 2 3
4 5 6
7 8 9

When X plays 1 as their opening move, then O should take 5. Then X takes 9 (in this situation, O should not take 3 or 7, O should take 2, 4, 6 or 8):

  • X1 → O5 → X9 → O2 → X8 → O7 → X3 → O6 → X4, this game will be a draw.

or 6 (in this situation, O should not take 4 or 7, O should take 2, 3, 8 or 9. In fact, taking 9 is the best move, since a non-perfect player X may take 4, then O can take 7 to win).

  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O2 → X8, then O should not take 3, or X can take 7 to win, and O should not take 4, or X can take 9 to win, O should take 7 or 9.
    • X1 → O5 → X6 → O2 → X8 → O7 → X3 → O9 → X4, this game will be a draw.
    • X1 → O5 → X6 → O2 → X8 → O9 → X4 (7) → O7 (4) → X3, this game will be a draw.
  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O3 → X7 → O4 → X8 (9) → O9 (8) → X2, this game will be a draw.
  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O8 → X2 → O3 → X7 → O4 → X9, this game will be a draw.
  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O9, then X should not take 4, or O can take 7 to win, X should take 2, 3, 7 or 8.
    • X1 → O5 → X6 → O9 → X2 → O3 → X7 → O4 → X8, this game will be a draw.
    • X1 → O5 → X6 → O9 → X3 → O2 → X8 → O4 (7) → X7 (4), this game will be a draw.
    • X1 → O5 → X6 → O9 → X7 → O4 → X2 (3) → O3 (2) → X8, this game will be a draw.
    • X1 → O5 → X6 → O9 → X8 → O2 (3, 4, 7) → X4/7 (4/7, 2/3, 2/3) → O7/4 (7/4, 3/2, 3/2) → X3 (2, 7, 4), this game will be a draw.

In both of these situations (X takes 9 or 6 as second move), X has a property to win.

If X is not a perfect player, X may take 2 or 3 as second move. Then this game will be a draw, X cannot win.

  • X1 → O5 → X2 → O3 → X7 → O4 → X6 → O8 (9) → X9 (8), this game will be a draw.
  • X1 → O5 → X3 → O2 → X8 → O4 (6) → X6 (4) → O9 (7) → X7 (9), this game will be a draw.

If X plays 1 opening move, and O is not a perfect player, the following may happen:

Although O takes the only good position (5) as first move, but O takes a bad position as second move:

  • X1 → O5 → X9 → O3 → X7, then X can take 4 or 8 to win.
  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O4 → X3, then X can take 2 or 9 to win.
  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O7 → X3, then X can take 2 or 9 to win.

Although O takes good positions as the first two moves, but O takes a bad position as third move:

  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O2 → X8 → O3 → X7, then X can take 4 or 9 to win.
  • X1 → O5 → X6 → O2 → X8 → O4 → X9, then X can take 3 or 7 to win.

O takes a bad position as first move (except of 5, all other positions are bad):

  • X1 → O3 → X7 → O4 → X9, then X can take 5 or 8 to win.
  • X1 → O9 → X3 → O2 → X7, then X can take 4 or 5 to win.
  • X1 → O2 → X5 → O9 → X7, then X can take 3 or 4 to win.
  • X1 → O6 → X5 → O9 → X3, then X can take 2 or 7 to win.


Many board games share the element of trying to be the first to get n-in-a-row, including Three Men's Morris, Nine Men's Morris, pente, gomoku, Qubic, Connect Four, Quarto, Gobblet, Order and Chaos, Toss Across, and Mojo. Tic-tac-toe is  an instance of an m,n,k-game, where two players alternate taking turns on an m×n board until one of them gets k in a row. Harary's generalized tic-tac-toe is an even broader generalization.

Other variations of tic-tac-toe include:

  • 3-dimensional tic-tac-toe on a 3×3×3 board. In this game, the first player has an easy win by playing in the centre if 2 people are playing. 

One can play on a board of 4x4 squares, winning in several ways. Winning can include: 4 in a straight line, 4 in a diagonal line, 4 in a diamond, or 4 to make a square. 

