The Tic Tac Toe Hustle

As a kid, I spent most evenings and weekends at my parents’ restaurant, House of Canton in San Diego, CA. Before my 10th birthday, I was already taking orders over the phone, seating customers, and doing some basic prep work like hauling buckets of ice to the bar. Most of the time, I was bored. Other than homework, my form of entertainment was walking to the library to get books or a nearby gas station to buy candy and play the new Street Fighter 2 game. Of course, I preferred the latter…but that required money.

Despite being promised a wage of 10 cents an hour from my parents (which seemed like a lot back then), they didn’t actually pay upfront: it always went into the mysterious college fund. Most of the tips were given to our staff – my sister and I rarely got any of it, at least until we were a few years older. But every once in a while, a customer would tip me directly by giving me a few quarters.

Those quarters were worth a lot to me. Each one represented a few rounds on the arcade game – at least until I lost. And if I got sixty cents together, I could buy a novel pack of bubble gum that resembled cigarettes. However, I usually blew through the coins quickly. Then, I learned a trick. I mastered Tic Tac Toe.

There are specific tactics for winning Tic Tac Toe, or at the very least, to never lose. I took this knowledge by challenging restaurant regulars who were friends with our family to a friendly wager of fifty cents per game. I always asked to go first, something that I found no adult wanted to deny to a little kid like me. And I almost always won. Street Fighter 2 for days! When I got pretty good at the arcade game, I’d challenge the teenage kids who were twice my size an odds-driven bet: if I won, they’d give me fifty cents. But if I lost, I’d give them a dollar. Most couldn’t resist. And most couldn’t beat me, especially since I spent so much time there. The extra money also meant a lot more candy.

Eventually, the regulars at our restaurant didn’t want to play Tic Tac Toe anymore. And most of the teenagers who smartened up didn’t want to take me on, either. Then, several of them got better and I started losing.

This is what happens when you treat other people like competitors to beat. It’s what happens when we approach an infinite game with a finite mindset, when we look for short term gains at the detriment of others instead of finding ways to collaborate, build community, and find solutions where everyone wins. Whether it is in politics, business, or relationships, the result is the same. We might enjoy those advantages in the moment, but the price we pay in the end is rarely worth it.

One year after my Tic Tac Toe hustle, people stopped playing Street Fighter 2 because it was replaced by a new game, Mortal Kombat. I also went to the dentist: I had five cavities.

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