US, China and Russia Involved in Deadly Game of Human Chess: Four Killed
All the King’s Horses
The short story by Kurt Vonnegut1 takes place in the early years of the Cold War and revolves around U.S. Army Colonel, Bryan Kelly, whose plane has crash-landed in China. With him are his two sons, his wife, the pilot and co-pilot, and ten enlisted men. The sixteen prisoners are held captive by the communist guerrilla chief Pi Ying, who forces Kelly to play a game of human chess using his family and men as the white pieces. Any American pieces that Pi Ying captures will be executed immediately; if Kelly wins the game, he and his surviving pieces will be freed. A Russian military officer, Major Barzov, and Pi Ying’s female companion are present to watch the game.
Pi Ying plays very aggressively in the opening, more determined to wreak havoc on the Americans than to use a long-term winning strategy. Conversely, Col. Kelly plays defensively, concerned to save as many lives as he can.
“I must say I find you a rather pathetic colonel. Do all your officers give in so easily?” –Pi Ying
After several moves and the loss of four American soldiers, Kelly sees clearly a strategy that will win him the game, but the price he must pay to save the lives of the remaining Americans is extremely high. He will be forced to sacrifice one of his 10-year-old sons, who is serving as a knight in the white army.
Pi Ying captures the piece; before he can order the boy’s execution, though, the Chinese girl who has been observing the game with great distress stabs Pi Ying and then herself to death. The Russian, Major Barzov then takes over for him and continues the game, offering Kelly the chance to take back his last move, one that lost him his son. Kelly grimly refuses, and Barzov concedes that the boy can stay with his family until the game ends. When Kelly checkmates the major a few moves later (see a position from the game here), Barzov finally declares he will spare the boy’s life and offers all the prisoners safe transport out of the country.
Commentary of the game
Sorry, no chess notation and Informator-style lines of analysis this time! All plain English from the Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut2…
War as a ritual human sacrifice
The story attempts to put a human face on decisions made during battle. Pi Ying tells Kelly that chess games, like battles, can very rarely be won without sacrifices and that, philosophically, the game he is required to play is no different.
Men become machines
Kelly wavers between the cold, steely resolve required of commanders in battle, and the hopeless despair of a man who loses the “illusion of the game,” realizing that the “pieces in his power” are real human beings whose lives depend on the decisions he makes.
The only chance for the Americans to survive is for Kelly to harden himself and see his young son in terms of “pure geometry… a rigid mathematical proposition.”
The true horror of war, Vonnegut suggests, is that, in order to survive, men must become like machines, denying their humanity.
We are just pawns in their game
The chess metaphor also suggests the lack of control that ordinary people have over their lives. The majority of characters in this story are pawns whose moves are controlled completely by outside forces larger than themselves. Not only ordinary people lack control of their movements, they do not even understand the game they are a part of.
1. All the King’s Horses was first published in the Collier’s magazine, Feb 10, 1951, pp. 14, 46, 48, 50 (click on the page numbers for the respective .pdf to read the story in full). It can be also found in the collection of short stories Welcome to the Monkey House.
Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most popular and admired writers of the post-WWII era in American literature (as a POW of WWII, he survived the horrific fire-bombing of Dresden that killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined – read his classic masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five).
Vonnegut’s fiction illustrates the pressing literary, philosophical, and social concerns of the late 20th century – it offers a scathing critique of social injustice and war while managing simultaneously to express love and compassion for the weak, bewildered, and often lonely human beings he depicts.
2. Susan Farrell, Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut, A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, 2008, p. 19 (the above link provides more detailed summary, commentary and characters of the story)