Another variant, Qubic, is played on a 4×4×4 board; it was solved by Oren Patashnik in 1980 (the first player can force a win).[16] Higher dimensional variations are also possible.[17]

  • In misère tic-tac-toe the player wins if the opponent gets n in a row.[18] A 3×3 game is a draw. More generally, the first player can draw or win on any board (of any dimension) whose side length is odd, by playing first in the central cell and then mirroring the opponent's moves.[17]
  • In "wild" tic-tac-toe, players can choose to place either X or O on each move.[19][20][21]
  • There is a game that is isomorphic to tic-tac-toe, but on the surface appears completely different. It is called Pick15[22] or Number Scrabble.[23] Two players in turn say a number between one and nine. A particular number may not be repeated. The game is won by the player who has said three numbers whose sum is 15.[22][24] If all the numbers are used and no one gets three numbers that add up to 15 then the game is a draw.[22] Plotting these numbers on a 3×3 magic square shows that the game exactly corresponds with tic-tac-toe, since three numbers will be arranged in a straight line if and only if they total 15.[25]
eat bee less e
air bits lip i
soda book lot o






  • Another isomorphic game uses a list of nine carefully chosen words, for instance "eat", "bee", "less", "air", "bits", "lip", "soda", "book", and "lot". Each player picks one word in turn and to win, a player must select three words with the same letter. The words may be plotted on a tic-tac-toe grid in such a way that a three in a row line wins.[26]
  • Numerical Tic Tac Toe is a variation invented by the mathematician Ronald Graham. The numbers 1 to 9 are used in this game. The first player plays with the odd numbers, the second player plays with the even numbers. All numbers can be used only once. The player who puts down 15 points in a line wins (sum of 3 numbers). 
  • In the 1970s, there was a two player game made by Tri-ang Toys & Games called Check Lines, in which the board consisted of eleven holes arranged in a geometrical pattern of twelve straight lines each containing three of the holes. Each player had exactly five tokens and played in turn placing one token in any of the holes. The winner was the first player whose tokens were arranged in two lines of three (which by definition were intersecting lines).  If neither player had won by the tenth turn, subsequent turns consisted of moving one of one's own tokens to the remaining empty hole, with the constraint that this move could only be from an adjacent hole.[27]
  • Quantum tic tac toe allows players to place a quantum superposition of numbers on the board, i.e. the players' moves are "superpositions" of plays in the original classical game. This variation was invented by Allan Goff of Novatia Labs.[28]

English names[edit]

The game has a number of English names.

  • Tick-tack-toe, tic-tac-toe, tick-tat-toe, or tit-tat-toe (United States, Canada)
  • Noughts and crosses or naughts and crosses (United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe)
  • Exy-ozys, xsie-osies (verbal name only) (Northern Ireland)
  • Xs and Os (Egypt, Republic of Ireland, Canada, Zimbabwe)

Sometimes, the games tic-tac-toe (where players keep adding "pieces") and Three Men's Morris (where pieces start to move after a certain number have been placed) are confused with each other.

In popular culture[edit]

Various game shows have been based on tic-tac-toe and its variants:

  • On Hollywood Squares, nine celebrities filled the cells of the tic-tac-toe grid; players put symbols on the board by correctly agreeing or disagreeing with a celebrity's answer to a question. Variations of the show include Storybook Squares and Hip Hop Squares. The British version was Celebrity Squares. Australia had various versions under the names of Celebrity Squares, Personality Squares & All Star Squares.
  • In Tic-Tac-Dough, players put symbols up on the board by answering questions in various categories, which shuffle after each player's turn.
  • In Beat the Teacher, contestants answer questions to win a turn to influence a tic-tac-toe grid.
  • On The Price Is Right, several national variants feature a pricing game called "Secret X," in which players must guess prices of two small prizes to win Xs (in addition to one free X) to place on a blank board. They must place the Xs in position to guess the location of the titular "secret X" hidden in the center column of the board and form a tic-tac-toe line across or diagonally (no vertical lines allowed). There are no Os in this variant of the game.
  • On Minute to Win It, the game Ping Tac Toe has one contestant playing the game with nine water-filled glasses and white and orange ping-pong balls, trying to get three in a row of either color. He must alternate colors after each successful landing and must be careful not to block himself.


Since the goal is to get 3 in a row, each person must switch taking turns, first X, then O. Players must use the board given to them, they cannot add extra sides on to the board. In order to win, the 3 letters must all connect in a straight line in one direction, up or down, left or right, or diagonally.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schaefer, Steve (2002). "MathRec Solutions (Tic-Tac-Toe)". Retrieved 2015-09-18. 
  2. ^ Pham, Duc-Nghia; Park, Seong-Bae (2014-11-12). PRICAI 2014: Trends in Artificial Intelligence: 13th Pacific Rim International Conference on Artificial Intelligence, PRICAI 2014, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia, December 1-5, 2014, Proceedings. Springer. ISBN 9783319135601. 
  3. ^ Golomb, Solomon; Hales, Alfred. "Hypercube Tic-Tac-Toe" (PDF). Retrieved December 17, 2016. 
  4. ^ W., Weisstein, Eric. "Tic-Tac-Toe". mathworld.wolfram.com. Retrieved 2017-05-12. 
  5. ^ Zaslavsky, Claudia (1982). Tic Tac Toe: And Other Three-In-A Row Games from Ancient Egypt to the Modern Computer. Crowell. ISBN 0-690-04316-3. 
  6. ^ Canisius College – Morris Games
  7. ^ "Sweetooth Design Company | Food & Design | Oakland, USA". Sweetooth Design Company | Food & Design | Oakland, USA. Retrieved 2016-12-04. 
  8. ^ Oxford English Dictionary entries for "Noughts and Crosses", "Tick-Tack" and "Tick-Tack-Toe", dictionary.oed.com
  9. ^ a b Wolf, Mark J. P. (2012-08-16). Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 3–7. ISBN 978-0-313-37936-9. 
  10. ^ Cohen, D. S. (2014-09-20). "OXO aka Noughts and Crosses - The First Video Game". About.com. IAC. Archived from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-18. 
  11. ^ "Tinkertoys and tic-tac-toe". Archived from the original on August 24, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  12. ^ a b c d Bolon, Thomas (2013-05-21). How to never lose at Tic-Tac-Toe. BookCountry. ISBN 9781463001926. 
  13. ^ "Searching for the cat in tic tac toe". TimesDaily. Retrieved 2016-12-19. 
  14. ^ Kevin Crowley, Robert S. Siegler (1993). "Flexible Strategy Use in Young Children's Tic-Tac-Toe". Cognitive Science. 17 (4): 531–561. doi:10.1016/0364-0213(93)90003-Q. 
  15. ^ Martin Gardner (1988). Hexaflexagons and Other Mathematical Diversions. University of Chicago Press. 
  16. ^ Oren Patashnik, Qubic: 4 x 4 x 4 Tic-Tac-Toe, Mathematical Magazine 53 (1980) 202–216.
  17. ^ a b Golomb, Solomon W.; Hales, Alfred W. (2002), "Hypercube tic-tac-toe", More games of no chance (Berkeley, CA, 2000), Math. Sci. Res. Inst. Publ., 42, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 167–182, MR 1973012 .
  18. ^ Averbach, Bonnie; Chein, Orin (1980), Problem Solving Through Recreational Mathematics, Dover, p. 252, ISBN 9780486131740 .
  19. ^ Mendelson, Elliott (2016-02-03). Introducing Game Theory and its Applications. CRC Press. ISBN 9781482285871. 
  20. ^ "Puzzles in Education - Wild Tic-Tac-Toe". puzzles.com. Retrieved 2016-11-29. 
  21. ^ Epstein, Richard A. (2012-12-28). The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic. Academic Press. ISBN 9780123978707. 
  22. ^ a b c Juul, Jesper (2011-08-19). Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262516518. 
  23. ^ Michon, John A. (1967-01-01). "The Game of JAM: An Isomorph of Tic-Tac-Toe". The American Journal of Psychology. 80 (1): 137–140. doi:10.2307/1420555. 
  24. ^ "TicTacToe Magic" (PDF). Retrieved December 17, 2016. 
  25. ^ Math!, Oh Boy I. Get To Do (2015-05-30). "Oh Boy! I Get to do Math!: Tic-Tac-Toe as a Magic Square". Oh Boy! I Get to do Math!. Retrieved 2016-12-17. 
  26. ^ Schumer, Peter D. (2004), Mathematical Journeys, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 71–72, ISBN 9780471220664 .
  27. ^ Check Lines, BoardGameGeek, retrieved 2013-09-13.
  28. ^ Goff, Allan (November 2006). "Quantum tic-tac-toe: A teaching metaphor for superposition in quantum mechanics". American Journal of Physics. College Park, MD: American Association of Physics Teachers. 74 (11): 962–973. doi:10.1119/1.2213635. ISSN 0002-9505. 
  29. ^ "452: Poultry Slam 2011". This American Life. Retrieved 28 May 2016. 

External links[edit]